After a day of headlines and intense discussion regarding the Mayor’s endorsement of a $2.5 billion waterfront streetcar connecting Brooklyn and Queens, Bill de Blasio’s State of the City speech was almost anticlimactic. His prepared comments contained only a few sentences on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, and the fact sheet [pdf]his administration released on Thursday was light on details. We haven’t yet seen the report promoting this plan with its projections of 53,000 daily riders and $25 billion in economic activity over some indeterminate period of time, but it’s coming. Or so the mayor said.
“Tonight,” de Blasio said, “I am announcing the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, a state-of-the-art streetcar that will run from Astoria to Sunset Park, and has the potential to generate over $25 billion of economic impact for our city over 30 years. New Yorkers will be able to travel up and down a 16-mile route that links a dozen waterfront neighborhoods. The BQX has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”
According to the mayor’s fact sheet, the administration “will begin engaging communities along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront this year to develop a conceptual framework and expects to break ground on the project in 2019-2020.” That’s an aggressive timeline considering how Community Boards are structured to say no to everything new, and the city is going to have to line up the dollars while assuaging NIMBY concerns. Even with these challenges and a revenue service date that extends beyond de Blasio’s tenure in office whether he wins reelection or not, there’s plenty of reaction to go around.
First, a few of my random one-off thoughts.
Just tossing this out there. The Bklyn-Qns streetcar and the flood zone map for NYC. pic.twitter.com/GJzYiCasj6
— Second Ave. Sagas (@2AvSagas) February 5, 2016
In a way, the tweet speaks for itself. We need to be careful about what sort of infrastructure we’re placing in flood-prone areas and how we can best protect these investments. There is also a more expansive conversation to be had about whether or not city policies should be encouraging more development and growth in neighborhoods most vulnerable to climate change and future flooding.
In another vein, although it’s promising that de Blasio is the first city official in a while to look outside of Manhattan for transit expansion efforts, a mix of valid complaints and New York City parochialism has other boroughs peeved. Staten Island is upset that its five-year requests for streetcars has gone largely ignored, and no one is even considering transit through the Bronx, a densely populated borough that desperately needs additional high-speed, high-capacity transit lines. Even certain areas of Manhattan should be miffed as we’re only a few months removed from Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway being delayed. There are clear class issues at play as waterfront developers fund their streetcar project while East Harlem has to wait longer for a badly needed Second Ave. Subway. In fact, this speaks to the next issue regarding state and city cooperation.
As Jillian Jorgensen explores, de Blasio’s streetcar proposal highlights the tensions between NYC and Albany with regards to transit planning. We live in a city where our local transit decisions are controlled by the state capital and governor. The only way the mayor can bring projects into being is by bypassing the agencies that run our extensive transit network. Thus, a waterfront streetcar that isn’t part of the MTA’s network avoids meddlesome interference from Andrew Cuomo and the other electeds in Albany.
“I’m agnostic on the politics,” Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, said to Jorgensen. “I’m not a political commentator, but yes, it’s obvious that the city is looking for things that it controls, and it control the city streets.”
Others involved in the planning process see benefits to avoiding state agencies. “Everything is within the city family to do it,” Sam Schwartz, a major proponent of the BQX, said “It makes it easier and faster, and in my estimation probably would cost less, than having the feds involved, the state involved, all these oversight committees, whereas the city has a pretty good process.”
Others were a bit more skeptical of the plan. The Transit Center posed a series of questions New Yorkers should see answered before they embrace this plan. Two stand out to me: “If New York City has $2.5 billion to spend on improving transportation, what evidence indicates starting a streetcar system is the best use of the money?” and “What is the anticipated role of streetcars in the city’s transportation strategy?” It’s not really clear if de Blasio (or, for that matter, Cuomo) really has a holistic plan for improving transportation in New York City or anything related to access and mobility. Is this streetcar part of a bigger plan or is it just a cool idea? These are questions the administration will have to answer.
And finally, over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried unequivocally states that the proposal simply doesn’t add up. He looks at underserved neighborhoods and subway connections, questions surrounding the price tag and fare integration, and what should be the cities other transit priorities to conclude “there’s no way this proposal will deliver on the hype. What we’re going to end up with is a highly-subsidized transit route with modest ridership at best.” His critique is well worth a read.
Ultimately, though, I’m struck with a question regarding our assessment of this project. The transit literati will always have their pet projects and their fantasy maps. Right now, the consensus seems to be focusing around the idea that this project isn’t A-Number-One on the priority list, but it seems to be good enough. There’s a powerful coalition of backers who are willing to contribute the resources to see this through. It may not be great, but there appears to be a need for it. It also solves issues of interconnectivity and mobility between neighborhoods. Is that good enough? So long as other, more worthwhile projects aren’t jeopardized, it just might be.