After days of discussion amongst the transit literati and a short delay due to the TriBeCa crane collapse, Mayor Bill de Blasio held his long-awaited press conference to release more details on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector earlier this week. Despite the pomp and circumstance and despite additional glimpses into the plan, de Blasio’s presser led to more concerns and more questions than the initial proposal had, and the consensus regarding this project and its $2.5 billion price tag focuses around the idea that the mayor has not rigorously defended the real estate-backed streetcar.
The general details we know: The $2.5 billion investment will, according to de Blasio, create $25 billion in economic activity and 28,000 temporary jobs over the next 30 years. It will, he claims, draw 50,000 riders per day (somehow from an area that generally borders water on one side), and while fares will be pegged to the cost of a Metrocard, revenue from ridership is supposed to cover 66 percent of the streetcar’s operating costs. (For what it’s worth, New York City Transit’s farebox operating ratio of around 53 percent is highest in the nation.) As Yonah Freemark noted, it will not connect to L, J/M/Z, N/Q or F trains in Brooklyn or Queens, and it is not yet guaranteed to be integrated into the MTA’s fare system. (That’s a major point, and I’ll return to it shortly.)
Based on the chart below, it also seems as though the Mayor is exaggerating the differences in travel time. Many of these current travel times are worst-case scenarios based on maximum waiting and missed transfers.
The city hasn’t released detailed models concerning ridership. It’s not clear, for instance, as Katie Honan asked, how many Queensbridge residents work in the Navy Yard or how many Red Hook residents need direct access to Industry City. In other words, the 50,000 daily ridership figure still seems to resemble wishful thinking. Meanwhile, de Blasio is already kowtowing to motorists on the issue of parking, and he claims the streetcar will be so successful that the MTA could reduce B61 service. That’s quite a claim considering a key driver of the streetcar is the way it doesn’t involve the state-controlled MTA (and in fact, Gov. Cuomo is content to keep his hands — and state money — off the streetcar plan). It’s the perfect storm of a mess of an idea that should raise serious concerns as to how the proposal was developed and why.
Meanwhile, across the board, reaction has tended toward the skeptical. The Awl hates it; Gizmodo hates it; and Ben Fried at Streetsblog further elucidated his skepticism of the plan. While I still want to like this plan and support it especially in light of the fact that we need to find lower cost ways to expand the reach of transit in NYC, the questions surrounding the special interests backing it and the fact that this isn’t a particularly transit-starved corridor in a city filled with actual transit-starved corridors are concerning.
All of that said, let’s talk about fare integration. I’ve buried the lede here, but over the past few days, we’ve learned that, as now, the streetcar will not be a part of the MTA’s fare system. Much like the new East River ferry routes that should arrive in 2017, de Blasio claims a streetcar ride will cost the same as a swipe, but he can’t yet guarantee the swipe will include a transfer to or from the subway. This is a fatal flaw in the plan and one that will doom the Brooklyn-Queens Connector to a second-rate transit gimmick that cannot fulfill its ridership potential.
First, the idea that integrated fares are key for network acceptance and use is well established. To a rule, fare integration increases ridership and transit miles traveled, and without fare integration, the mayor will be asking riders of a system built with the promise of serving 40,000 NYCHA residents to pay two fares if they use the streetcar as a feeder to the subway. And nearly all successful streetcar networks work because they are feeders to and from the subway; just take a look at the map of the Paris tram system.
Without fare integration, potential riders will eschew the Brooklyn-Queens Connector for the MTA’s integrated network. These potential riders will take the subway to a bus because that additional fare — today, $5.50 per round trip — simply isn’t part of the economic equation, and in fact, a non-integrated fare defeats the purpose of expanding transit access.
Overcoming this problem is a seemingly simple negotiation with the MTA, but the City Hall-Albany relationship is anything but simple today. Still, without that transfer, this is a streetcar doomed to fail from day one. New York City, much like everywhere else, needs an integrated transit network. We shouldn’t build without one.