To coincide with the unveiling of yet another heavily-subsidized East River Ferry route last week, I wrote piece for Curbed New York laying out the case against ferries as a solution to the city’s mobility crisis. Those familiar with my skepticism toward subsidizing ferries will be familiar with the argument: These boats are a low-capacity mode of transit with a ridership that skews wealthy, and spending $6.60 per ride on top of $500 million in capital subsidies is a giveaway at a time when the city needs to wrest control of its transportation future for the benefit of those in transit deserts and not just those who live in waterfront condos.
Boats can serve as a small complementary piece to a larger holistic puzzle, but the de Blasio Administration doesn’t have a big-picture vision when it comes to transit. This lesson was on full display again later in the week when the mayor revived his dormant streetcar plan, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, with a press conference touting the release of conceptual design report for the BQX. The report, available here as a PDF, was originally billed as a feasibility study, but it falls short in assessing the merits of the project and instead presents updated designs. And updated designs are in there a-plenty.
The new route is shorter, with a southern terminus in Gowanus rather than Sunset Park after neighborhood activists fought against new transit by leaning on a spurious anti-gentrification argument, and the project is now more expensive, with a price tag of $2.7 billion. Along with this new price comes the recognition of the reality that value-capture alone will not fund the project, and the city, living through the same federal administration the rest of us are, now believes the feds will be willing and generous funding partners to the tune of $1 billion. On the plus side, the entirety of the BQX will now enjoy its own dedicated right-of-way (and include the elimination of around 2000 parking spots from Red Hook to Astoria).
Oh, and construction isn’t set to begin until early 2024 with the line entering revenue service in June of 2029, eight years after the last year of the de Blasio administration. You will be excused for being extremely skeptical of this timeline and the entire project, which many have taken to calling transit vaporware.
The details of the report are worth perusing. Ridership estimates remain at around 50,000 per day with the bulk traveling between Greenpoint and Downtown Brooklyn, and while the routing largely mirrors the G train for significant stretches, a run through the Brooklyn Navy Yard could deliver New Yorkers to a growing job center that isn’t particularly well-served by anything other than infrequent local buses. The design too has gotten an update with catenary wires, rather than off-wire power, due to concerns that “were not sufficiently advanced to reliably power the expected BQX ridership demands and frequency of service” and salt corrosion during winter could erode reliability.
But what was once billed a self-funding 16-mile route is now an 11-mile route with a massive budget hole. Value capture will fund only around $1.7 billion, and the city will require federal funding at a time when the feds are actively hindering investment in urban public transit. Like every New York capital transit project these days, costs have already gone up by 30 percent before an EIS is published, let alone a shovel hits the ground, and the timeline, with EIS, ULURP and preliminary design efforts stacked instead of parallel, seems designed to grind the pace of work to a halt.
Ultimately, it’s tough to say if the BQX is a good project or just a good-enough project. As many others have said over the years, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront isn’t exactly a transit desert, and other high-ridership SBS routes or cross-borough connectors would be a better fit for high capacity, frequent light rail. The city could realize many of the benefits of the BQX route by running more frequent bus service and prioritizing bus service over this corridor. It also wouldn’t take 11 years and $2.7 billion, a good portion of which won’t materialize from the feds despite Bill de Blasio’s insistence, to accomplish these goals.
But I haven’t been quite the skeptic as others have, and two statements issued last week offer a peek at a potential light rail future for NYC that doesn’t involve cooperating with a recalcitrant Albany. “With the city embroiled in a transit crisis, the BQX will serve as an innovative model for how to build new mass transit sustainably and equitable, while creating new, good paying jobs along the way and making access to those jobs easier,” Jessica Schumer, executive director of Friends of the BQX, said.
A group of transit bigwigs — Richard Ravitch, Tom Prendergast, Jay Walder and Lee Sander — echoed these sentiments. “There are few, if any, projects that match the potential of the BQX to expand opportunity in an equitable way for a wide range of New Yorkers,” the four former MTA heads said in a joint statement. “And we know that light rail, with dedicated right of way and high ridership capacity, is by far the best mode of transit to accomplish that. Our international competitor cities are smartly and successfully investing in that mode of transit, and its encouraging to see New York City taking steps to keep pace on the global stage. Just as important, the BQX will finally put the City of New York in control of its mass-transit destiny by creating a model for impacting millions more in other areas of the ciyt through additional light rail lines.”
As a philosophy regarding light rail planning, no one here is wrong: A true, well-designed light rail network with a strong funding commitment, a realistic price tag and a reasonable construction timeline could give New York City a flexible alternative to the MTA for setting its own transit agenda while increasing access between disparate neighborhoods and across transit deserts. But it shouldn’t take longer for NYC to build an 11-mile line than for Paris to build most of the Grand Paris Express, and the analysis required to create a network simply hasn’t been conducted yet by the city. The BQX is one model, and it’s not a particularly robust one considering the hitches obvious in the new plan. But the seeds of a potential transit future controlled by the city are there if someone wishes to grab them. That’s reason enough to pay attention even if a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.
For more instant analysis on the new BQX plan, check out this thread of mine on Twitter from Thursday. I cover similar ground but in 240-character bites.