Home Brooklyn-Queens Connector BQX inches forward as NYC tabs VHB to lead environmental review

BQX inches forward as NYC tabs VHB to lead environmental review

by Benjamin Kabak

The slow churn of the BQX continued last week when the city awarded a contract to VHB to prepare an environmental impact statement. (Source: NYCEDC)

When last we saw the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s half-embraced, half-developed plan for a waterfront streetcar, the project seemed to be inching toward a quiet demise. The city had just admitted that the original self-funding plan would not generate enough money to cover construction costs, and operations would not begin until 2029, eight years after the project’s current champion is term-limited out of Gracie Mansion. But the zombie BQX isn’t dead yet as the NYC EDC announced last week a $7.25 million contract with VHB for the land-use and transportation planning group to produce the project’s environmental impact statement, due in September of 2020.

The EIS is the first in a very staggered planning schedule, and it will precede the ULURP review process with which VHB will also assist. The EIS is designed to, in the words of Railway Age, “preserve the city’s ability to use federal funds for the construction of BQX and ensure that work meets permitting standards set by the United States Army Corps of Engineers or U.S. Coast Guard related to construction in navigable waters.”

As part of the contract, the city also announced another round of significant community outreach to wary residents and politicians along the route, and the project’s proponents used the award of this contract to celebrate a step forward. “These steps show meaningful progress for the project — something we’ve been eager to see,” Jessica Schumer, Executive Director of the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, said in a statement. “We are pleased with the city’s commitment not just to moving the project forward, but to community engagement, which much play a central role. As the city grapples with a transit crisis, now is the moment for it to take control of its mass transit destiny and expand access wherever it can. The BQX is an essential first step and will provide a model for future city-run light rail lines in transit deserts across the city.”

Still, even with this contract award, the future for this project remains murky at best. Critics have questioned the city’s rosy ridership projections of 50,000 per day, and even that would put the BQX on par with moderately busy bus lines at a significantly higher cost. “We don’t expect the ridership to justify the cost,” Ben Fried, the spokesperson for Transit Center, said to The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, many of the people the de Blasio administration have tapped for the project have moved on. Adam Giambrone, who served as the director of the BQX for over two years, departed his post in the fall to take a high-profile job in Saudi Arabia, and Jonathan Gouveia, a one-time NYC EDC VP who focused nearly exclusively on the BQX, joined NYCHA late last month as a senior vice president of real estate. It’s not actually clear who’s spear-heading the effort within the de Blasio administration, and it’s hard to say if the mayor will stay focused enough to push through a project that’s still at least a decade away from revenue service.

Ultimately, I see a city-run light rail as a potential opportunity for a new model of transit development in New York City that removes the MTA (and Albany) from the equation, but the process has to be aggressively managed and pushed forward in a timely basis. The route should be a high-capacity demand corridor that can be implemented quickly and can’t otherwise be replicated with better bus service via aggressive lane, curb and signal management. In that regard, a waterfront route probably doesn’t count it, and investment in the BQX should not take precedence over a renewed focus from the city on better bus service.

But the BQX isn’t dead yet. This EIS award is only a week later than anticipated, and for now, the project remains on schedule for construction to begin in 2024. That, however, I’ll believe when I see it.

Editor’s Note: Second Ave. Sagas is starting its second year of being fully reader-supported. To ensure ads do not interfere with the site and to expand my content offerings, I started a Patreon for Second Ave. Sagas. If you like what you read and want more of it (including the return of my podcast), please consider a monthly donation. I’ll be back later this week with an analysis of a key Scott Stringer report on subway delay reporting. Thank you, as always, for your support.

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SEAN February 12, 2019 - 9:42 am

Lost in all the verbiage is one important quote…

“These steps show meaningful progress for the project — something we’ve been eager to see,” Jessica Schumer, Executive Director of the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, said in a statement. “We are pleased with the city’s commitment not just to moving the project forward, but to community engagement, which much play a central role. As the city grapples with a transit crisis, now is the moment for it to take control of its mass transit destiny and expand access wherever it can.

As federal contributions towards mass transit become uncertain, cities may need to strike out on their own in creating projects. That said, this streetcar system maybe a demonstration of this idea even if at first it looks like a dud.

Kenneth Barr February 12, 2019 - 10:13 am

There are far too many drawbacks for BQX to be viable. A far better public transit solution for this corridor the NYC Ferry. The infrastructure is already in place between Astoria and Sunset Park/Brooklyn Army Terminal. All that is required are new boats (already designed) and routing. This service could be up and running by 2021 along with the extension of service from Soundview to Throgs Neck and the new Coney Island and St George routes.

SEAN February 12, 2019 - 3:12 pm

What are those drawbacks. Not saying I disagree, just want a little more information. Thanks.

Guest February 13, 2019 - 2:05 am

I would be personally concerned about mixing with traffic, on both shared streets and intersections. Poorly and illegally parked vehicles blocking the streetcar. Limited maximum speeds due to pedestrians and other traffic.

Right now it’s similar to the SBS program using a higher capacity vehicle on rails.

Now if the rail was elevated on a modern concrete structure, now that would work great. Could even be autonomous, running itself 24/7.

ChrisC February 13, 2019 - 10:29 pm

Trams and buses and cars and vans and people and cyclists share the same streets in many cities of the world without any significant problems at all.

Why should it be any different in New York?

Especially when you already have cars and buses and vans and cyclists and people sharing the same streets! Are the people of Queens and Brooklyn suddenly going to forget how to deal with other road users by the addition of a tram?

Elevating the tracks would cause significant environmental and other problems and increase the project cost enormously.

sonicboy678 February 14, 2019 - 2:54 am

Unfortunately, you’re overlooking one crucial issue, and that is America’s love for the car.

To make a long story short, if it even remotely seems like lanes (traffic or parking) will be taken away, drivers will do everything they can to cap the effectiveness. Add to that the issue of trains being held up by traffic lights in ways that a truly dedicated ROW wouldn’t have to deal with and it really doesn’t make sense to try to have it mixing with other traffic.

ChrisC February 14, 2019 - 12:28 pm

Ah this American Exceptionalism we keep hearing about!

In lots of countries there are traffic lights for trams just as well as they are for cars and it dosen’t cause them any problems.

You can adjust the phasing of traffic lights.

And you can ticket drivers who park in the wrong place or deliberately hold trams and buses up.

It’s quite simple – don’t want the fine then don’t do the crime.

Guest February 14, 2019 - 8:46 am

In Washington DC, the city had been having issues with drivers improperly parked blocking the streetcar. In LA, the light rail waits for cross traffic at intersections. In Atlanta, the streetcar gets stuck in mixed traffic areas.

Look at SBS buses now. They routine get blocked by illegally parked or stopped vehicles despite bus lanes.

The elevated track would be more expensive but totally worth it. The trains can run much faster, unobstructed and autonomously.

ChrisC February 14, 2019 - 12:30 pm

Robust enforcement would soon stop that.

A few tow trucks would get the message out.

Larry Littlefield February 14, 2019 - 2:54 pm

San Francisco tops them all.

In West San Francisco virtually all intersections have stop signs instead of traffic lights. The J light rail line has to stop at every block for the sign, and every other block for a station.

I rode it. It took forever to get not very far. Just putting in stoplights that changed for the train could cut the trip in half.

AMH March 5, 2019 - 12:08 pm

WOW, I have not had the pleasure.

A better solution would be giving the streetcar the right-of-way while cross traffic has to stop.

Guest February 13, 2019 - 1:51 am

I don’t understand why the ferries terminate in Manhattan. They should go across the city and terminate at the fringes. You should be able to ride a single ferry from Throgs Neck to Far Rockaway. Why force people to transfer at Wall St and 34th to continue their trip? There’s already going to be a ton of people coming and going at those stops.

Panthers February 14, 2019 - 12:02 pm

That is exactly what they have in Bangkok. The Skytrain takes you to the Chao Phraya River where you can take a ferry (Saphan Taksin station). The ferry stops at major points along the river – IconSiam, Chinatown, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, the Flower Market, etc. It is a very efficient way to traverse Bangkok without taxis and traffic

BruceNY February 12, 2019 - 1:59 pm

Ben, your comment about the mayor’s focus is spot on. This week he’s heading to New Hampshire in some delusional effort to explore a run for the Presidency. That shows you how focused he is on running this city properly.

SEAN February 12, 2019 - 3:24 pm

Hell, almost anyone could go to New Hampshire at this point & declare they are running for president & sound more presidential than what we have now. For instance a close friend of mine who is mentally ill has more empathy & kindness toward others than Who is now occupying the W H.

Chas February 12, 2019 - 6:39 pm

I’d like to see basically straight-line streetcar lines on major avenues throughout the city- Myrtle Ave would be a better Brooklyn-Queens connector than any waterfront route

AMH February 13, 2019 - 5:45 pm

Yes, 3 Av in the Bronx as well, and basically everywhere that lost an elevated line is still a high-demand corridor with lousy bus service. Of course, dedicated/semi-exclusive ROW is a must.

Guest February 13, 2019 - 9:01 pm

Fordham Road.

Christopher Stephens February 12, 2019 - 8:34 pm

Kill it! Kill it with fire! (not literal fire, don’t get the wrong idea). The longer this project lingers the more it exposes how it represents everything that is wrong with urban and transportation planning in New York. The rampant patronage (Jessica Schumer, for crying out loud?), the complete inability to make the numbers work in any fashion, the chase after the shiny new bauble? Enough. In the time this plan has been launched and with the money already spent on studies, a fully operational bus line could have hauled more passengers than the fantasy toy train ever would. Everyone involved in this shambles should be ashamed of themselves and should be precluded from ever working on a public works project again.

Chet February 13, 2019 - 10:36 am

I love the idea of light-rail in the city. This is just the wrong place to try it out.
There are many better places.
The first, and biggest transit desert is Staten Island. The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail ends at 8th Street in Bayonne just feet from the Bayonne Bridge. That rail should be extended across the bridge to Staten Island and down the island’s west shore.
Second, West Street in Manhattan is insanely busy from Battery Park City all the way north. A light rail on that corridor would be perfect.
The list goes on- but the BQX route? No. At least not as a first try,

paulb February 16, 2019 - 7:58 am

I’m skeptical this will be built, but as I get around the city by bike I have a self-serving concern about those slots in the pavement. How wide are they? Unless they are very, very narrow, like some French town did in its CBD but which I doubt any builder could manage here, they are a deadly trap for bike tires (not deadly to the tire, deadly to the rider). The city needs faster surface public transit, but to build something that adds another hazard for those of us on bicycles alarms me a lot.

sonicboy678 February 16, 2019 - 4:51 pm

I didn’t even think about that, seeing that I have some other concerns about building it on the street. Thanks for the reminder.

Adirondacker12800 February 16, 2019 - 6:16 pm

The mayhem bicyclist experience in cities that do have streetcars is awful. Or maybe not because it doesn’t seem to affect them much.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera February 16, 2019 - 1:49 pm

An ultimate public transportation boondoggle waiting to happen that supports the very rich real estate industry.


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