Can Streetcars Work for Red Hook? City Begins Study to Find Out

The New York City Department of Transportation announced today that the agency has started a five-month study to determine whether streetcars should return to Brooklyn on a route linking Red Hook to the downtown area.

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Would a new streetcar line for Red Hook use vintage-style cars or go for a more modern style?

The city first committed to the study this spring, using funds secured by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez back in 2005. Today’s announcement gives the study a timeline and signals the selection of a consultant, engineering firm URS, who’ll conduct it.

Streetcars are making comebacks in several American cities, with new lines getting boosts from the Obama DOT’s emphasis on livability. In New York, it’s still very early in the process — the beginning of the beginning. There are lots of unknowns, like where the line would run, how it would interact with existing B61 bus service, who would operate it, what sort of economic development initiatives would be paired with it, and, of course, where the money would come from to finance it.

When the study is over early next year, we should have a clearer picture when it comes to some of those questions. From DOT’s press release:

This initial analysis is the first step in determining if this mode, once a staple of New York City’s streets, is a viable option to connect the residents and businesses of the rapidly growing Red Hook neighborhood with Brooklyn’s broader transportation system and support economic development…

The analysis will take into account factors including potential costs, operations, routing, vehicle technology, construction issues and economic development effects. It will also examine comparable North American streetcar systems to determine what lessons can be learned from the experience of other urban areas.

Over the next five months, the city will also be holding a series of meetings with elected officials and community groups about the potential streetcar route, so stay tuned.

Streetsblog will be offline tomorrow for Rosh Hashanah and back publishing on Monday. Shanah Tovah everyone!

  • Oh goody goody goody!

    Did that dude who started the whole process leave yet?

  • momos

    The outerboroughs, especially Brownstone Brooklyn and the older communities in Queens, are absoloutely RIPE for streetcar routes. After all, these neighborhoods were made possible by streetcars in the first place. Excellent news.

  • Einztine

    If this is just a study, why did it take so long to get off the ground?

    That streetcar advocate who said he would leave Brooklyn was right. The DOT was sitting on this fund for way too long and for no apparent reason.

  • fdr

    The streetcar dude (Bob Diamond) apparently has changed his mind and is staying. Times blog doesn’t mention whether that is connected to DOT’s announcement.
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/09/deep-under-brooklyn-tours-will-resume/?ref=nyregion

  • This is great news for Red Hook – imagine what it will do for an already gentrifying neighborhood. I went out there last week and waited 30 minutes for a B61 bus. It would have been well worth the wait if it were a street car. 🙂

  • Meh. Red Hook doesn’t even have frequent buses. There isn’t a single bus serving the neighborhood that maintains even 10-minute midday headways. Why put a streetcar there and not on any of the high-ridership routes, on which the added ridership and reduced operating costs would justify the construction spending?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right on queue. Taxes are going up, services are being cut, so the politicians offer studies. Perhaps they’ll stop building the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access and go back to studying them.

    Fortunately bike infrastructure is cheap enough that it is being installed, not studied. Are there still unused buildings or lots close to the Carroll Street subway station? If so, bike parking could perhaps be installed for the price of a study, and Red Hook residents who can’t ride to their destination could ride to the subway.

  • jsd

    Modern streetcars, modern streetcars, modern streetcars.

    New urban transit should not be vintage kitsch. It should be a real option for the modern, mobile American. We should look to the past for ideas. Not design cues. Otherwise, it’ll just be a niche product intended for the tourist experience.

  • capt subway

    I agree with JSD. Streetcars make sense – as long as it’s streetcar/light rail, and not some rolling museum. And if the streetcars are going to mix with other vehicular traffic then it will be a total bust.

    I can think of better places in NYC to launch a streetcar light rail line than in Red Hook. How about the M15, or the B41 or B44 or B46, the four heaviest bus lines in NYC? The density is there. And most of the streets along which these routes run are wide enough for a dedicated light rail private-right-of-way.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (How about the M15, or the B41 or B44 or B46, the four heaviest bus lines in NYC?)

    Don’t forget freight. First/Second Avenue is the major truck/bus route into Manhattan from points north and east. Flatbush Avenue is a major truck route through Brooklyn, and Utica Avenue is also important. These are boroughs without, for the most part, limited access highways that permit trucks. I’m not sure First and Second Avenues are the best place to take traffic lanes for that reason.

    You want a radical proposal? Make the BQE commercial traffic only.

  • I’d be totally cynical and incredulous if JSK’s DOT wasn’t behind this. She seems the complete opposite of the kind of porcine, obtuse, crony bureaucrat that typically runs a government agency. I hope she’ll approach this study with the same altruism and pragmatism that she gave to the SBS and pedestrian plazas.

    And I truly hope they bring Bob Diamond in as an advisor, at the very least.

  • Kancamagus

    The Transport Politic has a great write-up on building streetcars to fill in the gaps in Brooklyn’s subway coverage:

    http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/05/07/streetcars-for-brooklyn-a-new-life/

  • capt subway

    In response to Larry Littlefield in #10: BRT has already been suggested for these routes and is, in fact, already partially implemented on the M15. (Now all we need is proper enforcement – although the NYPD obviously doesn’t give a sh-t.) Besides, on many of these avenues, specifically the north/south aves in Manhattan, space was stolen from pedestrians in the 1950s when they widened these avenues to squeeze in extra traffic lane. It’s time to take some of that space back! Regardless, it seems these lanes will be taken fro transit on these lines.

    Seems to me like you just want to keep the status-quo – no solution at all.

    As to the BQE – a real radical proposal? Get rid of it entirely and replace with a tree lined boulevard. Expressways simply encourage more people to drive. The billions that have been poured into them just here in NYC since the early 1950s could have built the 2nd Ave subway, the Utica Ave subway, cross harbour freight rail tunnel and any number of other far worthier projects.

  • Mad Park

    Modern, large windowed, level-platform, low floor, easily accessible streetcars are the only answer. Want a vintage streetcar ride? Visit SanFrancisco – the MUNI operates about 50 of them on Market Street.

  • We could also use streetcars to help connect northern Manhattan and the Bronx.

    207th St/Fordham Rd/Pelham Parkway has so many train lines that cross it: A, B, D, 1, 2, 5, 6 *and* the Metro-North Fordham station. A modern grade-separated light rail could really create an effective transit corridor running from Broadway to Pelham Park and help transform Fordham Road from its current traffic sewer status.

    Yes, this route is basically served by the SBS/Bx12 today, but I can tell you that despite the hype, it’s still a slow bus.

    In fact, what I’m really asking for is restoration of the 207th St Crosstown Line, which ran until 1948. Wikipedia has a list of all the old streetcar lines in the Bronx–it’s heart-breaking that they’re gone. How could the city have done this? As a friend put it, New York City spent three decades creating a comprehensive transit infrastructure and then the spent the next three decades tearing half of it out. Now it seems the best we can do is spend decades building part of the Second Avenue Subway? Resources may be tight, but the failure to maintain and extend a world-class mass transit system in New York City is ultimately a failure of political will.

    Let’s hope that Red Hook may be the first of many reconversions from bus to rail lines.

  • I second “capt subway’s” radical proposal–let’s get rid of the BQE entirely (and how about the FDR, while we’re at it)? So many uses could be made of the reclaimed right-of-way, for example, rail transit (freight and passenger), bike and pedestrian paths, etc.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “New York City spent three decades creating a comprehensive transit infrastructure and then the spent the next three decades tearing half of it out.”

    The private sector built most of the street rail network. The city paid for the subways, although 2/3 of the system was privately built.

    The city tore out the street rail network after taking over the transit companies.

  • Great Idea

    Great idea! Get rid of the BQE and have all those trucks clogging up the local streets. You are talking about a critical freight artery that is vital to the economy of the borough and the city as a whole. I understand (but don’t agree with) the hatred of cars for individual travel, but it seems that many do not consider the massive amount of commerce within (and through) this city that relies on trucking.

  • capt subway

    That’s true Great Idea. And that’s because we have a totally lopsided transportation network – basically all trucks and cars. And it has all been underwritten by tax dollars at the fed, state and municipal level while every other form of transport has gone begging. The RPA proposed a cross harbour freight rail tunnel back in the 1920s, and the plan is still being promoted by the RPA and others. This would help in taking the lion’s share of trucks off the roads. But as usual, Great Idea, you’re proposing no solution. I guess the status-quo is just fine with you? Maybe we should double the width of the BQE and tear down everything for a couple of hundred of feet on either side of it? But studies now show that adding lanes solves nothing.
    And yes: do a traffic check some time on any major highway or river crossing. (I did numerous traffic checks of every variety in my 37 years at NYCTA.) The majority of vehicles are private cars with, in 90% of the cases, exactly one person only inside, the driver. So yes, the trucks and buses need to keep rolling. But the private auto is a blight. In a place like NYC there is absolutely nothing good one can say about the private auto. It is the root cause of all congestion, air pollution and a whole host of other socio-economic problems.

  • Ian Turner

    Urbanis, how about we just don’t subsidize transportation. What makes it so special to deserve public subsidy?

  • Great Idea

    “In a place like NYC there is absolutely nothing good one can say about the private auto.” I will ponder that this winter as I make my 15 minute drive to work that would take me well over to 2 hours to take the bus, subway, and walk over a mile to get to in the middle of the night.
    The cross harbor freight tunnel would just bring freight in to the city where it would then go on …get this… TRUCKS!
    I’m not here to propose bright ideas, I’m not saying expand the BQE, I’m just pointing out that commerce in NYC relies on trucks (and would still do so even with freight trains into NYC)
    and that eliminating the BQE would just force trucks onto local streets which would be miserable for all involved.

  • capt subway

    Most the the big rigs coming via the Verrazano, the GW and the Holland & Lincoln tunnels and then making their way across Man through to Bklyn, Qns and the Bx are carrying freight that has – presently – no other way of getting here. Many of these trucks would be gone with the harbour freight tunnel from NJ to the Bay Ridge LIRR/NY Connecting RR, which would enable the distribution of freight to various points in Bklyn and Qns. Needless to say there will still be trucks, but far fewer. The endless cavalcade of big rigs from the Hudson Riv crossings to the East River crossings would be reduced dramatically.

    As to cars – yeah there are instances when they make sense. But then again, given the transportation policy in this country for the last 60 years, people have been encouraged, indeed subsidized with tax dollars to move to sprawling suburbs and ex-urbs, miles from any descent public transport, and to become wholly car dependent. But driving a car into the CBD of Bklyn/Man during the rush hour is a crock. And people should pay for the mess they cause. That’s why I support congestion pricing.

    I’m not even sure, Great Idea, why you’re commenting in this thread since, as you yourself admitted, you have nothing constructive to bring to the table – except, of course, to shoot down everyone else’s proposals.

    PS: I walk – briskly – 5 to 10 miles every day. And I’m 60 years old. There is no better exercise. I’m far from rich, but I’ve made it a point to live in a part of Queens where I can walk to everything, including good subway and bus lines.

  • Great Idea

    I am commenting because I feel like it. When I see an idea like eliminating the BQE I feel like pointing out why it is not practical. Your oversimplification of the cross harbor distribution system does not address the problem. Yes, it would take some trucks off the Hudson river crossings. Those trucks would now simply originate within the city. We have a city of thriving businesses in almost every corner of every borough. These businesses are supplied by many suppliers originating in many location within and outside the city. A bulk freight rail system does not serve these businesses door to door needs. Businesses in Queens serve businesses in Staten Island that serve businesses in the Bronx, that serve businesses in Brooklyn, that serve other businesses in Brooklyn, and so on and so forth. The BQE (along with every other expressway in the city) is a vital conduit for this commerce.
    That’s great that you have the time to walk and take mass transit to wherever you want to go, it sounds like you are retired. I do not have the time or desire to spend unnecessary hours commuting and walking before and after a long work day.

  • Ffolz

    Personally I love those vintage steel body streetcars (the 20th century kind, not the 19th century boneshakers). Everything about them is elegant, durable, and easy to use. (As well as easy on their environment, as they way MUCH less than “LRV”s.)

    Now, swell low-floors like they have in Europe would be awesome, but they can’t bring those over here off the shelf because of FTA regulations.

    Vintage PCC cars are a fraction of the price and can be bought without FTA money–and FTA rules.

  • Ffolz

    *weigh, not *way (need more coffee…)

  • Steven F

    Re Great Idea: I didn’t waste my time commuting by car, bike and transit were faster. You wrote: “That’s great that you have the time to walk and take mass transit to wherever you want to go, it sounds like you are retired. I do not have the time or desire to spend unnecessary hours commuting and walking before and after a long work day.”

    Working in lower Manhattan for 30 years, the car was slowest choice for commuting. My bicycle did it in 25 minutes, subway was 20 to 40 depending on connections. Driving time was typically 20 to 60 minutes, before finding parking.
    Even commuting across Brooklyn, the car is not fastest. From Park Slope to Marine Park is either direct by city streets or the long way around the Belt Parkway. Whether by bike or car, the trip took some 35 minutes. The average speed of a car on city streets is no faster than a bicycle, and even expressways are congested so speeds average 15-25 MPH, so factoring in parking times, door to door travel by bicycle is competitive or even faster than driving.

    For trips longer than 5-10 miles, combining bicycles to access high speed transit service – express bus or rail lines – and bikes to reach jobs a bit beyond easy walking distance, can easily match or beat driving time.

    It’s the commuting drivers who are wasting their time and money sitting in cars.

  • QualityofLifeForAll

    As a light rail is being considered in Red Hook, other policy needs to be drafted to make sure the long term residents (who have been in the area for decades even though the transportation was below average) do not get displaced by a wave of new, higher-income residents attracted by the better transit to and from Red Hook.

  • Steven F

    to Ffolz: I also like those streamline 1930s design PCC trolley cars, but there are a few details you may have overlooked.

    Weight: PCCs weigh less than the new LRTs but the PCC is shorter and sits on 4 axles. The longest LRTs are 3 segments with up to 8 axles spreading the load, so they don’t necessarily weigh more per foot or put more load per wheel than the PCC. With good track bed, they both ride smooth and quietly.

    Low Floors: How low is low? The Newark City Subway and the Hudson Bergen Line use low floor LRT cars. Cities across the US use similar low floor cars. The floor is about 12-14 inches above the road/track level, so there would still need to be 2 steps up from the street. Typically, station stops for these cars are on designed platforms a bit above a sidewalk level. No, they are not normally boarded from street level, but they could be. The ADA handicapped access is one reason for using boarding platforms, but traffic safety problems of walking out into the street is another reason for dedicated platforms.

    FTA regs do not specifically ban foreign low floor LRTs. Buy America is met by having a sufficient portion of the car construction costs done in the US. I can’t think what other standards the FTA would impose, unlike the FRA, which forbids passenger LRT to run on freight rail lines mixed with heavy freight. The NJ Camden-Trenton LRT line gets around this by running freight only late at night.

    Finally, PCC shells are cheap, but the still need significant overhaul to be run in daily service. First cost is not the only cost. Buying with local funds can avoid lots of federal paperwork, sure, Congress wants to know that federal funds are justified and where every federal penny goes. It’s called accountability. But the biggest restriction creating a new line with PCC cars is the ADA access for disabled. And that is not just a federal law, but codified in state law as well. I think San Francisco gets around it by having fully accessible transit running in the same corridor as the historic trolley cars. The cable car system is landmarked and does not have to be retrofit to comply. So if a Brooklyn LRT route completely replaced currently accessible bus service on the route, it would have to be accessible in place of the buses. Being historic but a new service, I don’t think it can avoid ADA.

    The PCC car does not easily lend itself to adding a wheelchair lift. It appears possible that the center door could be modified to work at a high level platform for roll-on access, but this still means having platforms along the route. The issue is complex and it is not simply an FTA caused problem.

    Wish it were simpler.

  • @QualityofLifeforAll: don’t be kidding me. Next thing you’re going to ask that the US stop invading random third-world countries over personal grudges.

    @Steven F, GreatIdea: instead of looking at your own commutes and drawing conclusions, do yourselves a favor and read the literature on transit and car commute times. The Cliff Notes version is that in an urban area where most people take transit, road congestion depends only on how good the transit alternatives are; the annoyance factor of travel by car will match that of travel by transit.

    None of this is relevant to Red Hook, whose transit suckiness is not about cars but about the fact that it’s out of the way of any bus route. But for general questions like removing the BQE, keep the above in mind.

  • Karl Greenberg

    wonderful news!

  • IMO, if a new train line is constructed using federal funds, it needs to be low-floor. Ignoring the amount of time it takes to operate the lift, low-floor vehicles allow those with carts and suitcases to board quicker and with less hassle.

  • Anon256

    This is rather off-topic, but I like Larry Littlefield’s proposal above of making the BQE commercial-traffic only (or ideally tolling it with rates skewed to only be attractive to commercial traffic). While getting around the areas served by the BQE (and NYC in general) as a passenger without a car is easy, my local Pathmark isn’t going to have a freight rail siding any time soon (nor should it). The cross-harbour freight rail tunnel would provide a solution for through traffic to Long Island and New England, but would not get freight very close to most destinations in NYC itself (particularly as the number of intermodal facilities to transfer freight from rail to truck will be limited, since such facilities require a lot of space and make unpleasant neighbours). For the foreseeable future, supplying business in NYC will require significant trips by truck, and I’d prefer these trucks to stay separated from pedestrians as much as possible. On this note, how hard would it be to retrofit the FDR Drive for truck traffic?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “On this note, how hard would it be to retrofit the FDR Drive for truck traffic?”

    Probably impossible. New York is one of the few places that has an extensive network of roads that exclude trucks. So, the suggestion is one road for trucks and buses. The commercial only BQE would allow express buses from the north to get to Midtown faster via the BQE rather than going up and down First and Second Avenues.

    As for the rail tunnel, it would allow goods to start their truck trip at (under the variation proposed) at the Fresh Pond Yard in Queens rather than in New Jersey. That would free up capacity on the NJ to NY crossings and Verranzano Bridge for more private motor vehicle traffic. Of course all those additional motor vehicles would still be sharing NYC streets with the same level of truck traffic once they got there.

    On the other hand, if fewer people were traveling by auto, having a truck pick up a container off a train in New Jersey and travel a few miles to New York would not be a big deal.

  • j

    I agree with the comments that if there are new streetcars, they need to be the most modern and low-floor type available. After all, there are going to be a lot of people with shopping trolleys from IKEA and Fairway riding on the line. Having rapid access for the disabled is also very important. The public needs to know that this streetcar line is part of Brooklyn’s future, not a historical recreation.

  • j

    Also, the streetcars need to be air conditioned!

  • BrooklynNative

    Everyone likes throwing money at new projects. You can point to something new that you’ve built. But they don’t put money into the day to day operating costs because they have nothing to show for it. Mark my words, if – and it’s a big giant fat if – they ever do fund the construction of a light rail line in Red Hook, it will never ever cover it’s operating costs. It will always operate at a loss as most mass transit systems large and small do. But the feds won’t give this guy the money to keep it operating day to day. Then what? We are sh*t out of luck with some tracks laid on our streets and no money for the up keep. Here’s a better idea, take the money that was alloted for the study and put it towards improving and increasing bus service to Red Hook. It’s needed, cheaper to maintain and economically viable. We don’t need the tracks and hard to maintain trolly cars!

  • Sorry, No. Trolleys are much cheaper to maintain than buses.

    The government pays bus operating costs too; if anything, they’re less economically viable. The feds don’t pay bus operating costs now; why would they start in the future, but refuse to fund trolley operating costs?

  • I’m wary of any study that has already identified the best mode of transit for the corridor before the study has begun. It shouldn’t be a “Streetcars, Yes or No” study. It should be a “What is the best way to improve mobility between Red Hook and Downtown Brooklyn” study. Streetcars might be feasible, but some other mode of transit might be even better for this situation. It sounds like this study won’t be able to tell you that.

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