DOT to Red Hook: No Streetcar For You

DOT considers this the optimal route for a Red Hook streetcar, but recommended against the whole project. Image: NYC DOT

Proposed Red Hook streetcars aren’t worth the cost, according to the city DOT. In a presentation to community groups last Thursday [PDF], DOT revealed the results of its streetcar feasibility study and recommended against the construction of a line that would run from the Smith/9th subway station into Red Hook and up the waterfront to Borough Hall. The creation of a streetcar or light rail line along the northern Brooklyn or western Queens waterfront was a Bloomberg campaign promise in 2009.

The most fundamental critique in the study is that the streetcar would cost too much for too little. Building the 6.8 mile line is estimated to cost $176 million, with another $6.2-7.2 million in annual operating costs. According to DOT’s analysis, that investment would only create 1,822 new daily transit riders.

DOT also found that the streetcar wouldn’t offer quicker travel times or more reliable service than existing buses.

The low increase in ridership comes not only because of the lack of mobility benefits, but also because in Red Hook, where 81.5 percent of households don’t own a car, many residents are already transit-dependent.

We have a call in with DOT to learn more about the premises that underlie this study. More information should also be available in the full report, which is due out today.

The logistics of running a streetcar line through the neighborhood seem to have been greatly complicated by the department’s fear of removing parking spaces.

The presentation focuses on the difficulties of fitting streetcars onto Red Hook’s narrow streets, especially if you want to preserve existing bike lanes, and giving streetcars enough space to make tight turns. The presentation suggests that parking bans along the street or at intersections could solve those problems (the other option is narrowing sidewalks, which ought to be a non-starter for a pedestrian-friendly administration).

A final objection, though, seems to reveal either a lack of coordination between city agencies or a study designed to reject the streetcar in advance. Having looked at streetcar projects in other cities, DOT found that installing the transit line would only promote economic development if it was paired with changes to the area’s land use planning. Noting that the Department of City Planning doesn’t have any plans to upzone Red Hook’s residential areas or otherwise plan for growth, the DOT study concludes that the “current City development/land use policy is not complementary to streetcar as an economic development driver.”

If the Department of City Planning truly wouldn’t adjust Red Hook’s zoning in response to a major new piece of transit infrastructure, that would be a failure of coordination within the Bloomberg administration, not to mention a rejection of the concept of transit-oriented development. Alternatively, what this might really suggest is that the administration was not serious about a streetcar in the first place. After all, why should DCP plan a rezoning if DOT isn’t planning a streetcar line?

Instead of a streetcar, DOT proposes reworking the intersection of Mill Street and Hamilton Avenue, with the goal of improving pedestrian, bike, and bus access into Red Hook, as well as some additional shelters along the B61 bus route.

  • Anonymous

    “The low increase in ridership comes not only because of the lack of mobility benefits, but also because in Red Hook, where 81.5 percent of households don’t own a car, many residents are already transit-dependent.”

    Since you all depend on transit already, you will get no more. However:

    “The logistics of running a streetcar line through the neighborhood seem to have been greatly complicated by the department’s fear of removing parking spaces.”

    Since you need parking spaces (for the cars you don’t have and/or don’t use), we can’t take those away.

  • This sounds… weird. As if the main reason is because they don’t want to have to deal with the brouhaha of reducing parking.

    Also, with Brooklyn becoming more and more popular, wouldn’t changing Red Hook from “the way you get to Ikea” to a thriving community with a viable local economy not make it worthwhile? If there’s a fast, easy way to get into and out of the area, business will develop and property levels will rise. What’s the problem?

  • spike

    Is there any advantage to a street car over a bus? Light rail and street cars have the problem that when some bozo parks on the tracks, they are stuck until the bozo moves, with buses they can go around the bozo.

  • Alon Levy

    Is there any advantage to a street car over a bus?

    Very little – see Human Transit for more details.

  • Alon Levy

    My take:

    1. It’s not a 6.8-mile line – it’s a 3.7-mile line, counting one-way pairs just once.

    2. Even $176 million per 3.7 miles is not particularly high by global standards. On-street LRT can be expensive, even in countries where construction is done by competent people, let alone in the US. If they can hold to the same cost for LRT on other corridors, then there’s no excuse not to do it on Utica, QB, Flatbush, etc.

    3. Shared-use lanes are completely pointless. A streetcar that gets stuck in traffic is not any better than a bus that gets stuck in traffic. Existing riders wouldn’t be any more loyal to the system; they’d be just as likely to get a car and move to Long Island when they get rich enough to afford it.

  • Alon Levy

    My take:

    1. It’s not a 6.8-mile line – it’s a 3.7-mile line, counting one-way pairs just once.

    2. Even $176 million per 3.7 miles is not particularly high by global standards. On-street LRT can be expensive, even in countries where construction is done by competent people, let alone in the US. If they can hold to the same cost for LRT on other corridors, then there’s no excuse not to do it on Utica, QB, Flatbush, etc.

    3. Shared-use lanes are completely pointless. A streetcar that gets stuck in traffic is not any better than a bus that gets stuck in traffic. Existing riders wouldn’t be any more loyal to the system; they’d be just as likely to get a car and move to Long Island when they get rich enough to afford it.

  • Alon Levy

    My take:

    1. It’s not a 6.8-mile line – it’s a 3.7-mile line, counting one-way pairs just once.

    2. Even $176 million per 3.7 miles is not particularly high by global standards. On-street LRT can be expensive, even in countries where construction is done by competent people, let alone in the US. If they can hold to the same cost for LRT on other corridors, then there’s no excuse not to do it on Utica, QB, Flatbush, etc.

    3. Shared-use lanes are completely pointless. A streetcar that gets stuck in traffic is not any better than a bus that gets stuck in traffic. Existing riders wouldn’t be any more loyal to the system; they’d be just as likely to get a car and move to Long Island when they get rich enough to afford it.

  • Even without new zoning, Red Hook would benefit from transit oriented development. To say that real estate values won’t rise and that no one would move to the area is absurd. Look at neighboring Carroll Gardens, where a good school district and transit access caused extreme density and value increase even though zoning has not changed.

    I’m shopping for a home in the area right now and I don’t even bother looking at Red Hook because it’s too far from everything. Like many, many others I’d jump at the option to live in a walkable community a few blocks from the shiny new light rail. Buses don’t build TOD, trains do.

    If they’re so freaked about loss of parking, have IKEA sell back that giant empty parking lot the city made them build.

  • Anonymous

    The main advantage to them is you can run larger vehicles. The main disadvantage is that it’s slower. This is of course greatly simplified, but there you go. http://www.humantransit.org/2009/07/streetcars-an-inconvenient-truth.html

  • MRN

    Given that the population was already transit dependent AND the new service would not improve travel time, I can’t see any reasonable way to say that the streetcar line was needed or would be effective, except as a way to keep-up-with-the-joneses.

    I can think of a lot of better was to spend $200m.

  • J:Lai

    streetcars are cute, but I suspect we would get more utility by increasing bus service along the B61 route.

  • Rdiamond

    What this “massaged” report doesn’t say, is that while it costs $41 per hour to run a streetcar, it costs NYCT $160 per hour to operate a bus. What the report doesn’t tell you, is that according to URS’s own experience in Portland, OR, it really costs $12 million per mile to build the streetcar line, not $26 million per mile as URS now claims. What DOT DID say in an email last Dec, is that URS and DOT project a 43% increase in Transit Demand in Red Hook. Finally, another thing they don’t want you to know, is a new streetcar costs about $800,000. DOT wants you to think its over $7 million per car.Another Key fact thatDOT doesnt want you to know, is that a 2 mile start up line could be built for under $33 million, with $25 million coming from a special FTA grant for new streetcar projects.

  • rdiamond

    What this “massaged” report doesn’t say, is that while it costs $41 per hour to run a streetcar, it costs NYCT $160 per hour to operate a bus. What the report doesn’t tell you, is that according to URS’s own experience in Portland, OR, it really costs $12 million per mile to build the streetcar line, not $26 million per mile as URS now claims. What DOT DID say in an email last Dec, is that URS and DOT project a 43% increase in Transit Demand in Red Hook. Finally, another thing they don’t want you to know, is a new streetcar costs about $800,000. DOT wants you to think its over $7 million per car.Another Key fact thatDOT doesnt want you to know, is that a 2 mile start up line could be built for under $33 million, with $25 million coming from a special FTA grant for new streetcar projects.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Totally agree. I used to live in Red Hook. It needs better bus service. To be honest a streetcar would have been nice, but if they sink that money into better bus service (which the area desperately needs) I’d be just fine with that.

  • Mark Walker

    It’s too bad that new rail projects always come attached to a scary number that we never get to compare to the unspecified costs of maintaining the status quo.

  • Alon Levy

    Yep, exactly. On a line that doesn’t have capacity issues, which Red Hook doesn’t, larger vehicles aren’t useful, because they correspond one-to-one to reduced frequency. Streetcars are useful mainly on lines that have high frequency all day and bunching problems at rush hour.

  • Alon Levy

    Actual costs of on-street trams around the world range from $10 to $60 million per kilometer. US costs are consistently higher than normal-world costs, and New York costs are even higher. The proposed cost of $30 million per km is a little on the high side for what they’re planning, but is not twice the normal cost.

    I don’t know why you think it’ll cut operating costs by a factor of 4 to run a streetcar. Since no American streetcar costs this little per hour, it means that the report refers to either avoidable costs, or additional costs of streetcar operation. (Per vehicle-km, streetcars are generally more expensive; they’re cheaper per unit of capacity, but the route in question is not at capacity.)

  • LazyReader

    That’s because streetcars are nothing more than a Disneyland toy. Even if the bus may cost more to run, more people use the bus and I believe those costs are debatable.

    A wise man once said……”rail transit, has been like an expensive toy for cities. They all want one because it makes them feel like a “world-class city” or green or something. In a healthy economy, we can afford the toy, especially since hardly anyone really uses it so it doesn’t cost a lot of money. But when the economy stumbles, we can’t afford the toy anymore. The problem is that the people who rely on the toy — mainly the people who operate it — are politically powerful and want their money no matter what it costs everyone else”. It’s not in the national interest to subsidize mass transit with federal money, because most benefits are typically local.

    The Department of Transportation has announced $290 million in “livability” grants, including $25 million each for streetcars in Charlotte, Cincinnati, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis plus $5 million to extend a streetcar line in Dallas. The city of Tucson received a federal grant to build a streetcar line, and already it has discovered that the line will cost $20 million more than projected. “Streetcars are making a comeback because cities know your agency is handing out free money to build them, like the more expensive rail transit projects which are only going to add to the burden of transit agencies that are already desperate and strapped for cash.

    The late UC economist Charles Lave noted years ago, there was a “large decline in the transit industry’s productivity” after 1964, when Congress began funding transit with “Federal” dollars. Noting that inflation-adjusting operating costs per unit of output had nearly doubled, Lave commented that, “It’s uncommon to find such a rapid productivity decline in any industry”. Transit productivity has continued to fall since 1985, when Lave’s data ended. According to data published by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), inflation-adjusted operating expenses have grown by 70 percent since 1985, and the number of operating employees has grown by 48 percent, yet transit ridership has grown by only 17 percent. 60 percent of NYC MTA budgets goes to it’s employees (8000 of which are earning over 100,000 dollars a year). So what are we achieving by spening your money on shit that clearly isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. Overall expenses have grown by 131 percent, yet transit ridership (which was actually lower in 1992 than 1985) has grown by only 24 percent. So how is all this additional money being spent? If they we’re a business, they’d be out of business.

  • MRN

    Real Estate values wouldn’t rise in real terms – this project does not increase transit access or decrease travel time.

    If it did, how long until DOT is accused of gentrifying working-class Red Hook?

  • Alon Levy

    It’s not transit – it’s the entire country. Pay and spending are so out of control they grow faster than inflation by an average of 1-2% a year.

  • carma

    one huge problem. its called the Red Hook Houses. Housing projects almost always depress property values. look at east new york. you have the a/c 2/3/4/5 and l trains. but who wants to live in e. new york.

    yeah, red hook has poor transit. but putting a streetcar is a big fantasy waste of money that can be better served by more bus service.

  • No, Randal O’Toole, you are not a wise man. You are a pathetic hack.

  • rdiamond

    True Steetcar line build Cost: $ 12 million per mile. Anything more is simply “gold plating” and good old GRAFT.

    Dont believe me though, read what the prestigious American Public Transit Association (APTA) has to say of the TRUE costs of a new streetcar line here: http://heritagetrolley.com/artcileBringBackStreetcars7

  • gecko

    netzero mobility; bikeshare, hybrid human-electric give the most bang for the buck and are most practical, best for the environment etc.

  • Alon Levy

    APTA should stick to lobbying against climate change bills. Finding a single line that cost very little means nothing. The BRT hacks will milk the construction costs of Curitiba for decades to come. And I can give you multiple examples of subways built for south of $60 million per kilometer, but it doesn’t mean Second Avenue Subway can be built on that budget, no matter how much I’d like it to.

    To put things in perspective for you, HBLR, mostly on legacy track (i.e. super-cheap), cost $50 million per kilometer. And the Vision42 plan is $200. The JFK AirTrain cost more per kilometer than the cheaper subways of the world. If New York can build anything for under five times the rest-of-world cost, consider it a miracle. Your project’s multiplier is on the order of 0.75-2, depending on whether you think New York should be as expensive as Paris or Lyon.

  • Avery R.

    I like this guy; he makes this site more amusing with his comedy routine.

  • Trout_S

    DCP won’t rezone this area because Mayor Bloomberg promised the industrial business lobby that he would not allow it to flip to residential. So at least while he’s in office, the zoning changes that the streetcar depends on for ridership will not occur.

  • Steve

    In places like Portland and Seattle, bozos are less likely to park on tracks than in bus lanes, since they know that totally blocking the streetcar makes them a major asshole (where partially blocking a bus that can just go around them just makes them a minor asshole).

    In NYC, where being seen as an asshole by someone is a part of everyday life, this same logic might not apply.

  • Steve

    In places like Portland and Seattle, bozos are less likely to park on tracks than in bus lanes, since they know that totally blocking the streetcar makes them a major asshole (where partially blocking a bus that can just go around them just makes them a minor asshole).

    In NYC, where being seen as an asshole by someone is a part of everyday life, this same logic might not apply.

  • Bolwerk

    New York desperately needs some good light rail, but Red Hook does seem like the wrong place to start…unless this really is just about having a nostalgia train (nothing inherently wrong with that) or we we want to replace the entire B61/B62 (they used to be one, until recently) with LRT. There’s little need to test the concept in an out-of-the-way place. LRT has worked very well the world over, even in U.S. cities.

  • @ carma

    The East Village has a giant housing project and it’s a boomtown. I don’t think that’s the problem.

    Maybe buses (BRT?) would be a better, more economical solution, I don’t know. But Red Hook could be poised to become the new Fort Greene, or the new Williamsburgh (which was the new East Village, back in the day). But not if it’s damn near impossible to get to.

  • Alon Levy

    Stuy Town is not a low-income project, but rather a middle-income one, priced out of the range of the underclass.

    Or are you talking about the projects on Avenue D?

  • rdiamond

    DOT/URS have been attempting to use certain misleading technical jargon, to confuse the issue of what the REAL Red Hook streetcar operating costs would be. The true unit of measure for a streetcar, or any other transit mode, is “Vehicle Cost Per Hour”. Of course, DOT didn’t allow this unit of measure to be used in the URS study. For a real number, lets look at our sister City, Philadelphia. Its highly “instructive”, that URS used Philly streetcars as a “case study”- but then URS didn’t use SEPTA’s own operating cost documentation…Compare the following figures, with the current NYCT bus operating cost of $160 per hour (National Transportation Database):

    Philadelphia Streetcar Hourly Vehicle Operating Cost: $47 per Hour.
    Source: SEPTA Planning Document, 2009. See page 58 here: http://www.septa.org/reports/pdf/asp10.pdf.
    Let’s now use some simple arithmetic:
    $47/Hour x 3 streetcars (on a 2 mile start up route) x 12hours/day x 365days/year = $617,580 PER YEAR

    Let’s now take another current streetcar example: Memphis, TN, where “hourly vehicle operating costs” are about $78/hour (National Transportation Database):
    $78/hour x 3 streetcars (on a 2 mile start up route) x 12hours/day x 365days/year = $1,024,920 PER YEAR.
    Where the Heck did DOT/URS get their totally OFF THE WALL (+$7 million per year) operating cost numbers from? Could it be- DOT and URS have purposely sabotaged this Red Hook streetcar study- or maybe they just cant do 2nd grade arithmetic?
    Read my own streetcar Operating Cost findings research and formulas here: http://www.brooklynrail.net/images/new_brooklyn_streetcar/streetcar_vs_nyct_bus_operating_cost.pdf.

    As for the ridiculous “wide turns and narrow streets issue” (streetcars originally ran on all these streets), if new American made streetcars were purchased ($800k each), this “issue” would simply vanish. Its certain “gold plated” foreign made streetcars that cause some urban geometry problems- such as the type URS is currently peddling here in the U.S…
    Think about this: who precisely did DOT and URS “design” this streetcar line for? Clearly not for the benefit of the public…then for who? Maybe for the Bernie Madoffs, Ivan Boeskys, Michael Milikens, and certain “gold plated” foreign railway equipment suppliers? We have a name for this here in Brooklyn: GRAFT !

  • Among other things, people like streetcars better, which means that more of them are willing to ride.

    Most of the streetcars I’ve ridden have been significantly larger than buses, had more, and bigger doors, and felt much smoother in their ride.

    Anyway, a system people like is a good system.

  • Bolwerk

    $7M sounds ridiculous to me too, but vehicle costs alone aren’t the only cost. And only 12hrs/day?

    Anyway, maybe I’m a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but it does seem like NYC transit has a big boner for inflicting buses on people despite all their shortcomings. I don’t know if it’s malice or stupidity though.

  • Alon Levy

    According to the NTD, SEPTA’s subway-surface lines cost $155 per hour to operate – more than the buses, which cost $134. Of the other twenty light rail-operating agencies in the top 50, the lowest cost is $109 in Salt Lake City, which is also the only city where per-hour light rail operating costs are lower than bus operating costs (and not by a lot), and only four other cities came under $200.

    For comparison, Calgary Transit claims the C-Train cost $139 to operate per train-revenue-hour in 2005. The agency’s secret to success is getting more than 16,000 riders on each line: per rider the trains there cost $0.27 to operate. But what do they know. They should probably have built shared lanes and run museum trains instead of, gasp, importing modern vehicles from Europe.

  • Bolwerk

    Technically, a little: more capacity, better acceleration, and faster alighting means generally better average service speeds. Socially and politically, people enjoy streetcars/LRT and will ride them. Financially, they tend to perform better in cases where they can feasibly substitute for buses.

    The downsides are rather obvious, or at least are expensive to address: redundancy is low, going around obstacles can be difficult, etc.. People who just look at these problems and ignore the clear benefits are full of it though.

  • Bolwerk

    The NTD data only suggests that there are mountainous differences in cost attributable to no obvious operating condition, so I’m guessing the cost differences come in the area of labor. If I weren’t a charitable person, I would say: it implies stupidity. If Salt Lake City, an area with density and land use habits more comparable to Staten Island than Brooklyn, can make LRT run efficiently, why can’t the MTA? BTW, check out of those articulated vehicles that are costing $109/revenue-hour to run.

    As for Calgary, if that is train-revenue-hour, that’s even more fantastic given those trains are usually two articulated LRVs (kind comparable to 3-4 IRT cars capacity-wise, I think). I don’t know if they run like that during all operating times, but if they do it sounds like they’re getting closer to $70/revenue-hour per vehicle.

  • Oh, and I forgot, as far as East New York goes it’s trouble is that it’s at the end of the world as far as New York is concerned. Red Hook is pretty convenient to downtown Manhattan (esp. with the ferry) and certainly to downtown Brooklyn. The same cannot be said of E. NY. You might as well live in Long Island. Or Coney Island – at least there you have the Cyclone and the boardwalk.

    And yes, I meant the housing projects at Ave. D. Stuy Town is definitely and fer sure not for poor people. I don’t even think it’s for normal people anymore…

    (Why won’t Firefox let me log into Disqus??!!!!! Grrrr…)

  • Alon Levy

    Salt Lake City is also a low-wage city (which is not true of Calgary, where one of the impetuses for railstitution of bus lines is extremely high wages). You won’t find me defending MTA labor practices, ever, but that there’s only one city in the top 50 US transit systems database where a streetcar costs less than a bus to operate suggests that looking for American examples is clutching at straws.

    The advantage of light rail is lower cost per capacity. In Munich, a very pro-rail city, the practice seems to be to railstitute bus lines that can maintain 10-minute service all-day. Here is a map of all Brooklyn buses with such frequency; observe nothing in Red Hook is on it.

    I have no idea whether Calgary’s numbers are per train or per car. I’d guess per train, but I don’t really know. The American numbers are supposed to be per car – at least, they are for subways.

  • Someone

    Actually, this would be a really goo place to *invest* in a streetcar.

  • Matt Miller

    Alignment does not look sufficiently ‘direct’ to me. Most (good) transit lines have a low ratio of distance between endpoints to length of route (1:2). The one on the map above looks much less good. 

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