If NYC Builds the Streetcar, It Will Run Right Through Flood Zones

Map of streetcar route: NYC mayor’s office. Map of flood-prone areas: FloodHelpNY.org

As others have noted, the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar route would run right through city- and FEMA-designated high-risk flood zones. This raises questions about how the streetcar infrastructure and vehicles would be protected from storm surges, as well as the general wisdom of siting a project that’s supposed to spur development in a flood-prone area.

Yesterday, reporters at City Hall’s streetcar press conference asked how the city would plan for future flood events along the streetcar route. Neither de Blasio nor the city officials at his side could explain how the streetcar plan would specifically address flooding — no details were given about where the vehicles would be stored or how the power supply would be shielded. Instead, the mayor started out by taking a very wide view of the situation.

“This city is deeply committed to the goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050,” the mayor said. “This is one of the ways we do it — get more and more people onto mass transit. Get them out of their cars. Use transportation that does not create harmful emissions. That’s why the BQX is such a powerful idea in terms of the environment to begin with.”

De Blasio then argued that the city’s flood resiliency efforts, which includes some measures to fortify areas like Red Hook against future storms will ensure that waterfront neighborhoods are sufficiently protected. “We’re going to be in a very different situation than we were a few years ago when Sandy hit,” he said.

The mayor said the streetcar would prove more flood-proof that the subway system:

Now I think the MTA has been doing very important work to add resiliency to the subways but, in fact, surface transportation will come back online a lot quicker than subways under many situations, so having a light rail system gives us something that we think will be there despite whatever happens with the flooding, even if sometimes the subways are compromised.

Fielding a separate question about how the streetcar will be powered, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg did say it won’t have overhead wires “for the most part,” but will instead be “self-propelled” with batteries.

Beyond the streetcar infrastructure itself, the larger question is whether New York should increase its exposure to catastrophic storms by promoting development in areas in danger of flooding. Trottenberg said the streetcar would lead to “a huge growth in development and density.”

It’s debatable whether the project will actually spur development, but why, after Sandy, would the city want to purposefully concentrate growth in some of its most flood-threatened neighborhoods?

  • bolwerk

    Overhead catenary is only illegal in Manhattan, I think.

  • Joe R.

    Rail doesn’t get potholes. As for obstacles, streetcars can just push motor vehicles out of the way.

    Buses are fine on relatively low usage lines. Once a line sees regular, medium or heavy usage it should seriously be considered for conversion to rail. Despite what the article says, rail does offer long term operation cost savings. It’s also a higher quality transportation option than buses. Don’t underestimate the effect of this. People who would never dream of riding a bus will often happily ride light rail. Buses are a tool which has a use, but they’re not the be all and end all of public transit despite what the bustitution folks like to think. Rail offers scalability buses just can’t.

  • AMH

    Very interesting, I can’t imagine how it would be practical with the need to waterproof exposed parts, overcome buoyancy, and handle emergency evacuation. Some sort of car float would be a lot more feasible.

  • Joe R.

    I’m guessing it wasn’t even remotely practical myself. Really, the primary and only advantage would be you can lay tracks right on the river bed, avoiding the need for a tunnel, but other than that there are all the downsides you mention. I also question how well exposed tracks at the bottom of the river would hold up. They would likely become full of sediment in short order.

    Of course, it all could have been a radio announcer playing games but he did sound serious. I was 16 at the time, so I took the announcement at face value. Now I would be quite skeptical.

    That said, given the propensity of some areas of the city to flood, designing trains which can run if there’s a foot or two of water on the tracks might make a bit of sense. Obviously you wouldn’t want to do this for an extended period, but it might let you restore limited service shortly after a major event hits.

  • Pat

    “streetcars can just push motor vehicles out of the way.”
    clearly you are not an attorney.
    “Despite what the article says”
    an article written by an actual consultant in the industry, which I am confident you are not.
    I am not advocating for buses over light rail worldwide, I’m saying the cost is not remotely justified. Not to mention the cost would probably explode during construction like most of these projects.
    A dedicated bus lane could be built and plenty of fancy buses purchased with a substantial maintenance budget allocated for a fraction of the price. Then, when they realize they need to change the route (likely) they can move some signs and barricades.
    When a tidal surge comes, take a different route.
    I am fine with spending some money to try to improve these areas, but not ridiculous sums of money.
    We have an obligation to try to improve the city and also protect the environment, we also have an obligation to be financially responsible.
    I would prefer to drive the BMW hydrogen cell car, but my budget says -Honda-.
    The city’s budget says Honda also.

  • Greg

    If the sea levels were a lot lower, wouldn’t that have benefited all low-lying areas, and not just lower Manhattan?

    I’m not sure exactly which areas you’re referring to. I do know that in the 1800s, when Brooklyn started to really transition from a sleepy town to a real city, the initial focus of the city was almost exclusively around the waterfront. This is for a whole bunch of reasons, but most significantly because the ferry terminals that were lifelines to Manhattan were all at the waterfront’s end. And much of the waterfront had important industrial uses, with much housing built nearby to accommodate.

    As a result, the area around Fulton Ferry, the end of Atlantic Ave by the piers, etc. were epicenters of activity, commerce, and development. And South Brooklyn (now Cobble Hill / Columbia Waterfront / Red Hook) became a major industrial hub (with housing all around).

    It was only when the Brooklyn Bridge opened that development moved inland. Not, to my knowledge, because of flooding concerns (the piers were still important economic centers), but simply because there was more open space. The pier side areas were already full.

    That’s the case for South Brooklyn, at least. The waterfront has a long and important history, including being a (the?) major center of development and economic activity. I know very little about the history of flooding but am not aware of any evidence that flooding concerns historically discouraged development. There very well may be such evidence and I’d be interested to learn about it.

  • Joe R.

    There are a whole bunch of reasons why flooding was far less of a concern back then besides sea levels being lower, or storms being less frequent. We didn’t have electricity. Nowadays flooding can literally take us back to the 1800s if it results in an extended power outage. For better or for worse, we’re highly dependent upon uninterrupted power. Commerce depends upon it. You can’t easily even get to many apartments or offices without an elevator. 200 years ago it was much easier to recover after a major flood. Indeed, even the stone buildings were often made of lent itself to that far better than buildings today which are often rendered uninhabitable after being flooded.

    That said, back then an area which flooded catastrophically within the scale of a human lifetime likely wouldn’t have had continued habitation unless there was some overriding reason for it. To my knowledge the waterfront areas of NYC which were developed didn’t have such regular, major flooding anyway. Note that the Rockaway peninsula, an area prone to flooding ever 200 years ago, was largely undeveloped until the late 1800s. This is what I meant when I said our ancestors avoided developing areas where they knew what they built would be washed away.

    Nowadays flooding is a concern over much larger swaths of the city due to climate change. Unfortunately, we can’t “undevelop” the parts of the city which were already built in what would later become major flood zones. We can however stop new development in relatively undeveloped areas we know will get hit with floods sooner or later.

  • Joe R.

    There are zero legal issues to pushing motor vehicles out of the way if they park on light rail tracks. There’s already precedent for this. What happens when a motor vehicle intrudes on railroad tracks when a train is coming? It gets pushed out of the way, and the owner has zero legal recourse because he/she was trespassing. Same thing here. The fact a bus can go around an obstruction probably means a car owner can sue if the bus driver opts instead to just push the motor vehicle out of the bus lane. A street car can’t go around a motor vehicle parked in front of it. The only option is to push it out of the way. The law supports them doing so because the motor vehicle operator is trespassing.

  • Greg

    Okay, if you’re talking about the Rockaways, I see your point. And I basically agree. But arguably this was an easier decision for our ancestors because the city wasn’t so crowded at the time that there was a compelling need for Rockaway development anyway (and the transit connections from there would have been atrocious).

    This has been an interesting discussion, thanks.

  • Pat

    Well, it was already clear you are not an attorney, so let’s skip right to the second paragraph.
    “. This route is probably a bad route even for buses, but I’m not seeing streetcar lines proposed anywhere else.”
    So, you just want street cars.
    Strangely enough, we used to have street cars, we started phasing them out almost 100 years ago.
    Are there benefits to street cars, of course, do they outweigh the negative, perhaps. Do they justify the cost, no way!
    Paying for themselves is complete nonsense. 2 1/2 BILLION DOLLARS!!
    I bet you could do it my way for a tenth of that.
    “We have to start somewhere.” I assume you mean the Green aspect.
    Spend money on solar panels on City buildings and further encourage buildings with large roofs to do so—Underwater turbines in the rivers– expand the compost program and use it to generate power. They could at least pay for themselves (eventually) while taking pressure off the grid.

  • Pat

    it would, but it would if it were dedicated to buses also.

  • Andrew

    Either it was April 1 or you misheard. The concept is quite obviously absurd, for many reasons.

  • neroden

    Agreed with Bolwerk. Just move the damn thing enough blocks inland and uphill to get out of the flood zone.

  • bolwerk

    To categorically say x mode costs more without any qualification is either abjectly ignorant or deliberately dishonest. The value capture scheme may or may not be efficacious, but even accepting some fairly modest assumptions about inflation and ridership probably means the project couldn’t possibly cost that much more per rider than an equivalent bus route over a half century or so.

    And I would point out, for design reasons, an equivalent bus route probably isn’t feasible. So it’s basically a choice between doing it with streetcars/LRVs or just not doing it. The latter is a legitimate preference.

  • Pat

    How could a bus route not be feasible if a rail is?

  • bolwerk

    Because rail != bus and they interact rather differently with their environments?

    You probably misunderstood what I said though. It’s not that a parallel bus route isn’t feasible; that’s trivially easy, though likely unreliable at such a length. It’s that an equivalent route performing the same function isn’t feasible with buses. What they’re trying to do is encourage some longer distance trips that are probably ill-suited to slower traditional city buses. Given the twists and turns of the route, it doesn’t seem exactly BRT-friendly either (unlike, say, similarly lengthy but very wide/straight Woodhaven).

  • Pat

    I see I have been promoted from being ignorant or dishonest to simply not understanding.
    What I don’t understand however, is how it is possible to build a dedicated rail lane that a bus couldn’t handle. Buses can certainly twist and turn much more easily then any type of rail vehicle. The proposed rail is not intended for speed, it has been pointed out, it would be faster (12 mph) because it won’t contend with traffic, but neither would the buses. Buses can certainly go long distances, and I never said use traditional buses, which by the way, can go pretty fast.
    Let me say, I agree a rail system has benefits but you can’t really believe that it’s going to stay on budget and even if it did, that the increased use over a bus route would add up to anywhere near the extra costs. That is money that could be spent on other transportation issues, or green issues, or not at all.
    How about building the bus route, bridges and all and include bicycles and maybe electric cars, just to entice usage and emergency vehicles with lights and sirens only.
    I like playing with trains as much as the next guy and buses sue aint cool, but lets invest wisely.

  • bolwerk

    That’s just not true. Losing a fixed guideway is an enormous penalty for a long vehicle that turns a lot. Even changing lanes is immensely inconvenient for buses and best avoided. Whatever they got wrong, Schwartz and others who worked on this proposal probably were capable of figuring that out. I don’t know if I believe the average speed you cite for the streetcar would be that high anyway, but note that, if it is true, it is nearly double the average speed of the M15 – but also suspiciously significantly faster than urban HBLR segments.

    Not only you, but the cost/finance thing is never, ever adequately defended or explained. When you claim that alt A costs more than alt B, there should at least be some degree of recognition for the costs of the entire scope of the project. Just saying something costs more because you’re reacting to a 10 figure number is meaningless.

  • Pat

    I dont what you mean by fixed guideway.

    12 mph is what they said in one of the articles, and it seems reasonable since it would be separated from traffic.

    Not only me- that is right. If you read back over your posts, you made a few claims about costs and efficiency without data as well.

    I think we both know the rail is much more expensive, but disagree on it’s added value.

  • Pat

    I don’t think that could happen.

  • Pat

    They shouldn’t support reckless spending just because it’s for transportation.

  • Pat

    “But we know ridership and income from new development will both be greater than zero.”

    as it would with buses.

  • bolwerk

    A track is an example of a fixed guideway. Maybe 12mph is possible with good traffic signaling or signal preemption, but traffic-segregated parts of many light rail systems with grade crossings in similar urban environments do not achieve average speeds of 12 mph.

    I don’t even know what you mean by “added value,” but, no, we don’t “know” any such thing about rail being “much more expensive.” We do know, for instance, that light rail/streetcar systems generally cost less per passenger-mile than bus systems in the same city – buses are about 65% more expensive according to this metric in Portland, Oregon, for instance. But it’s not even possible to subject your claim that “rail is much more expensive” to scrutiny since you won’t explain how you think it’s more expensive.

  • bolwerk

    Perhaps, but then nobody is exaggerating their shortcomings either.

  • Pat

    I’m confused by “but then nobody is exaggerating their shortcomings either.”

  • bolwerk



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