It’s Time to Move On From the Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar

The de Blasio administration has already come up with better ideas than the streetcar to improve streets and transit -- the mayor just needs to make them a higher priority.

The mayor loves his trolley. Image: Friends of the BQX
The mayor loves his trolley. Image: Friends of the BQX

From the get-go, a major selling point for Mayor de Blasio’s proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar was that it would pay for itself — but an internal memo obtained by the Daily News and Politico casts serious doubt on that assumption.

The February 10 memo assembled by City Hall’s streetcar team and addressed to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen describes pitfalls like the cost and duration of utility work, which could potentially spiral out of control [PDF]. When the de Blasio administration announced the streetcar last February, the pitch was that it would be “self-financed.” The memo challenges the notion that increased tax revenue alone will be able to pay for the project.

The streetcar route was always a dubious choice for City Hall to spend its limited energy and attention on. Prior transit studies had identified several higher priorities than the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront — routes that would speed up service for more riders and improve transit access for more people.

But eroding faith in the financial viability of the streetcar can be an opportunity — it’s a chance for de Blasio to refocus his transit and transportation agenda on projects that would address the everyday problems and risks New Yorkers encounter as they get around the city.

The mayor doesn’t have to create ideas from scratch. He could simply recommit to his campaign promises to speed up buses and make city streets safer for walking and biking.

Bus ridership has been declining for years as bus speeds fall, and advocates have delivered a map for de Blasio’s DOT to turn this trend around — 10 streets where bus lanes would speed trips for up to 250,000 daily passengers.

Meanwhile, progress on traffic safety has slowed in the past year or so, and DOT can’t keep up with the demand for street redesigns that protect New Yorkers from dangerous driving.

NYC DOT is already working on these issues with its developing “citywide transit plan” and the ongoing rollout of Vision Zero projects. But streetcar work diverts staff time from these initiatives and saps the mayor’s political capital to see them through.

The sooner City Hall pulls staff off the BQX, the faster de Blasio can advance streets and transit improvements that will make life better for many more New Yorkers.

  • inky799

    so right but telling these people that their decisions put them in this place and it is on them not others just make it obvious that they can’t accept their own failures

  • inky799

    Hard to believe this stupidity must have gone to The Betsy Devos home school. If you would have gone to a school where there was a union there was a great chance you would have learned something. Unions do their job they protect their members from know nothings like you.

  • Vooch

    unions reduce wages

    that’s why unions are dieing in the free market.

  • inky799

    another very dumb comment. If you said that robots were a threat to unions I would agree.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The portrait of one generation taking care of itself at the expense of later workers is a pernicious lie.”

    Oh no it isn’t. It’s the reality. Generation Greed demanded to pay in less and take out more. Those who follow are worse off.

    Meanwhile, older generations of public employees who got retroactive pension increases at the expense of less well off service recipients and future public employees are out of solidary with other workers, just like the 1 percent.

  • com63

    Just make the buses run faster and make a big deal out of doing so. That will get more votes than a streetcar.

  • Joe R.

    It already happened in Detroit and it’s just as applicable to New York. The fact is we have no way to pay for the pensions which were promised. It’s simple math. Larry wrote about why here:

    I’m surprised NYers aren’t already asking why there’s a shortfall of money for essential services despite the fact they’re the highest taxed people in the US and we’re in the middle of a growth cycle. That day of reckoning will come soon enough. The only way out of this is going to be to default on debt and pensions. I’m totally onboard with this. It’s not my problem if politicians made deals they couldn’t afford to secure endorsements from labor unions and other groups. As the California case shows, pensions aren’t iron clad agreements which have to be paid no matter what. If you’re broke, guess what? Many pensions in private industry were never paid because the company went belly up. Public employee pensions don’t have a magic unicorn protecting them. The only question is will the pensions be cut substantially or cancelled completely? I have no idea but it’s plainly obvious to anyone with half a brain New York has no viable means to pay them in full.

  • Joe R.

    When you do the math, there is no viable means for the younger generation to pay for what Larry’s so-called Generation Greed promised itself. There might have been had these generation been more reasonable. Instead, we have teachers collecting $80,000 pensions starting at age 55 and other public employees getting similarly unsustainably large benefits. We have had years of low taxes on the wealthy resulting in a huge national debt. We have underpaid younger workers for years, then told them to make up the shortfall by borrowing from the equity of the grossly inflated home prices. That bubble finally burst in 2008.

    The problem isn’t the idea that each generation should pay for the retirement of previous ones. Rather, it’s the expectation of one generation to get pensions far larger than needed for financial security starting at an age when they’re still capable of working many more years which is the problem. That’s unfair, it’s unaffordable, and it’s unsustainable. I’m onboard wih my generation and those coming after to just default on the debts and obligations left to us by the generation coming before which wanted extravagant benefits but didn’t want to pay for them. My moniker for the generation Larry refers to is “the generation which cashed out America”. Remember history retirement was something you did only when you were physically incapable of going to work. It never was meant to be a 3 or 4 decade extended vacation where you took cruises every year. With today’s lifespans and general health people should be working full-time until at least age 70, then winding down to increasing less work over the next decade. Maybe be age 80 some large fraction of the population no longer can do any kind of productive work. That means we should give partial pensions between 70 and 80 to supplement lower incomes as people’s careers wind down. Only by age 80 should we need to support most people fully. Obviously some in physical jobs will be unable to work before then but few jobs are physical these days.

    Nothing Larry says is anti-worker propaganda. We should take care of the elderly in retirement, but that should mean everyone has the same deal. To be sustainable it needs to look something like what I described. Sure, if someone wants to retire at 55 and travel on their own dime, nobody is going to stop them. Living under your means while working will provide a viable path to early retirement under my system.

  • The means to pay these pensions is to tax people — especially the rich — at the appropriate levels, which, as you yourself observed, is currently not being done.

    Americans of all incomes are chronically under-taxed. If you look at the list of countries arranged by tax burden, you see that the U.S. ranks second to last amongst the major economic powers, ahead of only Russia, and well behind every single European country, with a tax rate only half of those of the countries at the top of the list (Denmark, Belgium, France).

    If the U.S. were to join the civilised world, the system would instantly become sustainable until the Earth is swallowed by the sun going supernova.

  • inky799

    not going to happen no matter what you think PENSION ENVY

  • Joe R.

    The middle and lower classes are already overtaxed. You really can’t raise their taxes because it would become a case of literally taking food out of their mouths. The very wealthy (i.e. those making over maybe $300K annually) are really the only group on whom you can raise taxes. And you can’t raise taxes substantially on the lower end, only the high hand. The problem is still numbers. Let’s say you increase marginal rates by 10% above what they are now starting on those making over $300K, and have a 90% tax bracket on incomes over, say, $1 million. I’m all in favor of this but it still won’t make up the shortfall. It might have if this system had been in place for decades. Unfortunately, we’ve let the snowball roll too far down the hill.

    The only possible savior here would be some form of wealth tax. Tax all wealth in excess of $10 million at 50%. That will bring a huge windfall. More importantly, it will be fair in the sense that it takes back money from people who got it on the backs of workers they failed to pay for.

    That said, no system where people retire at age 55 with large pensions is going to be sustainable even under the scheme I outlined. Nor do it even make sense. People spent 15 to 20 years being educated for the work force. Many people are at the top of their game when their in their early or mid 50s. It makes little sense to put this group out to pasture when they still have a lot left to contribute. Remember it’s not just the dollars and cents of paying people to be idle which is the problem. There’s an additional cost in lost societal productivity. All those experienced teachers who left at 55 could have used their knowledge to better educate the children. A teacher is a job which takes decades to learn to do well. When the best teachers are encouraged to leave, the quality of education predictably falls. I think that’s why public schools were good when we went to school but mostly stink now. Teachers stayed on until at least age 65. Some worked well past that age. We had a lot of old, very experienced teachers who did a great job. They also helped guide the new teachers. That’s all gone now.

  • inky799

    Maybe you should check New York state law

  • Joe R.

    Doesn’t matter. If we go bankrupt then things don’t get paid. You haven’t once in this discussion said HOW we’re going to be able to pay for the pensions you feel are sacrosanct. Perhaps that’s because there is no viable path to paying for them.

  • Joe R.

    FYI I don’t need a pension. I lived under my means my entire life, not above them like most of the previous generation.

  • inky799

    (+) New York

    Pension liability: $141 billion

    Percent funded: 107.38%

    Employees in Pension Plans: 1,343,524

    New York is the nationwide pension leader, with the country’s highest-funded public pension at 107 percent. Though the state has long been in fiscal turmoil, it has met its necessary funding level every year since at least 1997. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli made it his goal to increase the plan’s transparency and ensure it maintains a high level of funding. To make good on this, in 2009, New York passed reforms that raised the retirement age for most new government employees from 55 to 62, and increased the amount public employees are required to contribute to the pension plan.

  • inky799

    I think thats great but your gloom and doom forecast is straight out of the Larry Littlefield play book. He has failed in everything he has attempted. You have a right to your opinion but that last comment tells me that you are way off base.

  • Joe R.

    Larry is better able to respond to this than me. The article I linked to earlier which he wrote tells me the picture isn’t so rosy. Historically the stock market doesn’t give the returns which those who say the fund is in good health are assuming.

    New York passed reforms that raised the retirement age for most new government employees from 55 to 62, and increased the amount public employees are required to contribute to the pension plan.

    So in other words younger workers will be paying more for less? Hardly seems fair to me.

  • inky799

    TAX Trump and all the other millionaires and close all the tax loopholes. Every wealthy person I know pays little or no taxes. In New York tax religious organizations especially those on Fifth and Madison avenue. Do that and Ill throw in your bike lanes

  • Absolutely no one in the United States of America is overtaxed. Of course, some are more undertaxed than others, by a wide margin — rich individuals and corporations get away with murder. But taxes should be much higher across the board.

    Think of all the stories you hear about “cash-strapped municipalities”, about “under-funded public schools”, and the like. This state of affairs is possible only because taxes are too low.

  • inky799

    you got the answer but you didn’t like it. More for less now but who knows what the future will bring. Im optimistic you and Larry are the kings of gloom and doom.

  • Joe R.

    Maybe Larry is wrong and unicorns will fly out of people’s asses and fix all this. I sincerely hope he’s wrong but I know enough about math and finance to feel he has the data to support a lot of what he says. Maybe we’ll have robotic labor to take care of everyone, do society’s dirty work, and the day of reckoning will never come. The sad fact is I SEE a lot of what Larry writes about. Neither of my siblings are EVER going to be able to afford to retire. EVER. It’s not because they’re lazy or unemployed. They just were never paid enough. At the same time costs of living rose way faster than their salaries. While I would love to say Larry is full of crap it turns out I’m starting to see a lot of what he predicted beginning to come true. If it all comes true we’re royally screwed.

  • Joe R.

    Maybe you have a different definition of overtaxed than I do. In my book nobody should be paying taxes until they’re making at least twice the basic sustenance level. In NYC that number would probably be about $50K annually. So if you make less than $50K you pay nothing. No payroll taxes, no income taxes. $50K is enough to get by in NYC and also save maybe 25% towards retirement. That’s the minimum most financial planners say you should save.

    The middle class is taxed at far higher levels than this. The taxes someone making $50K or less pays under our current system means they can’t save for retirement, pay for some essentials, and so forth. To me that means they’re overtaxed. The only taxes someone making $50K or less should pay would be sales taxes. Sales taxes tax consumption, which is a reasonable thing to do. Just keep certain essential items like food or clothing exempt from sales taxes.

    The very wealthy and large corporations are grossly under taxed. You can easily tax them enough to pay our bills while also exempting those making less than $50K from taxes altogether.

  • Joe R.

    I’m all for taxing the wealthy heavily and also taxing religious institutions. Mathematically though it still might not be enough to make up for the shortfall caused by decades of under taxing them.

  • inky799

    Shit we agree

  • Joe R.

    Miracles do happen!

  • c2check

    It’s not worth it to spend a load of money on a particular streetcar project that probably won’t work well just to have a streetcar.
    Streetcars might work well in some areas of the city, sure. If we really want a streetcar let’s get one built somewhere where it will really be worth the money and effort.
    Especially as the first streetcar project in NYC in decades, we can’t afford to screw this one up if you ever want to see another one.

  • Joe R.

    Thanks for the thoughts, and sorry to hear your dad never retired at all. Everyone deserves to retire in some fashion. My dad did have 11½ years of retirement but in his case I think he would have benefitted working a few years longer. On the other hand I have no problem occupying myself without work. For me though retirement will probably mean I just no longer take whatever work comes my way. I’ll still take interesting jobs which pay well if such jobs continue to come my way. If they don’t, I can find enough to do until I’m well past 100. I just need to make sure my money will last that long.

  • Boris

    You retired at 55 after working for 40 years? So you had a full-time union job since you were 15? Wow, you really are a liar.

  • inky799

    nope worked 8 years for other school districts with no increase in pension.

  • inky799

    started teaching at 21 retired at 55 worked after for 8 years didn’t lie

  • inky799

    Jon enjoy life and be optimistic it will work out

  • Brian Howald

    Remember when the conversation was about bike lanes and transit for all?

    Our transit system needs to be made more accessible, a fact we were reminded of once again by last month’s NYTimes article on how difficult the system is to navigate even 30 years after “100 Key Stations.” That said, it is enormously difficult to retrofit an existing system – half of its stations underground – to be accessible. I haven’t done the math, but its possible that reclaiming street space for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit might enable faster, more reliable bus service, which is already 100% ADA accessible. That said, due to the fact that transit serves all people at all times – and polls better – it should heavily factor into the conversation about remaking our streets.

  • inky799

    so where is that nastiness now?

  • bolwerk

    Concur with this. It’s not like I am a booster for this particular project, but on balance it’s about as useful to its users as something like Woodhaven’s BRT project, which is similarly overpriced relative to the number of people it moves. Newsflash: things cost too much in NYC. Buses. Subways. Streetcars. Even roads.

    I think the first places streetcars/light rail should go in NYC are probably on bridges as subway relief lines. Or perhaps replacing the busiest buses. But another approach would be mixed subway-surface routes in some cases that can’t justify full-length subways.

    Either way, the bulk of anti-BQX propaganda, including this article, doesn’t exactly have constructive ideas for what else should be done with streetcars. The writers just don’t like streetcars.

  • bolwerk

    That Human Transit piece is really dubious at best.

    I guess it turns on what he means by “no other improvements.” I’d call electrification an improvement. (Buses can’t be electrified too, of course, though for the cost you probably may as well get rails too if you don’t already have an electrified bus network.)

    Also, as Alon Levy points out in the comments there, streetcars can probably squeeze a bit more performance out of a route over a bus given that they can use railroad signaling/safety technology. Maybe they typically don’t or won’t, but they could.

    And depending on the implementation they are generally able to work in a more constrained environment than a bus (e.g., a narrow street with tight turns).

  • kevd

    “but the city really NEEDS streetcars.”
    Having light rail that is a massive boondoggle and helps few other than real estate developers is worse than having decent light rail.
    And building shitty light rail first will absolutely preclude anything decent getting built….

  • kevd

    “If we can build streetcars for the same price as they do in Europe”
    we probably could if we build TriboroRX instead of this malarkey.

  • c2check

    Streetcars are too expensive to do in a half-assed fashion—which will also result in lower ridership. Unless the city can guarantee dedicated lanes for almost the entire course, plus TSP, and other big features, this is no more effective than a bus, and we don’t even know if it will be integrated with the MetroCard, particularly for us with unlimited-ride tickets (not to mention that MetroCard is way outdated).
    We could more easily put streetcars on heavily-travelled, straight streets with room for dedicated lanes. Think Manhattans’ Avenues as well as major cross-streets; some streets like Bedford/Nostrand or perhaps Flatbush in Brooklyn. Not something meandering through the borough.

  • bolwerk

    Unless something has changed, most of those issues have been settled favorably last I heard. I’d call the insane cost the majorly half-assed part, a standard I hold just about everything to.

    We could more easily put streetcars on heavily-travelled, straight
    streets with room for dedicated lanes. Think Manhattans’ Avenues as well
    as major cross-streets…. Not something meandering through the borough.

    We could, but those are the kinds of streets where buses actually work relatively well compared to streetcars. I think the M15 SBS needs some work, but it’s not a bad service. It’s when a route “meanders” or is particularly crowded that streetcar performance improves a lot relative to buses.

    My preferred criterion would be really crowded bus routes, or subway relief (again, the bridges). But there are lots of reasonable ways to do it.

  • Jason

    This doesn’t change the fact that the streetcar is de Blasio’s bad idea, but I still think the fundamental blame lies with Cuomo for putting de Blasio in a position where he felt like he had to think of ways to build new transit that would be purely city-run to keep the MTA (and thus Cuomo) from having a say in any of it. It’s beyond fucking ridiculous what a huge problem Cuomo is for NYC transit.

  • iSkyscraper

    These sorts of discussions came up frequently during the Rob Ford era in Toronto (when ignorance was king!). There are many modes of transit, and each has its role. No one mode is a miracle cure for all others. Great cities need stellar commuter rail, subways, light rail/streetcars, buses/BRT, bike and pedestrian infrastructure. New York’s traditional myopic heavy-rail only vision greatly harmed surface transportation options over past decades. Remember, it’s only been 20 years this fall that free transfers between subway and surface routes have been in use here. The city clearly needs more subways and trains, but also more and faster buses, and yes, some light rail serving a role between the two. And it all needs ample funding from all levels of government to properly function as a public good.

    Paris seems to be a good example of how to integrate and overlay modern trams onto an already impressive subway network. I don’t see why ideas like the Brooklyn streetcar couldn’t work in concept, albeit with a lot of details to work out about dedicated ROW, station spacing, MTA co-fares, etc. Similar connector routes crossing radial subway lines could work on some of the SBS routes that are getting bogged down by auto interference (the Bx12 comes to mind).

    At the end of the day, you can argue against things like streetcars, and see nothing built (which was maybe the ulterior motive of folks like Rob Ford) or you can press to build as much as you can of each mode, warts and all.

  • Joe R.

    I can think of lots of bus routes where streetcars would be a better fit. Most of the argument against the BQx is that if not fully funded it will siphon scarce transit funding away from places where it will do more good. Plus, if BQx doesn’t meet ridership projections, it might be a generation before another streetcar project is proposed.

    The Q44 and Q46 are two bus routes I’m familiar with which I think would be prime candidates for streetcars. Doubtless there are many others elsewhere.

  • Joe R.

    You have two intangible benefits of streetcars would tend to attract ridership which would otherwise shun buses. Namely, they are electrification (i.e. quiet running) and ride quality. On some of the busier bus lines streetcars could not only make operation more efficient but also boost ridership even more.

  • Joe R.

    One thing which jumps out at me in that article is the author’s tone-deafness to ride quality. Although he claims buses are getting closer to emulating rail, nothing on rubber tires is going to match the ride quality. Not now, and certainly not 25 years from now when if anything we’ll probably have even less money for maintaining streets. A bus ride is often something to be endured by someone who has no real alternative. A streetcar offering a smooth ride is going to attract more than a captive audience. I just wish the author would realize that.

    And although buses can be electrified, such electrification is practically inherent to streetcars.

  • kevd

    And I’d say the B35 and B46 are on that list too.
    And TriboroX, (even if it would make more sense to swing that over the the 1 and A at 168th St. in Manhattan eventually, making it a QuadboroX). That would be more of a hybrid light rail / subway route though. Completely dedicated right of way, partially in tunneled.

  • kevd

    its also possible to add cars to light rail.
    So, scalability.
    You can’t make a bus three cars long.

    I shy away from “Streetcars” because to me that means mixed in traffic, and light rail in mixed traffic really is no better than buses.

  • bolwerk

    Heh. I get the impression he doesn’t ride buses as a day-to-day part of his life. He’s sort of a smarter Walter Hook. He sells bus service designs to driver politicians for use by passengers who don’t really have a say in the service they’re going to be provided. Setting that aside, the work he does isn’t half bad it seems.

    I honestly don’t see the streetcar having a big ridership advantage without a service edge of some sort, and most of that has to be time. That being said, that the BQX route as a streetcar probably would offer a time savings over the BQX route as a bus doesn’t seem very open to debate. But whether that’s worth it to enough people is debatable.

  • bolwerk

    I wonder how streetcars, specifically, have held up in this recent decline in bus usage. Rail has mostly held its own nationally, but I haven’t seen streetcars specifically broken out.

  • bolwerk

    Most of the argument against the BQx is that if not fully funded it will siphon scarce transit funding away from places where it will do more good.

    That argument is opportunistic though. Am I the only one who notices the people arguing that mostly want to just stop BQX and not do anything else? It’s mighty important for them to stop a streetcar from happening. They can’t objectively evaluate the merits of BQX, or weigh them against the drawbacks, because their imagination stops at just not liking streetcars. (kevd is one of the very few exceptions I’ve seen.)

    I happen to think replacing bus routes directly should not be the first priority. What about doing stuff that buses can’t really do? Good transit across the bridges, for instance. There are at least two former trolley terminals ready and waiting in Manhattan. You can’t fit buses into them. Each could probably accommodate hundreds of trolleys an hour, fanned out across several routes from each bridge. They could even cover much of the BQX route eventually to please the real estate gods.

  • bolwerk

    Triborough RX should really be heavy rail. Dedicated light rail infrastructure isn’t that much cheaper than heavy rail infrastructure, and it’s already a good dedicated ROW. It may as well be able to use interchangeable equipment from the B division subways. Light rail should accomplish purposes that can’t be accomplished by other means.

    I wonder if some of the infrastructure the Polo Grounds Shuttle used, I believe including a tunnel in The Bronx, could be useful for a light rail service somewhat like that. But now I’m committing that greatest of all sins against trendy urban planning transit wokeness: suggesting something other than BRT could benefit a population consisting almost entirely of poor/brown/black people.


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