Never Mind the BQX, Fix the Bus System

New Yorkers will be fine without a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront streetcar. But without a useful bus system, the city's in trouble.

The mayor at a streetcar announcement in February 2016. Photo: NYC Mayor's Office/Flickr
The mayor at a streetcar announcement in February 2016. Photo: NYC Mayor's Office/Flickr

The first full week following Mayor de Blasio’s reelection began with two incongruous events.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Monday, boosters of the BQX held a press event showing off a prototype of the streetcar that might one day, maybe, ply the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront.

City Hall hasn’t had much to say about the streetcar since the Daily News broke the story of an internal memo casting serious doubt on the mayor’s claims that the $2.5 billion project would pay for itself via bigger property tax hauls along the route. The Monday presser and a companion event that night, where waterfront developers framed the streetcar as a lure for Amazon, felt like a desperate bid to revive political momentum for the project.

The same day, at a meeting of the MTA Board’s transit and bus committee, agency staff presented stunning ridership figures for September [PDF]. Transit use is down across the board, but especially on buses. Average weekday ridership on the MTA’s local bus routes declined 6.3 percent compared to the same month last year.

That works out to 157,000 fewer bus trips each day. And it’s a big flashing siren alerting public officials to the deteriorating service that several hundred thousand more New Yorkers have to put up with.

De Blasio has limited power to improve the subways — that’s Andrew Cuomo’s job. Buses are a different story. Setting aside street space so buses can run without inference from car traffic is the mayor’s sphere of influence.

But the mayor hasn’t treated slower bus speeds and plummeting bus ridership with the urgency the situation calls for. His DOT recently released a plan for 21 more enhanced bus routes in 10 years. That’s not faster than the current rate of implementation, and it leaves much of the work up to future administrations.

Graph: MTA
The bus ridership drop in September was even steeper than this graph lets on. Graph: MTA

City Hall and BQX boosters pitch the project as a sort of parallel transit network that the city can pursue free from the pitfalls of relying on the state-run MTA. The truth is that the BQX is entwined with the subways and buses whether they admit it or not.

For one, the city would need the MTA’s cooperation to integrate with its fare system. Without free transfers to connecting MTA service for BQX riders, the streetcar becomes a lot less useful.

More relevant to the current transit crisis are the opportunity costs of the BQX. In addition to city tax revenue that in all likelihood will be needed to prop up the project, a 16-mile streetcar will require huge amounts of planning resources and political capital.

Shedding 157,000 daily bus trips is a five-alarm emergency, and the de Blasio administration’s transit resources should be laser-focused on making streets work better for bus riders. That means putting down as many bus lanes on as many routes as possible over the next four years, not waging block-by-block battles to clear traffic and parking off a single streetcar route that might start service in seven years if we’re lucky.

New Yorkers will be fine without the BQX. But without a useful bus system, the city’s in trouble.

  • bolwerk

    I bet the only lure Amazon cares about is generations of tax breaks.

    But really, no matter how you feel about BQX, playing these things against each other is counterproductive. The city could both fix the bus system and build BQX with a hand tied behind its back. There’s no zero sum game here. They aren’t fixing the bus system because they don’t care about bus riders, and/or because they don’t see the bus network as their responsibility, not because they can’t fix it.

  • Implicit in your comment is that any transit project is worth building, no matter how useless, and that there is no limit to the public resources available for transit improvements.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You sound like a “debt scold.” It’s a few decades too late to become one.

    We’re dead. I say default on the MTA debt.

    Good thing Generation Greed and the public unions killed that constitutional convention, eh?

    http://auburnpub.com/blogs/eye_on_ny/cuomo-vetoes-bill-to-provide-optional-pension-plan-for-ny/article_b6a28540-c8d4-11e7-9c81-0ba1b862974b.html

    “Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation Monday that would provide a special 20-year retirement plan for county corrections officers.”

    They would suddenly be able to retire with a half pay pension after working just 20 years, rather than the 25 years at age 55 they had been promised. And since it wasn’t promised, Generation Greed didn’t pay for it. So costs would yet again explode.

    “The legislation received overwhelming support in the state Legislature. The Assembly approved the bill by a 140-3 vote. The margin in the state Senate was 58-1.”

    There was no public debate on this deal, which will probably pass eventually. Maybe for the TWU too. But I guess bringing that up makes me “anti-worker,” right?

  • Mister Sterling

    We can have both. The BQX would vastly improve mass transit on the Brooklyn shoreline from Red Hook to Greenpoint. To think this is a zero sum gain is silly. The only mass transit lines not worth building are the ones that are stupid and the BQX doesn’t look stupid to me. I’d use it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    We can’t have anything, thanks to Generation Greed. Meanwhile, hope you enjoy our car. It’s a bike for the serfs.

  • bolwerk

    Implicit to my comment is, if something is really useless, you can usually come up with better arguments against it than saying we could do something else with the same money. BQX, however flawed, is far from “useless.”

    I also wouldn’t even go so far as to say BQX is “worth building.” However, it’s not exactly capable of damaging the transitscape. While there are of course limits on how many “public resources” are available for transit, financially at least they are much higher than zero-sum figures.

  • Larry Littlefield

    My problem with it is that given the route, with twists and turns and no connection to the subway, it probably wouldn’t be used all that much.

    We’d basically pay for this as a selling point for the buildings, kind of like those rec rooms no one uses. In exchange for campaign contributions for DeBlasio. And a lot of those buildings won’t even be paying any property taxes for years.

  • Joe R.

    How the heck do things like this pass the legislature by such huge margins? I’m sure the general public is against these deals. Why don’t the legislators vote for those they represent? In theory a person who started out in corrections at 18 would get a half-pay pension at age 38. We could be paying that person for no work for half a century or more. Meanwhile, those paying for this sweetheart deal will probably be working until they die not because they love their job, but simply because they can’t afford to retire thanks to paying for other people to retire after 20 or 25 years.

    Time to stop these kinds of deals and roll back the ones already made.

  • Joe R.

    I think the bigger issue here is that the BQX is basically a giveaway to developers. Maybe a better model for projects like this is for the city to build them, but capture the increased property values via taxes instead of letting them go into private hands. The problem here is you’ll get speculators buying up property in droves along the route. This will artificially drive up values, making it more expensive for developers to build. Perhaps tax 90% of the profits these speculators make beyond inflation to discourage this sort of activity. I get that developers who actually build something of value should make enough so it’s worth their while. People who just buy and flip property in the hopes of making a quick buck should be heavily taxed on an activity that is both harmful, and creates nothing whatsoever of value (except for the person engaged in it).

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Why don’t the legislators vote for those they represent?”

    They are voting for the generations and interest groups they represent.

    As I said, in Washington they have proposed slashing taxes for the last few years of Generation Greed’s working years — and then jacking them up to higher than before starting in 2025, when Generation Greed wouldn’t be paying.

    While making tax cuts for the rich and corporations positive, even as Social Security benefits are heading for a 25 percent cut on average a few years later. (More likely zero cut for Generation Greed and no benefits for those to follow).

    They are voting for the generations and interest groups they represent, too.

    People don’t like the term Generation Greed? Don’t want to hear about the executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs? Until they are condemned with tears of rage their entitlement will remain as it is, and they’ll just keep taking.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Or maybe they just shouldn’t be exempted from all property taxes for 35 years, up from 25. Or is it 45 now?

  • bolwerk

    I’m willing to more or less accept the initial ridership at face value, and it’s actually not great given the length of the line. If it could be expected to grow that might improve the outlook some.

    I don’t know that there is a final verdict on connections to the subway yet, but poor subway connections is certainly fair play for criticism. But it’s also something pretty easy to get right.

    “Twists and turns”? That I wouldn’t worry so much about. If anything, that’s a bigger concern for buses than streetcars.

  • Joe R.

    They shouldn’t be exempt from property taxes at all. When you start exempting people from taxes, it’s an implicit acknowledgement that those taxes are too high. Maybe lower real estate taxes across the board and get rid of all current exemptions?

  • bolwerk

    Well, if BQX critics are right and it’s a complete failure, you should get a chance to laugh your ass off at the speculators’ fail. I’m not saying you’re guilty of this (in fact, you seem like one of the few coherent voices on transit), but you ever notice that BQX is going to be simultaneously too successful – poaching riders from buses, driving up property values – and not successful enough – unattractive to riders, stuck in traffic, etc..?

    I’d take the opposite approach to that argument though. Of course transit increases private value. It should. That’s a good case for distributing transit equitably around the city, rather than in one swath of Brooklyn that happens to be attractive to 1‰ developers. However, not many people are paying attention to this angle, and I bet some people kvetching about BQX on these grounds probably laud the 7 Extension – a 1‰ giveaway if there ever was one – and the Second Avenue Subway. I’m rather circumspect about either of those projects, but ya think it’s a coincidence that the SAS turns west to capture Metro-North riders instead of heading into one of the poorest urban counties in the USA?

  • You make good points in general. But I can’t agree with the call for shorter buses. The modern long buses are very well engineered, with a pivot mechanism that allows for the same turns that regular buses can make.

  • Joe R.

    Nothing wrong with transit increasing private value if the increase is distributed equitably. My concerns mirror yours. It seems all recent transit projects are giveaways to the wealthy. Ideally, I think of transit not as something which needs to be profitable on its own (i.e. the typical right-wing view) but rather as something which greases the wheels of commerce. A given transit line or transportation project might lose money if looked at in isolation, but it enables commerce which otherwise couldn’t exist, with the end result of generating more taxes than it gets in subsidies.

    Of course, in order to be fair, transit projects should be equally distributed as you say. No reason 2nd Avenue or the Brooklyn waterfront should merit a transit project more than eastern Queens or Brooklyn, for example.

  • Joe R.

    Totally agree. Taller buses seem to be a solution in search of a problem. We would have to raise power lines and traffic lights in many cases to accommodate them. They’re also more liable to tipping if they have to quickly maneuver around an obstacle (very common on NYC bus routes).

  • Joe R.

    I think (hope?) the cluelessness of your Generation Greed will catch up with them sooner or later. Just the other day I read about Joe Biden possibly running in 2020. This generation is determined to hold power for as long as it can. However, sooner or later people will want someone younger than their grandparents to represent them. The only thing I see saving us if if we can get the Baby Boomers out of power. They’ve held onto power well past their time. We don’t need a hypothetical situation 20 years from now like you once said where the average age of the legislators in Albany is 95. Time to let the younger generations take charge. It’s only fair given that they should have a hand shaping the world they’ll be growing old in. If some previous sweetheart deals for the Baby Boomers get rolled back in the process, so be it. Those deals where mostly never sustainable anyway.

  • bolwerk

    They’re far from a panacea, but they don’t seem like a horrible idea on routes with less frequent stops. Someone here (kevd?) made an interesting point about their accessibility potential a few weeks ago: a very accessible lower level with a lot of room for wheelchairs, etc., combined with a spacious upstairs with lots of seating for able-bodied passengers.

  • bolwerk

    I think the fallacy of right-wing/liberal view is it assumes the only beneficiary of the service is the rider. Reality is the commercial sector is a much bigger beneficiary economically, and the state which taxes both the rider and the commercial sector is arguably a bigger economic beneficiary still.

    That’s why I think a three-pronged financing approach is fair: the rider pays fares, businesses pay taxes dedicated to transit, and the government contributes generally on behalf of society.

    It’s also why I’m not very swayed by “this costs x much” arguments, even if I am guilty of engaging in them now and then.

  • bolwerk

    Ha, if younger generations “take charge,” they’d probably first vote for Bernie, who I think will be 78 in 2020.

    At least Biden seems like slightly less than a slam dunk for eight years of Trump than a smarmpit like Cory Booker.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Time to let the younger generations take charge.”

    In the Assembly, they’ve already installed their replacements. A large share of those in that body entered office in the past six years, after Generation Greed politicians retired. Mid-term, so their replacements could be appointed in special elections.

    So how did they vote on that pension deal?

    And I want to hear what Ferdinand has to say? Should Cuomo be tossed out of office for being against “the workers?” Should the TWU get the same deal? After all, such deals “cost nothing.”

    You can’t say this deal is wrong unless you are also prepared to say all the past deals are wrong too.

  • Larry Littlefield

    By the way, Kevd asked about NY teacher pensions late in yesterday’s thread. If you are still looking.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/long-term-pension-data-for-new-york-and-new-jersey-to-2016-teacher-pensions/

    They were promised a half pay pension at age 62 after 30 years of work. NYC taxpayers paid for it. Then they got a half pay pension at 55 after 25 years of work.

    As a result, NYC teacher compensation is up to almost $300,000 per 20 students. But they say they owe us nothing because they are “underpaid,” creating a teacher shortage, and demand $billions more. Although they said all the pension increases “cost nothing” at the time. After all, more pension benefits for those who already have the most in pension benefits is “progressive.” (And conservative).

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/census-bureau-data-on-public-school-spending-in-new-york-robbed-sneered-at-resented-and-sued/

    What debt is the MTA, retroactive pension increases are to the DOE. But only because when the TWU went on strike in 2005, they didn’t get a 20/50 pension they demand and were stuck working one year for each year in retirement.

    Meanwhile, down in DC, for third time in my lifetime the House Republicans have passed a massive tax cut for the rich. One that “costs nothing.” The same rich the rest bailed out less than a decade ago. And will bail out again within a decade from now.

    Because more tax breaks for those who already have the most money is “conservative.” (And progressive).

  • You can criticise Cuomo for plenty of things, but not for having given a good deal to public employees, especially those who do a dangerous and stressful job.

    (Note: this should not be construed as an endorsement of the corrections officers, who are straight-up torturers of people at Rikers Island and are guilty of innumerable violations of human rights. This is a result of poor leadership and bad policy.)

  • Larry Littlefield

    So, 20 and out for all of them? And as for who has to pay, maybe we can all stop working?

    There are lots of places in this country where public employees were promised a pension, but your generation of taxpayers didn’t pay for it. That is very unjust.

    What the public employee unions have done here is exactly the opposite — grabbed far more than they were promised at the expense of those worse off. Also unjust.

    And whoever was more unjust feels entitled to even more. You are an example of that here, there are other examples there.

    But whatever faction of Generation Greed is more unjust it is Generation Greed that has been unjust, and those to follow who will pay.

  • kevd

    ridership projects from its backers indicate it won’t be used that much. There are 20 existing bus lines that should be upgraded to light rail first.

    the 21st street portion of the BQX in Queens might make some sense though.

  • Corey Bearak

    See in “Introduce BQX Quickly, Efficiently And Cost-Effectively Via Bus Transit Service” The Labor Press, February 18, 2016
    http://laborpress.org/introduce-bqx-quickly-efficiently-and-cost-effectively-via-bus-transit-service/

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