De Blasio Moves Forward With the BQX: Here’s Four Things You Should Know

Mayor de Blasio announcing the BQX in February of 2016. Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor de Blasio announcing the BQX in February of 2016. Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

More details have emerged about Mayor de Blasio’s controversial Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar, one day after Streetsblog broke the news that the so-called BQX will be more expensive, take longer to build and cover less ground than its earlier version: the route has changed, Sunset Park isn’t all that upset about being cut out of the plan, and the mayor can’t wait for Donald Trump to be out of the White House so maybe he can get this streetcar financed.

Here’s what you need to know:

Sunset Park is Out — and Happy About It

As Streetsblog reported, the city took Sunset Park out of the Astoria-to-Sunset Park route. A city Economic Development Corporation report [PDF] released Thursday attributes the decision to low anticipated ridership at the five stops proposed for the neighborhood.

Another possible explanation: Strong, organized opposition to the project among neighborhood residents — the members of community group UPROSE in particular.

There’s no doubt that Sunset Park was vehemently opposed to the BQX,” local Council Member Carlos Menchaca told Streetsblog. “They saw this as a real estate developer-led project.” (Which, by the way, it is.)

The proposed streetcar route. Image: NYC EDC
The proposed streetcar route. Image: NYC EDC

Menchaca claimed that the proposed Sunset Park route on Third Avenue would have forced small businesses to close, paving the way for developers to gobble up properties along the street. (The EDC report does not speculate on that.)

These are immigrants, the backbone of Sunset Park,” he said. “This would be the nail in the coffin for small businesses that need a development plan to support them, and not a kiss of death.”

The council member, who chairs the City Council’s BQX task force, said there needs to be a comprehensive evaluation of transportation needs along the waterfront before the city moves forward with the project.

“We want something that can be done now. What this report is kind of hinting to is that it’s going to be a long time before we see this,” he said, suggesting better bus service as an immediate and cost-effective solution.

In its report, EDC claims to have weighed buses as an alternative. For context, while the BQX is pegged at $2.73 billion, upgrading the entire B44 route on Nostrand Avenue — which carries around 40,000 riders — only cost the city $15 million.

EDC says it rejected the bus option on the grounds that streetcars are more comfortable, better at navigating tight turns, and more likely to “support transit-oriented development at a scale that is typical along the corridor.”

Downtown Brooklyn Replaces DUMBO

It’s not exactly clear why the revised streetcar plan goes through congested downtown Brooklyn — and through the Willoughby Street pedestrian plaza — instead of DUMBO as originally promised.

The downtown Brooklyn route, which would run next to Atlantic Terminal in Fort Greene, would pull streetcar riders closer to the Long Island Rail Road and subway connections near Borough Hall. It also reduces the percentage of the route in high-risk flood zones.

The decision likely stems from higher ridership projections, according to Downtown Brooklyn Partnership Chief of Staff Belinda Cape.

“I’ve experienced first-hand the way that streetcars, pedestrians, and retail use can coexist to the advantage of everyone,” said Cape, who hails from tram-heavy Melbourne, Australia. “If it’s done the right way, it can really lift a neighborhood.”

Streetsblog has asked EDC for more information on the decision to remove DUMBO from the route.

Most, But Not All, of the Route Will Be Streetcar-only

Seventy percent of the proposed route will be on streetcar-only rights of way, without interference from private cars, according to EDC. Making sure that the remaining route is clear of obstructions — namely, double-parking — is crucial to the route’s success. EDC hopes the streetcar will travel 12 mph. If it were just 4 mph slower, daily ridership would drop 40 percent, to 30,000, the agency says.

Given the NYPD’s track record with enforcing bus lanes, the route will likely not reach its speed goal. Remember, the average speed of a bus in Queens is just 8 mph.

This cross-section of Berry Street in Williamsburg shows how challenging enforcement will be. The city wants to maintain local vehicular access, including a lane for parking and deliveries. Southbound vehicular access would be prohibited, but northbound traffic would be allowed to use the street for no more than “three to five blocks,” and share a lane with the streetcar.

image: NYC EDC
image: NYC EDC

Experience in other cities that have installed 21st-century streetcar systems shows that vehicular obstructions can shut down service for significant chunks of time. Of course, many cities got rid of streetcars in the first place years ago to allow cars to dominate their streets.

Don’t Count on Money From Trump

The project was initially priced at $2.5 billion, but now the price tag is $2.73 billion. And ground was supposed to be broken next year, but the start date is now 2024. It was also supposed to pay for itself through increased tax revenue thanks to the higher property values along the route.

Given the increased cost and news that the project won’t “pay for itself” as proponents initially claimed, Mayor de Blasio has said that federal funding is imperative if the BQX is to become a reality.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the mayor suggested that the city may have to wait until Democrats take control of Congress or the White House.

“We’re about to have two elections, 2018 and 2020, that could entirely remake the Congress and the White House, and then we’ll be having an entirely different conversation about infrastructure” de Blasio said.

Streetsblog contacted the White House for comment, but nobody picked up the phone. (Seriously — it rang for two minutes.) We are continuing to reach out and will update this story if we get a response.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    this thing will never happen

  • Larry Littlefield

    “We’re about to have two elections, 2018 and 2020, that could entirely remake the Congress and the White House, and then we’ll be having an entirely different conversation about infrastructure” de Blasio said.”

    NY Democrats have gone 100 percent Tammany Hall, special interest, perpetual incumbent. And the fact that the Republican Party has become what it has become means they can pretty much do to us what they want to — charge us more, in exchange for less, and blame someone else.

    But it is at least possible that over two elections, more of your typical Generation Greed pols will be replaced by new members of Congress who have actually ridden the subway.

    Which might impact their priorities, even if they are nominally members of the same political party.

  • Tyler Bernstein

    And thank god for that. It’s a total waste of scarce resources

  • Jeff

    I know we all hate it or whatever, but you gotta admit it would force the city to make some serious decisions about our streets. The report itself notes that it would require the removal of 2,000 on-street parking spaces throughout the corridor. That’s a big deal, and could set some interesting precedents.

  • Opposing additional mass transit is simply the dumbest position any resident of NYC can take. I used to live on 4th Avenue and 22nd Street in Sunset Park. I would have loved the BQX to whisk me to Red Hook and Greenpoint. The BQX will bring Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods together and increase foot traffic to independent shops.

  • I have said it before. If one cannot afford to pay for parking, one shouldn’t own a car in NYC.

  • Scarce? Have you seen the NYPD budget? You’re saying we can afford an army costing $6B per year, but we can’t afford a light rail system?

  • Tyler Bernstein

    I’m saying there are far greater priorities in New York and this should be last on the list. First and foremost they should repair the transit system we already have. They could also just upgrade the b44 route to BRT for far less. The most appropriate circumferential route they should be planning for is the triboro line. It would actually help outer borough residents travel without having to go through Manhattan, and doesn’t already parallel the G train. I’m not saying we can’t afford a light rail system, I’m saying this should not be the system we build

  • That would require the state to act. This is an NYC project. We’re doing it ourselves because Albany can’t take care of the most important city in the USA. We have the cash. I would even pitch into the kickstarter.

  • Robert Perris

    “The downtown Brooklyn route, which would run next to Atlantic Terminal in Fort Greene….” As I wrote yesterday, the proposed route comes no closer to Atlantic Terminal than a half-mile away, hardly the definition of “next to.”

  • Joe R.

    Unfortunately, nobody running for office wants to deal with the bloated NYPD budget, or the equally bloated DOE budget. If I ran for mayor, part of my platform would be cutting the NYPD and DOE budgets in half. That would free up lots of money for mass transit projects, while not materially affecting either the level of crime or the quality of education. Fact is easily half of every dollar spent for policing or education in this city is spent on extra bureaucracy and/or redundant personnel. The fact the NYPD actually sets up dragnets to ticket cyclists tells me you have more police than real crimes to keep them occupied.

  • Joe R.

    While I agree the BQX should be very low on the list in terms of transit spending priorities, the fact is we have the money to implement it, provided it makes sense as a transit route, along with fixing the subways. NYC residents are among the highest taxed on the planet. The money is there. We just spend it on the wrong things, like a bloated police force, bloated schools, retroactive pension increases, and a bloated welfare system. If we set our priorities straight, we could have enough funding for transit and perhaps even give a middle-class tax cut in the process.

  • AMH

    Just route it through the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown Tunnels if you want to actually make it useful.

  • cjstephens

    There’s a difference between opposing a particular mass transit project and opposing mass transit in general. This project is the equivalent of empty calories: it looks pretty and might be nice to have, but it’s far from the smartest option of getting people from A to B, especially given the astronomical budget involved.

  • kevd

    “whisk me”
    that’s cute.

  • New York City residents are nowhere near the highest taxed on the planet. We may pay more in tax than other Americans do; but the U.S. overall is a ridiculously low-tax zone — to the great detriment of our infrastructure (as well as to our sense of civic responsibility).

  • Joe R.

    The rich in this country are grossly undertaxed, not the middle class. A person making a middle-class salary in this city easily pays half of what they make in taxes once you count income, payroll, real estate, and sales taxes.

  • kevin

    Reasons to be for it:

    – Route isn’t bad

    – Gives access to areas in Queens and Brooklyn that don’t have great transit access

    – Rebuilds a bridge between Brooklyn and Queens making it easier to cross. This will also probably be where a protected bike lane will be.

    – Portions of the route can be piggybacked in the future for other streetcars. For example the Steinway street streetcar would use this new bridge, a 21 street streetcar that goes over the Queensboro bridge will use the rail on 21 st, and a Red Hook route that goes over the Brooklyn Bridge can re-use the tracks there.

    – Route is mostly streetcar only

    Reasons to be against it:

    – There are other projects that would make more sense. Triborough rx, Utica Ave extension, and re-activation of the rockaway line; are all probably better places to use the money.

    – If the goal is to demonstrate how great street cars can be Fordham Rd in the Bronx would have been a much better place to do this.

    – We really don’t have an explanation as to why the cost has increased (my only guess is the bridge).

  • But it is not empty calories. It links waterfront neighborhoods, all of which are growing. When the G train was designed, we weren’t thinking of these neighborhoods. They were industrial zones. Now they are growing residential zones. More mass transit is needed. Take a look at the TFL map for London. There’s a lot of redundancy, but no one claims any of it is unnecessary or a waste of spending.

  • cjstephens

    I think you may be new to this discussion. The question isn’t whether waterfront neighborhoods need more transit (clearly they do). The question is why should the city (or anyone else) spend literally billions of dollars installing a tram when the same results could be achieved, with greater flexibility, for a tenth of the price using buses. Politicians like shiny toys and ribbon cuttings and glossy renderings, but what commuters need are affordable solutions that can be implemented quickly.

  • But buses don’t move efficiently. About half of the MTA bus routes are inefficient and should probably be discontinued. The proposed light rail provides a ton of bang for the buck. Opposing it makes no sense.

  • kevd

    “If the goal is to demonstrate how great street cars can be Fordham Rd in the Bronx would have been a much better place to do this.”
    While i’m not that familiar with Fordham road it IS the most used bus route in the city.
    That’s, along with pre-existing rights of way are probable that two factors that should be used in determining where to put city funded light rail.
    (the B6 in brooklyn is another good option – mostly devoid of subway access, relatively wide roads, heavy ridership)

  • Can you “whisk” up $2.73 Billion and guarantee completion in 10 years from a 2024 start?

  • Again, look at the numbers. You can spend $3 billion, tear things up for a decade-plus, get ripped off, have teething problems at start, and fight neighborhood opposition. Or you can improve or upgrade 10 bus lines for $1.5 billion using existing infrastructure in just a few years, and apply the rest to the subways. I know which I’ll pick.

  • Yeah, and politicians will bravely back this and people are just going to automatically accept that because of our say-so.

  • In a city without this much corruption, you could. Jersey City, Dallas and Edinburgh did it in under 10 years.

  • Right. And have these buses crawl in a streets full of for-hire cars. And then we’re back to this proposal.

  • cjstephens

    I think you need to go back and read the earlier Streetsblog articles about the BQX and review some of the numbers involved. Reworking a few bus lines to work more efficiently can be done for a tiny fraction of the potential costs of this project, which is a) nothing more than a pipe dream and b) exists only because the governor and the mayor are acting like children and can’t be trusted with a dime of taxpayer money.

  • cjstephens

    You really think that for-hire (or any other) cars aren’t going to get in the way of the toy streetcars? NYPD won’t enforce bus lanes, so why would they provide the enforcement that the streetcar would require?

  • Maybe because the streetcars are way bigger and heavier? I feel like I should write to Warren Buffet or Mike Bloomberg to buy us this system. If you ‘re so concerned over $3 Billion, those guys would be happy to pay out of their own pocket. A light rail system would bring more foot traffic to small businesses, reduce crime, and improve quality of life. Again, opposing this makes zero sense. None.

  • EyesWideOpen

    understandable of course that masshole diblasio would fixate on brooklyn where his fellow invading massholers have infested…

  • Menachem Goldshteyn

    I can’t think of a bigger waste of money. If you want to put something in put it in the middle of the borough where there’s no decent transit and where people will actually use it! Like from Brighton Beach to La Gaurdia Airport. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c317ce8a55b342e8ba9bb7d8d8ffafb6d735f490a72f554c549104e12a68d336.jpg

  • Knut Torkelson

    Buses are also big and heavy and get stuck in traffic all day. These lanes aren’t grade separated. They’re not integrated into the MTA’s transit network, meaning that the majority of lower income NYers won’t be able to afford this in addition to subway/bus fare. There are millions of New Yorkers creaking along inefficient bus routes that could use this money to much greater benefit.

  • I have to disagree. Never in the history of contemporary mass transit has an expansion of mass transit options resulted in loss of local retail revenue or a drop in quality of life. There have been ill-designed lines for sure. But the Brooklyn waterfront is a mass transit desert. This is needed from Sunset Park to Greenpoint.

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