BQX Advocates Make Pitch for Trolley — But Critics Push Back

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

Mayor de Blasio needs to just abandon his beloved $2.7-billion BQX streetcar in favor of more cost-effective, more-useful and, frankly less-innovative transit options, opponents said Thursday at the City Council’s first trolley task force hearing.

The city is still pushing ahead with the BQX, the 11-mile light rail that would run from Red Hook to Astoria, arguing it would serve transit-starved neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, primarily near public housing, and would pay back part of its staggering construction cost from revenue generated by development that would be spurred along its route. The city also claimed it would enhance the mayor’s Vision Zero safety initiative.

But opponents weren’t buying it.

“It’s time to stop wasting time, money, and attention on a proposal founded on fiscal misrepresentations and public relations campaigns rather than sound transportation planning,” said David Bragdon, executive director of the TransitCenter. “New York City is in the throes of a transit crisis, one felt most acutely by millions of riders on city streets who put up with the nation’s slowest bus system. … Through its control of public streets, city government has the power and the obligation to speed up buses and reverse this vicious cycle.”

The mayor originally pitched the BQX in 2016 as a $2.5-billion streetcar running along a 16-mile route from Astoria to Sunset Park (before the city nixed that community) — and claimed the system would entirely pay for itself. But Hizzoner said last summer that the city would need about $1 billion in federal money.

“The BQX is an innovative, forward-looking transportation investment in a key growth corridor that would improve mobility for thousands of New Yorkers,” Christopher Hrones, director of strategic transit initiatives at city Department of Transportation, told the Council’s task force.

Here’s how the city is making its case — with response from opponents.

Vision Zero

The Department of Transportation argued that the BQX would support the city’s Vision Zero by implementing key street-safety redesigns like sidewalk extensions, medians, and lane reductions.

“Not only a challenge but an opportunity to re-envision how our streets in these neighborhoods can be transformed into spaces that prioritize transit, pedestrians, and bicycles over automobiles,” said Hrones. “We would integrate many of our key Vision Zero tools that we employ to reduce serious injuries and fatalities into the BQX project.”

But the city doesn’t need a multibillion-dollar light rail to implement those life-saving safety measures — especially after the spike in traffic fatalities this year.

“Of course the city could do the traffic calming without blowing $3 billion and tearing up a wide swath of the city for 5+ years” said Bike New York’s Jon Orcutt.

But what about a bus?

Officials testified that the city is also studying building out a new Bus Rapid Transit line — also known as Select Bus Service — if the forthcoming BQX environmental review suggests that the trolley isn’t viable.

Hrones said an “initial assessment” ranked the BQX on top, but considered bus rapid transit “a second ranking one — and one worthy of further exploration.”

The EDC and DOT plan to begin the Environmental Impact Statement process this fall, which will determine if the mayor’s proposed light rail can in fact generate enough cash to offset some of its costs and benefit a large enough ridership.

If not, the route could be turned into a BRT route — but the $7.5 million the city says it’s already spent on consultants would be down the drain.

Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who has long opposed the trolley, held out hope that the environmental review would change the mayor’s mind.

“We want better mass transit options, chiefly for residents of public housing,” he said. “But … is it possible you come back at that point and say the (Bus Rapid Transit) is actually the more doable option?”

Other opponents put it more plainly: Why not improve existing service instead of building an entirely new type of service?

“Bus service, which would offer equal or superior transit service, could be implemented far more cheaply, and more quickly, as well,” said StreetsPAC’s Eric McClure.

But Economic Development Corporation Executive Vice President Seth Myers later explained that the BQX would be better than a bus line because the trolley would raise property values even more than a bus would.

“Studies have shown [Select Bus Service] generates a smaller transit premium,” he said. He also claimed an SBS route only saves 30 percent on capital costs — an assertion that went unchecked.

It’s always about parking

One aspect of the project most celebrated by transit and safe-street advocates is that it would require the elimination of 2,000 parking spots along its route.

But even one of the most safe-street-friendly pols in the city council is skeptical that it would be an easy win.

“I’m a supporter [of reducing parking], but I want to hear from NYCHA residents about what they think about removing parking,” said Brooklyn Council Member Carlos Menchaca, whose district includes Sunset Park and Red Hook and also opposed the BQX.

Who is going to pay for it?

When Mayor de Blasio proudly announced the developer-backed streetcar in 2016, he said it would entirely pay for itself through increased property taxes generated by homes and commercial buildings along the route.

But two years later, he said it actually needs a $1-billion check from the federal government. 

And with President Trump — who publicly blasted de Blasio when he launched his presidential campaign earlier this month — in office until at least 2021, it seems unlikely that the city will get the cash to have the BQX running by 2029 as planned, said Van Bramer.

“The federal contribution, that’s a change from the beginning. I understand plans change … but the current occupant [in the White House] is not necessarily the most friendly to New York City,” he said. “How do you anticipate overcoming that barrier if we continue to have a hostile occupant in the White House?”

Ahead of the hearing, more than 100 BQX supporters — including Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; Jessica Schumer, executive director of advocacy group Friends of the BQX; and local community groups — rallied on the steps of City Hall to push for the light rail.

“The BQX represents exactly the type of bold and visionary thinking our city needs if we are going to continue to grow equitably and increase opportunity for New Yorkers,” said Schumer. “The BQX has the potential to connect this fast-growing corridor and create a new spine of our city through affordable, accessible and efficient mass transit.”

BQX supporters rally at City Hall. Photo credit: Fabian Gomez
BQX supporters rally at City Hall. Photo credit: Fabian Gomez
  • Dan

    If not, the route could be turned into a BRT route — but the $7.5 million the city says it’s already spent on consultants would be down the drain.

    What solid logic. “We already spent $7.5 million so therefore we MUST build something that costs billions of dollars so we don’t waste that money!” The difference in cost for the bus would make up that money easily.

  • ughBQXagain

    The term Select Bus Service seems like a much less sexy name for Bus Rapid Transit. I wonder if actually calling it BRT would make it more appealing. Do we not call these routes BRT because they aren’t actually implemented as such or just because someone wanted to be different? Make the BQX a properly implemented BRT route and it would be just as sexy as a streetcar and far less expensive.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Economic Development Corporation Executive Vice President Seth Myers later explained that the BQX would be better than a bus line because the trolley would raise property values even more than a bus would.”

    For property much of which is exempt from property taxes for three decades under 421a, later changed to 45 years! by this Mayor and Governor.

    The question isn’t just who is going to pay for the BQX. It is who is going to pay for all the public services used by residents of those buildings.

    “Progressives,” as they seem to be defined in this century, want higher taxes overall, but hand out special tax deals to special people like candy. It is almost as if it doesn’t matter which direction income redistribution is going, as long as income is being redistributed (and some of it is being kicked back).

    Perhaps this, like the line in the budget for federal funding of teacher pensions, is about DeBlasio for President. The UFT, the real estate industry, and the anti-carriage activists — and screw the rest of us.

    Don’t think if DeBlasio is elected and there is federal money to pay for all those pension increases scored by the UFT and the BQE, that is going to be additional money for NYC. It would be offset by cuts in other education and transit funding, and perhaps other federal funding overall. With the cost lied about and deferred so Generation Greed won’t feel any of it.

  • Andrew

    Select Bus Service is a brand name. Most BRT systems have brand names, and branding is typically considered an important component of BRT.

    In New York, I don’t agree that branding is particularly important -people will ride the bus, regardless of branding, if the bus is useful to them, and they won’t if it isn’t. The SBS name serves primarily to notify riders of the different fare payment process.

    Presumably that difference will go away once OMNY is fully in place. At that point, retire the SBS name and apply targeted SBS-style improvements wherever they’re warranted, not necessarily on a full-route basis.

  • Geck

    It seems to me, whether it turn out to be light rail or BRT, the key to its success is a dedicated right-of-way and vision zero tool box complete-street enhancements and pedestrianization and/or “shared spaces” at key locations along the route, and that is what advocates should be focused on.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is what I have observed for a long time, and has bothered me for a long time.

    I might have expected that policies that favor the majority of people and/or the disadvantaged would be pushed through in the run up to elections, for current or higher office, because that’s when politicians are most accountable. Whereas special deals for already privileged interests would quietly take place as far away from elections as possible, hopefully to be forgotten.

    Instead we see the opposite. Policies to favor already privileged interests get proposed and enacted in the run up to elections. Whereas anything fair and/or forward looking — DeBlasio’s pre-K or Vision Zero for example — only takes place as far away from elections as possible, when politicians think they can “get away with it.” Which in the state legislature is NEVER.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The question needs to be asked — why the hell should this cost $2.7 billion? At that price, how the hell can light rail ever be built in this city? Everything new in transit turns out to be a gold plated monster — even as most of the system becomes a hell ride for the serfs.

    Perhaps certain things could be stripped out, with incrementalism. If you are going to run buses in a corridor, then you’ll have to buy buses. If… IF! the price is reasonable, streetcars should cost no more, or less than buses — more up front, but with a longer life.

    Then the question is the right of way. How much of it is overpriced Local 3 electrical work, to fund pension increases two decades ago? Get rid of it! Just put down tracks! And make it track panels, large sections dropped in place and paved around. That’s just like milling and repaving a street.

    We are heading for electric cars and buses. So have the electric streetcars roll on battery power, and you only need fixed location power at the ends of the route. Perhaps at a later date overhead wires could be added in a few sections, so the cars could raise pantographs and power up en route.

    The buses don’t need signals, and the streetcars Brooklyn had decades ago didn’t need signals, so why do the new streetcars? It certainly doesn’t cost $billions to install the traffic lights NYC has at every intersection. Hire those people and do regular traffic signals instead. These cars wouldn’t be running underground in tunnels, where there is no line of sight.

    Stations with level boarding? A fine amenity on a route with enough traffic to justify it. But not this one. So paint some pads, and buy cars with stairs and lifts like those on buses, that can be modified to level boarding if platforms are added later — if ridership justifies it.

    And, of course, NYC could just start with BRT and then work up even to this.

  • qrt145

    Not a great brand name in my opinion. Unlike TransMilenio, which sounds futuristic, we got a name reminiscent of the military draft.

  • cjstephens

    I’m pretty sure that the point of these obviously stupid dead-on-arrival schemes is to provide income to politically connected “consultants”, not to provide actual transit improvements. I mean, c’mon, they have Jessica Schumer on the payroll, for crying out loud. If this were about providing transit, they would have installed SBS years ago and been done with it.

  • Georgie

    The BQX fiscally can not be built. Construction costs and delivery cost of materials would be astronomical. The new revenue streams for the MTA will be diverted to funding for collective bargaining agreements and will not be available for repairing the transit infrastructure, never mind new projects. One only has to look at the the cost per mile of new subway tracks for the Second Avenue line and the 7 train extension to see how a project like this could spin out of control.

  • The QBX.

  • bolwerk

    Pretty much 100% of the people who see BRT as “sexy” are non-transit riders trying to avoid letting governments fund proper transit.

    This is a perfectly good streetcar route, but NYC needs to get its costs under control for every mode. In 2015, the city or MTA priced out $2B for 15 miles of SBS route. The price of getting streetcar route up should be well under $100M/mile, and SBS should be much less than that to make up for the higher operating costs of buses.

    There is no place for a TransMilenio-like bus system in NYC, unless you can appropriate something like the BQE for that purpose. I’d be all for it, but I have yet to see a “BRT” advocate ever embrace the idea.

  • bolwerk

    Andrew is right. I think most of us have managed to get by with “the bus” and “the train” for pretty much our whole lives. I’d guess almost nobody uses TransMilenio because of its name either, and most are using it because they don’t have a more convenient choice. This idea that there is “sexy” transit is a strawman.

  • bolwerk

    Everything costs too much. Build nothing. They priced the Woodhaven Blvd. SBS service (one of the few places in NYC where so-called BRT actually makes some sense) at either $1B or $2B in 2015.

    Signals may not be needed, but they would provide probably provide a modest improvement in speed (e.g., by not having to stop for red lights).

  • Larry Littlefield

    They reprogram lights to move traffic all the time. It doesn’t cost $billions, because it doesn’t require consultants and a decade of review.

  • bolwerk

    Not saying this is what they’re doing (I stopped paying attention), but it’s at least possible to use railroad signaling on a streetcar system to squeeze out a little better performance. But that shouldn’t cost billions$ either.

  • AMH

    Queens Boulevard Express! Now there’s a corridor that could use more rail.

  • AMH

    It’s so weird when people say stuff like “I took the MTA” – like, what does that mean? You took the subway? The bus? The LIRR?

  • AMH

    This is the textbook definition of a sunk cost.

  • Andrew

    I agree, the name is pretty uninspired – one of the reasons I wouldn’t mind seeing it retired.

  • Andrew

    I think it’s mostly newcomers who say that, to make it look like they’ve mastered the lingo, when in fact they most assuredly haven’t.

  • qrt145

    I’ve literally never heard anyone say “I took the MTA”. 🙂

  • Joe R.

    I would love for the EDC Vice President to explain to me exactly what is good about raising property values in a city which already has among the highest property values in the world. Sure, it might be good for developers and real estate speculators, but it’s awful for anyone else. I’ve love for an elected official to actually come out and say they’re going to do everything in their power to lower property values. That would actually benefit the working stiffs in this city.

  • Ken Grant

    BQX is the worst transit idea ever. Construction would cripple the route’s streets for years. Costs would be astronomical. As a surface rail-based system sharing city streets, BQX could be stopped cold by a single traffic accident anywhere along the route (buses could simply go around the problem). Better bus routes would be faster and cheaper to build, easier to maintain and infinitely easier to modify as our needs change.

  • bolwerk

    I’ve never heard that either, and the closest cultural reference I can come to something like that is “Charlie on the MTA” – so maybe it was a colloquialism in Boston at one time? (Still?)

    10 or 15 years ago you could still hear older New Yorkers ask where the IRT is. That generation must really be dying out now.

  • bolwerk

    It is a much better place for light rail, at least to start a network. Also it could go directly over the Queensborough Bridge, offering instant relief (and backup) to the Astoria trains, which receive a lot of transfers from the 7 before they go into Manhattan.

  • bolwerk

    There isn’t really any technical challenge to having had rail installed several years ago. So you’re probably right; they are milking it.

  • AMH

    It’s not that common, but I do hear it with some regularity.

    I definitely hear old-school folks refer to the IRT, IND and BMT as well!

  • Michael R King, TrafficCalmer

    I wish we could have an agency & mode-agnostic discussion about the BQX. I don’t really care if NYC or the MTA build it. And whether it is LRT or BRT is mostly a question of $$ and turning radius. What I would like to focus on is that NYC needs more transit, and along the waterfront is undeserved. Also, re-envisioning a corridor along the waterfront for transit will trigger a serious discussion about parking & development, which is sorely needed. In my work around the world, it takes a big ticket item like a new transit line to spur these discussions and advance green mobility.

  • Andrew

    Sorry, you may have been eavesdropping on me in that second sentence.

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