New York Has a Streetcar Plan That Isn't Totally Awful

That said, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront connector is far from perfect.

Image Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector
Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

There tend to be three main problems with the way modern streetcars get planned in American cities.

One is related to mobility: when streetcar tracks run in mixed traffic, that leads to conflicts with cars and a glacial service that’s often slower than walking. Another is related to economic development: local leaders spend limited public transportation funding on projects that primarily benefit private real estate interests. A third is that light rail is unnecessarily proposed along a corridor where the good old city bus could do the mobility job and some basic street improvements the economic one.

New York City’s proposed Brooklyn-Queens waterfront streetcar connector gets almost a point on the first metric, half a point on the second, and an incomplete on the third—a meh grade that nevertheless ranks it among the most encouraging trolley plans in the U.S. at the moment. The BQX idea being pushed by the developer Two Trees Management, championed by a coalition called Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, and now politically backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio is clearly not a perfect plan. But it’s also not clearly an awful one.

Ben Kabak of 2nd Ave. Sagas probably put it best: “I don’t hate this idea so long as it’s implemented properly.”

Mobility: most of a point

Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times reports that the proposed BQX runs 16 miles along the water from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens. It passes through a number of emerging residential, commercial, and employment centers. The connector connects two boroughs that deserve more direct connections (it’s a connector!) and would be situated near 45,000 public housing residents.

New York City Mayor’s Office

So far so good. And Grynbaum reports that the design might “physically separate” the light rail vehicles from cars on the road. The existing renderings show no such barriers, but Kabak has been told that the city wants “more than 70 percent of the streetcar route to run on a dedicated right of way.” Also good. Better: 100 percent separation, with limited stops, and transit-signal priority.

Ultimately it’s impossible to award a full point on mobility until the full plans show how well the BQX links into the existing subway network—both in terms of easy transfers and a shared fare system. If the services align well, that’s a real boost to outer-borough transit. If they don’t, it’s a real missed opportunity.

Funding: half a point

The cost of the BQX is being estimated at $2.5 billion. That may well be “significantly less than a new underground subway line,” as Grynbaum reports, though that’s only true in the exploding anti-gravity universe that is U.S. rail costs.

In any event, the exact price tag is less important than who’s footing the bill, and here’s where the BQX earns its half-point. The city will get reimbursed for the streetcar costs by new tax revenue generated from increased property values along the line—a value capture approach used in places with successful transit funding schemes, like Hong Kong, and as well as in New York during the Bloomberg era to pay for the 7 train extension. If economic development is the main goal of a transit project, then it’s private developers and not the riding public who should pay for it.

Value capture is a great way to fund transit extensions so long as the developers in question don’t get other tax benefits that offset whatever costs the line imposes—a big if that requires strong oversight. Streetsblog’s Ben Fried suggests the BQX corridor would have hit peak development on its own. If that’s the case, he writes, then “the project is funded by skimming property tax revenue that would have been collected anyway.” The only discounted rides on the new streetcar line should go to the low-income residents living along it.

Better alternatives: incomplete

The last metric is whether a bus would serve the same corridor equally well at a much lower cost. Market Urbanism tweets an estimate of some 32,000 bus riders a day along the waterfront. That’s a solid ridership core, but it’s one on the order of Select Bus Service being proposed for Woodhaven, Queens—not, say the Second Avenue subway or even the outer-borough X line.

So, knowing that it’s far easier to transform a bus line into a rail route than vice versa, you have to ask why the city or the developers would want a costly streetcar where a cheaper vehicle technology would do just fine. The answer, sadly, may have something to do with a general aversion toward buses among the types of well-off folks moving into the waterfront area. Michael Kimmelman of the Times captured this sentiment in a piece about the connector from 2014:

Why a streetcar? Buses are a more obvious solution. Improved bus service is an easier sell, faster to get up and running, and cheaper up front. A bus would be ... fine.

But where’s the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change.

That’s as much the problem with the modern streetcar as it is a selling point. A streetcar is an inflexible mode that can’t be adjusted with ridership and residential shifts. The idea that it’s necessary to encourage economic improvement is also a fallacy—spotlighted by my colleague Kriston Capps, who wrote back in May 2014 that H Street in Washington, D.C. was coming up long before the streetcar started running (which, by the way, it hasn’t yet). The same can arguably be said for the bustling BQ waterfront.

So until more details are clear—namely, how ridership will reach the more rail-worthy estimate of 16 million a year by 2035, and why an incremental upgrade via select bus service isn’t an option—this alternatives metric gets a (generous) incomplete. A streetcar may be a lasting commitment, but the real question is whether it’s a smart marriage or a union bound to end in divorce.

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