By Jaime DeJesus
Mayor Bill de Blasio may just get the street car he desires.
The city is moving forward with a proposal to connect waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens with a streetcar known as the Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX), but critics say the route devotes too many resources to wealthier neighborhoods already served by transportation.
On Thursday, De Blasio announced that the administration will proceed with revised plans for the BQX, a nearly $2.8 billion streetcar project that would stretch along the waterfront for 11 miles and connect to nine ferry landings, 13 subway routes and 30-plus bus lines.
The route will connect Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook.
“The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has experienced incredible growth. Now it’s time for our transit system to catch up,” said de Blasio. “The BQX is one of the biggest, most ambitious projects in a generation. It will be a challenge, but New York City is taking it on.”
Long Island City in particular has experienced rapid growth. It is the fastest growing neighborhood in terms of new apartment development in the United States.
“The Brooklyn-Queens Connector will serve over half a million New Yorkers who live and work along the East River waterfront and need modern transportation options that meet their everyday needs,” added NYCEDC President James Patchett. “The BQX will link long-disconnected neighborhoods, shorten commutes to school and work, and provide a 21st century solution to our city’s transit challenges.”
The environmental impact study process will begin this winter, followed by the city’s mandated land use review, ULURP, in 2020. Construction is expected to begin in 2024 and end in 2029. The city will seek federal funding, among other sources, to deliver the project.
First-year ridership is expected to be 50,000 per day; the cost of a ride is expected to be the same as subway and buses.
“As the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront continues to grow, adding new residents and jobs each year, the city must pursue multiple transportation solutions,” said New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. “The BQX has the potential to be an integral part of our city’s expanding transportation system. It will complement and connect to our subway and bus system, the NYC ferry, and bike share, while transforming city streets.”
The city specifically touts the northern portion of the BQX route, which will run along 21st Street from 44th Drive in Long Island City until it reaches the intersection of 21st Street and Astoria Boulevard.
“This segment will provide transit equity to three NYCHA developments—Ravenswood Houses, Queensbridge Houses, and Astoria Houses—that are isolated in their location near the waterfront from the robust transit infrastructure at Hunters Point and Long Island City,” the plan states.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic.
“[More than] $2 billion to serve gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn & Queens. How about $2 billion for actual affordable housing in NYC?” said Queens Community Board 5 member Dennis Stephen. “This thing will never get off the ground.”
Jeff Coltin, a City & State reporter, joked that the line closely mirrors the existing G train, which connects Brooklyn with Court Square in Queens.
“City looking very closely into building backup G train that runs above the current G train,” Coltin said on Twitter.
Council Member Carlos Menchaca cautioned that the project is closely tied to the private sector and could radically reshape already gentrifying areas.
“We must not forget that the BQX proposal was made by private interests who see an opportunity to benefit their investments along the proposed route,” Menchaca said. “Besides EDC taking up the cause, no other relevant entity — such as the city DOT or MTA — has weighed in on the economic or environmental impact of this project.”
“EDC has not established convincingly enough why the streetcar is necessary,” Menchaca continued. “We know private property owners and other major waterfront developments in North Brooklyn will benefit from the streetcar. The question is whether the public will, or if it will just displace lots of people and businesses who had no need of the streetcar to begin with.”
Some Sunset Park residents are glad that their neighborhood is being left out of the plan.
“I believe it is not because of public response, although that would be nice to believe,” said Tony Giordano, the founder of Sunset Parker Facebook page. “I think it was doomed from the start for two technical reasons – the first the drawbridge over the Gowanus. I think this was the fatal flaw. The second was the narrowing of the commuter vehicle route along Third Avenue [that would have resulted from the streetcar being routed along the strip]. I think they realized that logistically it would have been impossible to deal with the loss of two traffic lanes.”
The city hopes to generate $30 billion in economic impact from the project, with around $1.4 billion in “value capture,” or public financing that recoups a portion value that public infrastructure generates for property owners, to help finance its construction.
The administration also hopes to connect mixed-income neighborhoods to jobs and transit hubs; provide affordable, reliable, and accessible service; and support transit-oriented development and safer streets.
“BQX taps into state-of-the-art transit tech to respond to and build upon the evolution of the Brooklyn Queens waterfront,” said Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen. “With more than half a million people now living and working along the projected line and further growth to come, BQX will transform how our city moves.”
The BQX will also connect over 400,000 New Yorkers to emerging employment hubs along the corridor.
The mayor, speaking at a recent press roundtable with reporters on Aug. 23, said that the plan depends on a federal subsidy to happen — and there’s no sign of that yet.
“It’s a no-brainer,” de Blasio said during the event. “The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is so much of our future. Figuring out how to do it is what we’ve been focusing on.”