Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar project faces major challenges

One year down, and many more long years to go for Mayor de Blasio’s Brooklyn-Queens Connector.

Since the mayor first unveiled his vision for a waterfront streetcar, known as the BQX, at his 2016 State of the City address, his administration has held a round of public meetings and released a 25-page report outlining potential street choices for the project’s 16-mile route from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens.

More public outreach will come, according to Adam Giambrone, the city’s director of the BQX, as he heads full steam into major logistical challenges.

“The project that we have here — that we’re looking at — is still very much in flux,” Giambrone said during a streetcar panel discussion hosted by the Regional Plan Association ‪Tuesday evening.

In a city of subways and buses, “we have a real opportunity here with an intermediary mode,” Giambrone said, arguing that building a streetcar could also be a simpler task than another new subway. “Large rail projects are expensive, they are difficult to plan, difficult to put in place.”

Giambrome pointed to the $4.5 billion price tag for the first leg of the Second Avenue subway, which took nearly a century to fund and build.

“We kind of look at streetcars and light rail as a technology whose time has come and is something that needs to be in the mix here in New York,” RPA president Tom Wright said, addressing the crowd, a mix of transit enthusiasts and local residents, who grumbled over street space. One public speaker warned that the city “was taking away parking as we speak” in his Sunset Park neighborhood.

Streetcars, America’s transit de jour, have proven difficult operations in other cities like Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Beyond the latent ire of community boards in New York, there are major hurdles revolving around nearly every aspect of the project, including how the streetcar will interact with vehicles; the use of value capture financing; and its placement in a flood-prone corridor.

“This is fraught with all kinds of roadblocks and when you start with [the] huge question mark of whether it’s needed in the first place, I don’t see this as happening,” said Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College. “If you look at the areas that are underserved by transit, it’s not the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront.”

Other transit experts believe the city is oversimplifying the scope of the project. De Blasio’s streetcars would carry almost 50,000 riders per day at a speed of about 12 miles per hour, according to city estimates. When you weigh costs and capacity against the Second Avenue subway, the BQX doesn’t add up, said Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for TransitCenter.

“It’s going to be one of the biggest street projects of all time,” said Orcutt, the former policy director at the city’s Department of Transportation. “Are we essentially building a $2 billion bus that can’t be moved during flooding? We’re not confident that this is going to be any faster than a bus.”

The streetcar was first proposed by the Friends of the BQX, a support group with several large development firms on its executive committee and board of directors. De Blasio has had to vehemently fight the perception that the streetcar isn’t a handout to developers in an area that is not quite the “transit desert” that he describes.

A trip on the BQX would cost the going rate of a MetroCard, but it’s still unclear if the BQX will be integrated with the MTA’s fare payment system.

Last month, David Jones, de Blasio’s own MTA board appointee, criticized the mayor for simultaneously declining to fund a MetroCard subsidy for low-income New Yorkers while supporting the Citywide Ferry Service and the BQX — projects for “millennials who have a lot of money and can pay two fares,” Jones said.

“From my perspective, any time you give people more options in transportation and it’s affordable on its face — that’s a good day for New York City,” de Blasio said at a Citywide Ferry Service event on Wednesday. “Affordability of mass transit is a crucial issue; availability of mass transit is another crucial issue. Right now we don’t have enough mass transit options.

“This is a world of choices,” he added.