(Photo by Gerri Hernandez, courtesy of Friends of the BQX)
Last week the the group Friends of the BQX showed off a prototype of a streetcar the organization hopes could be the newest form of transportation for the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. The event took place at the sparkling, new industry and innovation hub New Lab, which is located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The proposed $2.5 billion project would build a 14-mile streetcar line along the waterfront from Astoria to Sunset Park, including stops in Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook.
Because of the nature of who’s behind the Friends of the BQX group—particularly real estate developers, investors, chambers of commerce—it might not be surprising there’s pushback from activists and neighborhood groups. And in fact, there is.
“It is a luxury trolley for rich people along the waterfront that is expected to massively raise property values and rents, and ultimately result in the displacement of working class families,” explained a spokesman for the group Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, when we reached out to them for comment.
The state of transportation in New York, especially intra-borough transportation, is not good. Although many of the neighborhoods that would be served by the streetcar are some of the highest-income in the entire borough, others, like Red Hook and Sunset Park, are not. The Friends of the BQX board of directors includes not only mega-developers like Tishman Speyer and Two Trees, but also includes representation from neighborhood organizations like the Red Hook Initiative, LaGuardia Community College, and Brooklyn native Carmelo Anthony’s Melo7 Tech Partners.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams explained that he sees the project as one which connects “historically underserved transit deserts and unlock the full potential of our neighborhoods,” his office said in an email. “That vision is captured by the BQX proposal.”
The strain on NYC’s transportation system can be relieved through rail improvements, upgrades, and new technology. The BQX has the potential to be an example of how light rail service can help move residents not just to & from Manhattan but throughout the 5 boroughs @BQXNYC pic.twitter.com/ywLTXp5A8L
— Regional Plan (@RegionalPlan) November 13, 2017
But others, including those deep in the transit and urban planning world, argue that if the point of the project is really to upgrade transportation to those neighborhoods needing it most, that could be done more easily and less expensively in other ways.
Tabitha Decker, the deputy executive director of the urban planning foundation TransitCenter, explained that Red Hook’s transit needs would best be served by a bus line connection to Manhattan through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and that one of the highest density transportation deserts is the area around Utica Ave., which runs through the less developer-friendly neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Flatbush, which the BQX doesn’t address at all.
“The BQX corridor’s ridership doesn’t even come close to warranting a major capacity increase,” Decker explained in an email. “The very features that will be required to ensure a streetcar is faster than a bus, namely true dedicated lanes, could be used to make the buses that currently run on that route faster and more reliable now.”
But there are critics in the tech community as well, such as Shaun Abramson, a venture capitalist at the firm Urban Us, which invests in companies attempting to address urban issues.
“On purely tech terms, my sense is that streetcars are probably not the place to invest, as things like driverless electric buses come online,” he wrote in an email. “It feels like buying a bunch of servers just as cloud computing is announced.”
The recent history of urban streetcars is checkered. Portland seems to have a good one, with annual ridership of 4.6 million. More recently, the DC Streetcar has been a catastrophe, pruning back its plans from a proposed five lines to one that runs just 2.2 miles in the northeast part of the city. It has racked up a pricetag of more than $200 million, much more than the city had originally planned.
When reached for comment, a spokesman for the Friends of the BQX replied that the project is a “no-brainer.”
“The notion that we shouldn’t provide transit to communities long in need of better options for fear of gentrification only perpetuates the cycles of poverty that projects like the BQX aim to break,” the Friends of the BQX spokesman wrote in an email. “The BQX is just as much about economic justice as it is transportation, which is why it is supported by thousands of NYCHA residents living in the 8 complexes along the waterfront, along with a wide cross-section of community organizations, small businesses, health care and higher education institutions and more.”
The spokesman also noted that the BQX would connect to several high-density employment centers sprouting up in the neighborhoods along the line. These would include the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which just opened a million new square feet of office space geared toward tech companies. Another is Industry City in Sunset Park, the mega-project that covers 40 acres and 16 buildings of manufacturing, design, and tech companies. And it will soon include 25 Kent, which is under construction in Williamsburg, but which will soon be half a million gleaming square feet of upscale waterfront office space.
Public perception of the BQX might be lagging.
This spring, the Daily News reported a leaked memo with the De Blasio administration, which, according to the tabloid, “laid out a brutal assessment of the construction and financial challenges.” The city would have to dig up and move “a maze of water mains, sewer lines and power utilities buried beneath the 16-mile route,” according to the story. And the idea that the system would pay for itself with an increase in tax receipts from the neighborhoods affected, might not add up to “sufficient revenue to fund the entire project as originally stated.”
More recently, the Times published a dazzlingly thorough report on the negligence of the city’s subway system this weekend, which detailed, among many other problems, how the state has diverted needed money away from core maintenance issues in favor of projects with higher visibility, such as station renovations and upgrades. The consequence has been, according to the report, the awful service New Yorkers continue to enjoy. It’s unclear how the flashy and expensive BQX project would be affected by such a sentiment, if it lingers, but…probably not helpful.
Still, the project powers on with support from the administration and from Borough President Adams.
“To be sure, there are key details that need resolution before this project can advance,” his office wrote in an email. But added that “the growth of our emerging job hubs is stifled by the severe lack of transit connecting them with our workforce… I am confident that the City can work productively in a community-led process on issues such as route design, financing structure, and MTA fare integration.”
Over at TransitCenter, Tabitha Decker was not blinking.
“We doubt the BQX will even break ground during the DeBlasio administration,” she wrote.