New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s new “streetcar czar,” Adam Giambrone, calls subways “a twentieth-century technology.” Given the reactionary nostalgia at the core of progressivism, it’s no surprise that Giambrone is leading the charge for nineteenth-century transportation technology. Giambrone is pushing the $2.5 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), a light-rail project running near the East River shoreline from Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. While this fast-growing strip of New York needs more mass transit, the BQX would be financially—and, sometimes, literally—underwater. For a fraction of the cost, these neighborhoods could be better served through improved bus service and direct subway access to Manhattan.
Streetcars went extinct because they snarled traffic. This was problematic by the 1920s even in low-density Los Angeles, which began junking its Pacific Electric Railway Red Cars because of rising automobile congestion. Unlike balmy L.A., a grade-level streetcar system in New York City would face winter snowdrifts and intermittent torrential rains—not to mention hurricanes and nor’easters that could fry the entire system with seawater. Much of the proposed route runs through flood zones.
The New York region should avoid building major new mass-transit projects unless they are absolutely necessary, given the heavy capital demands for already-planned projects and a poor management record. Recent projects—such as the Fulton Transit Hub, Calatrava PATH Terminal, LIRR East Side Access, and Flushing 7 line extension—have featured huge overruns and extensive delays, while critical upgrades such as a new Hudson River rail tunnel have been put off. Once built, publicly owned projects become eternal, sucking up capital and operating expenses. Thus, the Roosevelt Island Tramway, scheduled to be retired after the opening of the F line 63rd Street Tunnel—and far past the end of its useful life—received a $25 million overhaul (representing a 66 percent cost overrun), despite carrying only about 8,000 passengers each weekday.
BQX will be the first transit system run by New York City since the state-created Metropolitan Transit Authority took over operation of the city’s subways in 1968. The city faces daunting planning, engineering, and environmental challenges that it may not be up to. BQX will need to insert tracks and electrical equipment into 16 miles of nineteenth century streets. Running through six community-planning districts, it will require two entirely new bridges across Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal—both navigable waterways that are Superfund sites located in wetlands. While the Port Authority’s Bayonne Bridge project, which merely raises the bridge deck, required four years of expedited environmental review before court challenges, the BQX will face a battery of city, state, and federal permitting requirements. Its timeline would resemble the Second Avenue subway’s 90-year Phase I, or that of a medieval cathedral.
BQX is unnecessary. Its proposed route parallels the routes of nearby subways—and the de Blasio administration’s planned ferries—but mostly doesn’t connect with them. Its appeal will be limited to people travelling along the corridor, a strip with few destination amenities (save the modest exception of the Williamsburg core). The de Blasio administration has made inflated claims that the BQX would serve almost 50,000 passengers per weekday. Yet, a 2013 city study indicates that a maximum of 100,000 people live in the waterfront neighborhoods along the route. Many already use MTA mass transit, such as the G line, which runs about a half-mile from the BQX along much of its route and connects to the rest of the subway system (the G has only 125,000 daily weekday riders). Inhabitants of housing projects near BQX, whom the administration claims will be primary beneficiaries, will prefer MTA routes that access a wide range of New York City neighborhoods, jobs, and amenities.
Light rail projects invariably have light ridership and high costs. New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail cost $2.2 billion, without ever managing to reach Bergen County. Though running 18 miles through some of the densest urban neighborhoods in America, it serves just 46,800 riders per weekday. Using reasonable assumptions, each ride costs $20; the fare is just $2.25. At least Hudson-Bergen, unlike BQX, largely runs on existing rail rights-of-way and connects to PATH, NJ Transit, and the Hudson River ferries. Washington, D.C.’s $200 million H Street line, which carries 2,625 passengers along its 1.9-mile route each weekday, opened after a decade of delays without ever reaching low-income, transit-starved Anacostia. (On the first day, the Washington Post reports, riding the H Street line was just a minute faster than walking.) H Street passengers ride free; for the line’s capital cost, you could buy each of them 38 years of Uber rides along the length of the route. Atlanta spent $98 million on a streetcar running just 2.7 miles. Once a $1 fare was introduced, ridership dropped by 48 percent, with a 50 percent fare-evasion rate.
Instead of BQX, New York could fund MTA upgrades to the bus connections between waterfront neighborhoods and nearby subway stops, and increase G line frequency. With 76 percent of G line rides requiring transfers, a subway upgrade may be in order. The tracks could possibly be reconfigured to create direct G service to Manhattan via the Jay St.-Metrotech and Court Square stations. This is likely to be less costly than either BQX or the 1.5 mile 7 train extension to Hudson Yards. If a land-based public-transportation line is truly needed along the waterfront, the city could inexpensively provide select-bus service along the BQX route, and, as with current MTA bus routes, use existing bridges to cross Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.
This fast-growing corner of New York City needs improved mass transit. A cost-effective upgrade would free up resources for truly underserved middle- and working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.
Photo by Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector