Three years after Mayor Bill de Blasio first proposed building a $2 billion-plus streetcar along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront — a project initially cooked up by Two Trees developer Jed Walentas and other waterfront landholders — the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a.k.a. BQX, got its first city council hearing Thursday morning when the council's BQX Task Force met to hear testimony from city officials and an update on the battered project's status.
As is de rigueur at council hearings, the morning began with testimony from city officials. New York City Economic Development Corporation executive vice president Seth Myers cited the streetcar's projected "$30 billion in economic benefits over 40 years" (up from $25 billion in EDC's original 2016 internal estimate), and how waterfront light rail would join ferries in helping "stitch together the gaps left by the subway system."
Department of Transportation director of strategic initiatives Christopher Hrones added that his agency was excited to work on "new designs that make walking, biking, and using transit safer and more efficient" and using such 21st-century innovations as sidewalk extensions and traffic calming to ensure that streetcars can coexist with other street users. (Helpful game for making it through your next council hearing: Whenever a city official says "innovative," drink. But only play at home, as eating and drinking are forbidden in the council chambers.)
The most notable figure dropped in the city officials' testimony was $2.7 billion, the latest cost estimate for the entire project. That's a full billion dollars more than the original projected price tag, and a $200 million hike from the city's 2016 cost number — even after cutting the BQX route short to eliminate Sunset Park.
Though the BQX was originally sold as paying for itself via "value capture" of increased property taxes along the streetcar route, by last year the estimated new tax revenue had been lowered to $1.3-1.4 billion, with the other half of the cost awaiting unspecified federal funding.
These numbers were raised repeatedly by Carlos Menchaca, the BQX Task Force chair and Sunset Park and Red Hook councilmember who drew attention last December for comparing de Blasio and his streetcar to an emperor without any clothes. (The task force was organized last year by the five councilmembers whose districts the streetcar would run through: Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso, Costa Constantinides, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Stephen Levin.) Menchaca set the tone for the morning by declaring that he wanted to "start with the origin and cost" of BQX: Who came up with this plan, and how did it reach $2.7 billion?
Neither question was exactly answered in the back-and-forth that followed. Myers said the initial BQX idea came from a group of "community and local owners and residents along the alignment," and called both the latest $2.7 billion cost estimate and the $1.4 billion tax benefit "conservative"; as for financing, he said that "we plan to seek additional funds" from the federal government.
Eventually, Menchaca switched gears, displaying a slide that he said showed bus rapid transit — the limited-stop express bus system that New York has rebranded as Select Bus Service — has comparatively high ridership and low costs. "How does the BQX become #1 on your analysis sheets?"
The answer, according to Myers, is that "studies have shown [Select Bus Service] generates a smaller transit premium" — the resulting rise in property values along a transit light — while providing only a 30 percent savings in capital costs.
If buses are indeed cheaper, but streetcars are so damn cool that they generate more in additional new property taxes than you'd save on the added costs, that is clearly a valid argument for building streetcars as opposed to buses, or maybe building neither, at least not in a flood zone. (Other cities' comparative cost estimates for the two transit methods are all over the place, varying even more when comparing cost per-passenger vs. per-mile.) Myers didn't provide details of how EDC estimated these comparative costs and revenues, and Menchaca didn't ask. Gothamist has reached out to EDC for more information, and we will update this report once we hear back.
The main takeaway from the hearing was less about any hard data, though, than about political side-taking: Menchaca and the other four task force members peppered city officials with questions about cost, about alternative transit options such as SBS, about the gentrification that would be spawned to generate all that new property tax revenue, about traffic along the proposed route (Councilmember Constantinides noted that 21st Street in Astoria currently "functions more like a highway than a street"). EDC mostly replied, in essence, yeah, those are important questions, and everyone went home without changing their positions or understanding in any way.
It's clear, though, that the council remains at best extremely skeptical of the BQX — several councilmembers asked for more studies of an express bus alternative, something EDC has promised to do — which will likely make it a challenge for de Blasio (or his successor) to get the streetcar through the city land use process, let alone win approval to skim off property taxes for his value capture funding plan.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz rallies BQX supporters outside City Hall before Thursday's hearing (Neil deMause / Gothamist)
If there's a silver lining for BQX enthusiasts, it's that the project's supporters made clear that they have no intention of going away no matter how many times the streetcar is declared nearly dead. Led by Jessica Schumer, Friends of the BQX executive director and senatorial daughter, BQX advocates, including Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, leaders of the construction trade unions and the Brooklyn and Queens chambers of commerce, and residents of Astoria public housing, rallied on the City Hall steps before the hearing. (Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was scheduled but was a no-show.) Amid the rhetoric — Katz repeatedly hammered on the phrase "think outside the box" — if there was one clear message it was We need more transit, duh!
"The time is right to bring back streetcars," said Toba Potosky, a Brooklyn Heights resident and president of the Cadman Park Conservancy. "They're safer than buses, [which] weave in and out of traffic." He acknowledged that the G train closely parallels the planned route of the BQX, but said he'd still prefer a streetcar: "If they get started now, it'll be done in ten years. I'll be 66 years old, and maybe my access to the subway will not be so great."
"If you look at the map, the subway in Queens and Brooklyn is kind of a horseshoe shape — you've got the 7 in the north, you've got the L and the M in the south, and then nothing connects in between," said Luigi Rivas, a Ridgewood resident who attended the rally with members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bayside. "There's the G, but what about on the eastern side? There's nothing there." The BQX would run at the far west edge of Brooklyn and Queens, but Rivas says that's no reason not to start there: "I'm hoping this is one of many."
All of which will mean nothing until that missing $1.3 billion is found, of which even the EDC's Myers noted in the hearing, "Obviously, there are challenges there." Those challenges could conceivably become become easier to breach starting in 2021 if a Democrat takes the White House (and potentially takes de Blasio too); it's worth noting that the environmental impact report commissioned by City Hall is due to arrive in September 2020, making the timing right for an appeal for Washington funds early the following year.
"There's that stereotype that the wheels of government run slowly," admitted Rivas. But "look at the skyline — they're making that building into a U. If we can make a building into a U, there's no doubt in my mind we can make a trolley system for the outer boroughs."
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