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BQX streetcar’s viability debated at City Council hearing

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The city is studying a bus rapid transit route as an alternative

A rendering of the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Economic Development Coporation

The city is exploring if a bus rapid transit route is a feasible alternative to the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector, as the 11-mile streetcar faces scrutiny over its ballooning cost estimates and funding options.

In the first City Council hearing on the BQX, lawmakers questioned whether the $2.7 billion route—which officials say could carry some 50,000 riders per day from Red Hook to Astoria—is cost-effective, and if officials will be able to secure the estimated $1.4 billion in federal funds needed to get the streetcar rolling.

“Those are two things that I think speak both to its realization and also the potential for it to slow down [or] peter out,” said Queens Council member Jimmy Van Bramer. “We sort of don’t know exactly what we’re looking at. It’s sort of still being decided.”

A slew of questions remain unanswered about the streetcar, including exactly why cost estimates rose after the project dropped from 16 to 11 miles, what value capture methods the city will ultimately settle on to utilize increased property values, and if the streetcar is even the best transportation option for the Brooklyn-Queens corridor. City officials are set to begin an environmental impact study this fall and will also consider whether bus rapid transit (BRT)—routes that typically run on lanes separated from car traffic for speedier service—could serve as a more efficient replacement. Initial Department of Transportation (DOT) analysis put the streetcar as the city’s preferred option, but BRT came in as a close second, according to city officials.

“That said, we are doing a full analysis of the BRT alternative and have a conversation around its pros and cons,” said Seth Meyers, the director of project implementation at NYC Economic Development Cooperation, which is spearheading the BQX project. “And we’ll see where we come out of it. It’s a real alternative. We’re taking a look quite seriously.”

Chris Hornes, the director of strategic transit initiatives at DOT, said a handful of alternatives—the subway, buses, even aerial trams—were reviewed, though most were quickly ruled out due to “cost and impacts.” Yet the BRT option emerged as “the second-ranking one and one that’s worthy of further exploration,” said Hornes.

But critics of the project say even if it were to pivot to the BRT option down the road, it’d still be a boondoggle.

“Wasting $1 billion is better than wasting $2 billion, but the city ought to put this project to bed,” said Ben Fried, the communications director at nonprofit TransitCenter. “A lot of the route is just tailing the G train and the costs are really outrageous."

TransitCenter’s executive director, David Bragdon, challenged the need for the project, noting that the corridor is not in dire need for transit capacity improvements compared to other parts of the city, citing crammed buses on Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue and along the Bx19 route spanning upper Manhattan and the Bronx. “The BQX would divert resources and political capital from more pressing transit needs,” Bragdon said.

If the plodding project is able to press forward, it is not expected to break ground until at least 2024 with a 2029 end date. The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure—which would culminate in a City Council vote—is expected to begin April 2020. But for the BQX to be a boon for all New Yorkers, it’s crucial that it include free transfers to neighboring MTA options, advocates say. Horne called that “essential” to the BQX’s success, but the cash-strapped MTA has not yet said it is seriously considering that option.

Eric McClure, the executive director of StreetsPAC, says there must be “ironclad commitments” to those transfers if the city doesn’t want the streetcar to turn into a shuttle for mostly well-to-do riders.

“If the BQX is to serve as a pathway to economic opportunity for those neighborhoods along the planned route, it must offer seamless and free transfers to and from intersecting subway and bus lines,” said McClure. “Requiring people to pay a second fare to connect to other transit options will create a barrier that those most in need won’t be able to afford.”

Supporters for the BQX tout it as an important interborough mode of transportation and a job booster for the corridor. Ahead of Thursday’s City Council hearing, dozens of streetcar supporters with Friends of the BQX—a real estate-backed group advocating for the streetcar—rallied on the steps of City Hall chanting and waving banners in favor of the streetcar.

“The BQX represents exactly the type of bold and visionary thinking our city needs if we are going to continue to grow equitably and increase opportunity for New Yorkers,” said Jessica Schumer, the executive director of the Friends of the BQX. “The BQX has the potential to connect this fast-growing corridor and create a new spine of our city.”