Brooklyn-Queens streetcar project's viability in question

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Skeptics question the viability of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar project.

His funding plan for the so-called BQX, an 11-mile, $2.7 billion waterfront route from Astoria in Queens through downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook, hinges on two huge variables — real estate value capture and aid from Washington.

Some City Council members, at Thursday's meeting of a BQX task force, called the undertaking a trophy project and debated whether the cost is justified for a project expected to serve 50,000 daily riders.

Broader dynamics include gentrification fears; outer borough transit deserts; the use of Hudson Yards-style tax-increment financing outside Manhattan even as some neighborhood activists decry the move as real-estate developer pandering; and enhanced bus service as a fallback option.

The BQX project is going through an environmental review process.

"We must continue to close the gaps between the city's continued development and community needs," Seth Myers, executive vice-president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., told council members at City Hall. Myers expects the BQX to generate more than $30 billion for New York's economy over 40 years.

According to Myers, roughly half the capital budget, about $1.3 billion, would materialize through value capture, a mechanism that dedicates a portion of a property-tax revenue increase to pay for the infrastructure investments.

It enabled the city to backstop the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan's Far West Side, which combined zoning and special financing tools. Hudson Yards also featured a public authority to issue bonds to pay for the extension of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's No. 7 subway line westward from Times Square and the construction of a public park.

The city hopes for the federal government to cover the balance of the streetcar cost — a change from the plan the mayor announced in 2016, in which he said the city could raise capital through a nascent nonprofit that could issue tax-exempt bonds.

De Blasio and the EDC changed the plan last August, presenting a shorter route that eliminated Brooklyn's Sunset Park and, with contingencies factored in, raised the cost estimate to $2.7 billion from $2.5 billion.

The mayor expects construction to begin in 2024 with the line to open in 2029.

The environmental study will also examine a bus rapid transit route, with dedicated lanes, as a Plan B.

Council member James Van Bramer from Queens questioned de Blasio's level of interest in the project. "I don't want anyone to have any false expectations," he said.

Carlos Menchaca, who represents several Brooklyn neighborhoods along the route, chairs the task force, which council Speaker Corey Johnson created. The full council must approve the project.

The region's transit crisis and growth, notably in the outer boroughs, have prompted calls for alternative mobility.

Four commuter rail stations are in store for the Bronx; on Staten Island, community leaders have met with MTA officials over plans for an abandoned North Shore rail corridor; Bronx residents who work at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports in Queens bemoan lack of direct north-south connections and Brooklyn, despite its vast transit options overall, has limited options west of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Ferry service has expanded citywide.

"Like NYC Ferry, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector is intended to stitch together the gaps left by the subway system," Myers said.

The civic organization TransitCenter called several alternatives better than "a zigzag streetcar."

They include redesigning 21st Street in Brooklyn to prioritize buses, biking and walking; running the MTA's G trains longer and more frequently; and converting half the space devoted to car parking at the Brooklyn Navy Yard into secured, covered bike parking.

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Infrastructure Transportation industry Community development districts Bill de Blasio City of New York, NY New York