After a two-year feasibility study, the de Blasio administration will move forward with the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), the mayor announced last Thursday. Starting this winter, it will undergo an environmental impact review, which will take another two years to complete.
According to the timeline laid out by the city, the streetcar will enter a formal public review in April 2020, finish its final design by June 2024, and will be operational by June 2029.
“The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has experienced incredible growth, now it’s time for our transit system to catch up,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “The BQX is one of the biggest, most ambitious projects in a generation. It will be challenge, but New York City is taking it on.”
The estimated construction and implementation cost is $2.73 billion, higher than the initial $2.5 billion projected price tag. The city expects the BQX to generate $30 billion in economic impact.
Prior to the feasibility study, city officials said the project will pay for itself using a method called “value capture,” which would take revenue from anticipated increases of current and new development along the waterfront.
But the city said value capture would only bring in $1.4 billion, so it will seek federal funding to make the project a reality.
In a radio interview on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Friday, de Blasio said the BQX would instantly be one of the largest light rail systems in the country, giving it a good shot for federal dollars.
“This would be a very, very strong proposal, so that’s why we think we stand in good stead with this,” he said. “You could stack it up against any proposal in the country and it would be a winning opportunity in any competition.”
The administration projected first-year ridership to be about 50,000 per day. The streetcar will serve 400,000 residents living along the waterfront, including 40,000 public housing residents, many of whom live far from a train station.
It will connect to nine ferry landings, 13 subway lines and more than 30 bus lines. However, it remains unclear if the MTA will agree to free transfers between the different modes of transit.
“BQX taps into state-of-the-art transit tech to respond to and build upon the evolution of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront,” said Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen. “With more than half a million people now living and working along the projected line and further growth to come, BQX will transform how our city moves.”
Another notable change in the plan is that Sunset Park has been removed from the proposed BQX route. The first version of the route ran 16 miles from Astoria to Sunset Park.
Now, the streetcar is expected to run 11 miles from Astoria to Red Hook.
According to the 62-page conceptual design report the city released last week, Sunset Park was cut out “due to a combination of low projected ridership and high estimated cost of construction.”
The cost would have been more than $500 million, due to existing utilities on the ground and the need to build a bridge over the Gowanus Canal.
The report also noted that the existing R train running in Sunset Park provides faster travel times than the BQX would.
In a statement, Councilman Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn said while the city wants to build the streetcar, it doesn’t know how to pay for it, and the administration hasn’t explained the “public interest that is being served.”
“EDC has not established convincingly enough why the streetcar is necessary,” he said. “We know private property owners and other major waterfront developments in North Brooklyn will benefit from the streetcar.”
The modeling used in the report indicated that the BQX would be most heavily used between Greenpoint and Downtown Brooklyn.
“The question is whether the public will, or if it will just displace lots of people and businesses who had no need of the streetcar to begin within,” Menchaca added. “We must not forget that the BQX proposal was made by private interests who see an opportunity to benefit their investments along the proposed route.”
In addition to opposition to the BQX, the project have other hurdles. The conceptual design report noted that a big challenge is the underground utilities, such as water, sewer and gas lines and telecom infrastructure along the route.
When work crews need to do maintenance or repairs, the BQX may have to be temporarily shut down.
Another challenge is that 18 percent of the proposed BQX corridor falls within a flood zone. As a result, the light rail will have to raise its power systems, fortify facilities and rail yards, harden the track beds to withstand flooding from salt water, and strengthen overhead wires to mitigate strong winds.
Lastly, because the BQX will run along an exclusive right-of-way and have signal priority, current travel lanes and on-street parking may be reduced.
The report said the current design would lead to eliminating nearly 2,000 parking spots along the corridor.
“The amount of affected parking varies by area and the final alignment and design selected,” the report reads.
Some portions of bike lanes may be moved onto a shared street or parallel route as well.
Despite all of these potential issues, advocates are happy the project is moving forward. Jessica Schumer, executive director of the Friends of the BQX and daughter of Senator Chuck Schumer, said the city’s commitment to the streetcar is a “huge win for New Yorkers who have been cut off from transit for too long.”
“With the city embroiled in a transit crisis, the BQX will serve as an innovative model for how to build new mass transit sustainably and equitable,” Schumer said in a statement, “while creating new, good paying jobs along the way and making access to those jobs easier.”