Give Mayor de Blasio credit for optimism on the subject of the Brooklyn Queens Connector streetcar idea.
The plan isn’t moving forward. The Friends of the BQX website on Friday had no accessible information on a blank home page. But it also has not been canceled and still has influential supporters in residential and business communities.
“Covid-19 halted momentum on many important priorities, and the BQX is one of them,” said Mitchell Schwartz, director of rapid response and deputy press secretary for the mayor, in an email to the Chronicle last Thursday. “The work we’ve done to date will leave the City well poised to carry the ball forward on this project and deliver fast, reliable transit options to Brooklyn and Queens as soon as financial circumstances allow.”
If work picked up tomorrow and construction costs remained the same as in 2018 — they won’t, by all accounts — it would be unlikely to carry any passengers until at least 2029, or at least five years and heaven knows how much more money than originally planned more than five years ago.
Eric Adams or Curtis Sliwa, if either serves two terms as mayor, likely would be term-limited out of office before that happened. Adams has only said he would at least consider keeping the project active.
When de Blasio first proposed the BQX in April 2016, it was going to run 16 miles from Astoria to Sunset Park in Brooklyn; would cost $2.5 billion but pay for itself without state or federal aid; and would break ground in 2019 with the first passengers in 2024.
By August 2018 the city’s Economic Development Corp. admitted the route would be only 11 miles long, but the cost would be more like $2.73 billion, it would not break ground until 2024 and it would not be taking passengers until 2029.
The EDC in that same report was then saying unless there was federal assistance, the city would be more than $1.3 billion short — in 2018 dollars.
In between the city ran up studies totalling more than $7 million, missed at least four self-imposed deadlines for feasibility studies and had the leak of an embarrassing memo laying out seven pages of potential problems in meeting deadlines and funding requirements.
Then beginning in March 2020 Covid cratered the city’s economy.
On March 18 of this year, in a presentation on the safety of 21st Street in Astoria, the city Department of Transportation said the project had been “halted in March 2020 prior to [environmental impact study] scoping.”
While economic activity has picked up and the city is flush with federal stimulus cash for now, it also is facing projections of multibillion-dollar deficits for the next three years.
And money, particularly from the federal government, is where the plan breaks down, according to Larry Penner, a transportation historian and advocate who worked as a federal transit official in grant approval for 31 years.
“Neither the city nor the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has ever asked that this be included in the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program,” Penner said. “That’s a competitive federal program. The BQX is competing for that money with other projects in the city. The city is competing against projects in every other state.”
Those competitors, Penner said, include the MTA, the city’s own Department of Transportation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak.
The MTA, Penner said, is doing all it can to maintain current levels of service, track maintenance, signal repairs and other necessities.
Penner also said there seems to be a fatal lack of support from politicians.
“Ask Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) what his top 10 transportation priorities are — ask any elected local official — and all you’ll get is Jackie Gleason’s ‘Humina, humina, humina ...’ Senators and members of Congress can allocate money. The borough president can allocate money for studies. Council members can allocate money. Not one has put up a nickel for this, which tells you something.”
He pointed out that not even de Blasio’s former Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who now serves as a high-ranking aide under U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, appears to have asked that the project be considered.