From Portland and Norfolk to Toronto and London, streetcars like those San Francisco is famous for have made a resurgence over the past 20 or so years, and New York may be destined to follow suit.
The New York City Economic Development Corp. is moving ahead with plans for the Brooklyn Queens Connector, known familiarly as BQX, a route that would stretch 17 miles from Astoria to Sunset Park.
The latest public visioning session, the seventh, was held on June 23 at the Queens Library at Long Island City, with an estimated 50 individuals in attendance.
“We think there is an opportunity to create a transit intervention that addresses a lot of different things,” said Lydon Sleeper, senior vice president for government and community relations at NYCEDC, who led the discussion.
“There has been a lot of new development but the transit hasn’t kept up with it,” Sleeper added. “There is a need for a modern, efficient state-of-the-art transit link to support this corridor.”
He estimated that 400,000 people live and 300,000 work along the corridor.
“There are huge pockets, neighborhoods, along the corridor that are in transit deserts, and with more than a half-mile from the nearest subway,” he said.
The challenges facing the plan are multifold.
The corridor would run along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, which Sleeper called the “spine of the new New York economy,” and cross both the Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.
According to Sleeper, one decision would involve either retrofitting the existing bridge stock or, if it would be more cost effective, building new crossings.
Underground infrastructure is another issue. “You can’t have a streetcar run right on top of major sewers and stop the system every time you have to access the sewers,” Sleeper said. “You’ve got to take a hard look at what’s underground, where under the street is it, and develop a system that is not on top of it.”
And, he said, “You need a place for the streetcars to sleep at night, you need a place to wash them down when they’re done with their run, you need a place to do maintenance... so finding a maintenance yard is very important to the process.”
Still to be worked out are potential routes, types of vehicles to be used, types of power source, and resiliency, Sleeper said.
Funding for the project, which would come with an estimated price tag of $2.5 billion, is not yet in place. Sleeper sees value capture, a type of public financing that can include land value tax and tax-increment financing, as one possibility.
He estimated that the annual operations maintenance for the streetcar would be $30 million, which he said was “competitive with other modes of transportation.”
Sleeper sees the plan as a tremendous opportunity to create better connectivity to job centers and with other modes of transit.
It would “increase access to job centers and job opportunities, minimize the impact of traffic parking utilities, provide sustainable solutions that strengthen the natural and built environment and also deliver a project that is financially responsible,” he said.
The plan would help to advance critical policy goals, including Vision Zero, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, he said.
“Streetcars are a green system. They are far cleaner compared to other modes of transportation,” he said.
Plans call for 30 stops along the route, or roughly one every half-mile, with a “reliable schedule” of a streetcar every five minutes during rush hours. Exclusive lanes would be used as much as possible. Fares would be “pegged to a cost of an MTA subway fare.”
The public approval process is scheduled to be initiated in 2017, with the design of the initial segment set for 2018, groundbreaking in 2019, and the beginning of streetcar operations in 2024.
At last week’s meeting, attendees broke into small discussion groups, led by representatives of the NYCEDC and the Department of Transportation, to help map out where stops should be and on what streets along the corridor.
Popular requests included single-fare transfers and connectability to existing buses and subway stations. Safety was a primary concern.
Patrick Warren, a Woodside resident who attended with a small group of employees and students from LaGuardia Community College, was excited by the plans. “It’s important to have a viable direct connection to Brooklyn from Queens,” he said.