OPINION: Brooklyn-Queens waterfront streetcar line, an idea whose time has come
A Brooklyn-Queens transit plan formulated by urban planner and Yale professor Alexander Garvin is getting the attention of some heavy hitters in the borough.
Garvin has proposed a streetcar line that would unite the fast-growing Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts. The route that is currently being discussed would run from Astoria to Sunset Park, serving the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City, residential neighborhoods and more, with connections to subways, buses and ferries.
It would proceed over tracks embedded in existing streets like the old-fashioned streetcars, rather than over its own right of way. A study is now being undertaken by the transit consulting firm of Sam “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, who formulated the traffic plan for Barclays Center. An advisory group includes Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn partnership; Regional Plan Association President Tom Wright; Paul Steely White from Transportation Alternatives; Andrew Kimball from Industry City; Garvin himself; Fifth Avenue Committee Executive Director Michelle de la Uz and Red Hook Initiative founder Jill Eisenhard, among others.
When I interviewed Garvin for the Eagle in 2014, he said the impetus for the plan was “community development, to link these neighborhoods so people who live in Fort Greene can get a job in Greenpoint, and people who live in Greenpoint can take a ride to Brooklyn Bridge Park.” He added that the current transit system doesn’t really serve the new waterfront neighborhoods, since the system was conceived before these neighborhoods started developing.
While in part of its route (Red Hook) the plan bears some similarity with rail aficionado Bob Diamond’s ill-fated Red Hook trolley plan, which was partially constructed in the 1990s before the city pulled its support and ripped up the tracks, Garvin said that his is a different plan.
The plan does face a certain uphill climb. Since the end of the old trolley system in the 1950s, plans for streetcar or light rail systems in New York City have all foundered. From the 1980s on, new light rail systems have opened in Dallas, Denver, Baltimore, Buffalo, Tucson, St. Louis, Sacramento, San Diego, Los Angeles and a host of other places. If you go across the river to Hoboken, Jersey City, Union City and Bayonne, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system has been operating since 2001.
However, New York City is absent from this list. The 42nd Street (Manhattan) streetcar project, which was being talked about in 1985 when this writer wrote an article about it in Railway Age magazine, is no closer to reality now than it was then. We’ve already mentioned the fate of Diamond’s Red Hook trolley project. Former teacher Arthur Melnick’s Coney Island-based Brooklyn City Streetcar Company also hasn’t gotten off the ground.
All sorts of reasons why light rail isn’t feasible in the city are given — the huge amount of street traffic, the fact that we already have a subway system, the idea that buses would be more flexible. Garvin’s waterfront-based proposal, however, may break the ice.
Reed, of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, comments, “We’re seeing enormous job and residential growth on the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens, patterns of travel for work and fun that the transportation infrastructure just wasn’t built to handle, and neighborhoods that have been totally left out. We think a modern streetcar could be the answer and is worthy of a closer study.”
Schwartz says, “We are working with a nonprofit group of community and business leaders to study the idea of a modern streetcar line on the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. The potential is really clear, with enormous growth in the corridor and no major transit investment there in a century. We are studying this right now.”
Jeremy Laufer, district manager of Community Board 7, which includes Sunset Park, told the Eagle that he hadn’t seen the plan, but “transportation has always been a problem in our area, especially the industrial part [nearest the waterfront]. I think it would definitely be something to consider.”
On the other hand, Tone Johansen Balzano, co-owner of Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook, sounded dissenting notes. She said that it’s important to strike a balance in Red Hook between the needs of the residential community and those of the business community. Such a waterfront streetcar line, she says, would not help the business community and indeed would mainly help tourists, not local residents. “We don’t want to be another Williamsburg,” she says.
This writer thinks it’s a wonderful idea. I admit to being somewhat prejudiced — I’ve been a rail fan since the age of six or seven and used to draw fantasy subway maps even then. Hopefully, other people will join me in cheering on this waterfront plan. After all, what do Hoboken and Jersey City have that we haven’t got?
Raanan Geberer had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.