Brooklyn Boro

Long a dream of many, a streetcar line now grows in Brooklyn as real project

February 4, 2016 By Scott Enman and Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The proposed light rail system is shown in Brooklyn. New York Mayor's Office, Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector via AP
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Brooklynites all too familiar with the G train’s constant delays and mishaps now have some good news to report.

A proposed $2.5 billion streetcar line called the Brooklyn Queens Connector that has the backing of some heavy hitters in government and business has steadily been picking up support over the past year or so — and on Thursday night, it was scheduled to get a big boost from Mayor Bill de Blasio in his State of the City address.

The line would run from Sunset Park through Gowanus, Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, the Navy Yard, Williamsburg and Greenpoint before entering Long Island City and Astoria.

The impetus for the line has been the tremendous growth in Brooklyn and Queens waterfront areas since the early 2000s. Interest has recently grown because of the possible two-year shutdown of the L train, which would hit Williamsburg and Bushwick riders hard.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The streetcar will give riders a faster and more direct route to Queens without detouring into Manhattan on the current F, N and R lines. In addition, riders will not need to walk long distances to the waterfront from G train stops that are further inland.  

In addition to helping commuters who work in locations such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Red Hook and the DUMBO cluster of high-tech businesses, it will link such well-known tourist attractions as the Brooklyn Heights historic district, Peter Luger’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn’s Chinatown in Sunset Park and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams praised the proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector in a statement.

“In a 21st-century Brooklyn, we need 21st-century transportation solutions to meet the historic challenges that have faced underserved communities … I support the principles of this plan to bring emissions-free transit to our waterfront, supporting a large percentage of our public housing residents as well as our emerging industrial employment hubs.

“A robust public process will allow us to strengthen the BQX through a thoughtful conversation about the design and financing of this important proposal,” Adams added.

The streetcar’s above-ground route would run on rails fixed on public roadways that go parallel to car traffic, just like the old New York City trolley system did.

The plan was formulated several years ago by Yale transit planner and Professor Alex Garvin, and its advisory group includes such well-known Brooklyn leaders as Tucker Reed, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership; Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives; Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City; and others.  

The study for the plan was done by Sam Schwartz Engineering, headed by famed traffic planner and commentator Sam “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz.

The plan’s Red Hook component is similar in many ways to an earlier streetcar line proposed in the late 1980s and partially built in the ’90s by transit buff Bob Diamond.  

Diamond and his crew of volunteers amassed several old streetcars, laid tracks and installed wires on several streets, but in 2003, the city pulled the plug on Diamond’s financing and ripped up the tracks.

In a 2014 interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Diamond insisted that the new connector plan “is just a takeoff of my idea.” Garvin, however, insisted that his was different than Diamond’s: “My plan is about 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 said.

The project is tentatively set to start in 2019, and service would not begin until at least 2024, officials said.

The car would run 12 miles per hour, and an average journey from DUMBO to Greenpoint would last roughly 27 minutes.

A nod to San Francisco’s trolley system, this project will represent one of de Blasio’s most audacious urban engineering projects yet.

According to city officials on Wednesday, this project will cost less than a new underground subway line.

The New York Times wrote on Thursday that “for Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat focused on social reform, the plan also represents a shift to the kind of ambitious Robert Moses-style planning that New Yorkers more often associate with his predecessor, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who made transportation a hallmark of his tenure.”

Reed said in a statement, “We’re seeing pockets of unprecedented job and housing growth along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront in areas like Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City.

“This streetcar line can be the catalyst to extend that opportunity to tens of thousands of New Yorkers in many more neighborhoods.”

Kimball also expressed his support for the project.

“Industry is returning to the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, where thousands of jobs have been created in the last few years, and tens of thousands more jobs are expected over the next decade,” he said in a statement. “The mayor’s proposed streetcar line will support and enhance this growth, and is one way to give people living in Brooklyn and Queens greater access to the many jobs emerging in this corridor and better connect these new and revitalized sites of industry.”

Brooklyn once had an extensive streetcar, or trolley, system. But beginning with the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was a fierce foe of trolleys, the city began cutting back on the lines, one by one. The last two routes, on Church Avenue and McDonald Avenue, closed in 1956.


Both Sides of the Story

While the plan may be appealing to some, to others, including transit activist and cartographer Andrew Lynch, 31, the line is unnecessary.  

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, and it’s not a good alternative to the subway,” Lynch told the Eagle. “This same idea was proposed as far back as the 1980s by Bob Diamond, and the city stonewalled him.

“I don’t think de Blasio is serious enough to do what it would take, and the exact same benefits in terms of transportation could be achieved for much less cost just by adding bus lanes and improving bus service,” Lynch added. “It’s not a good transportation project to spend $2.5 billion on this when, at the same time, he gave the MTA basically nothing to build phase two of the Second Avenue Subway.”

Lynch believes that de Blasio is only proposing the project because it doesn’t require any approval or interaction with Albany.

Lynch also says this plan reminds him of the Washington, D.C. streetcar debacle.

“Washington, D.C. had this whole system where they were going to build a streetcar line and they still haven’t opened it yet, and it’s a royal sh*t show that has been wasting tons of taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “They only have a few blocks of it built, and it’s just a massive boondoggle.”  

Lynch believes that $2.5 billion can be better spent buying new trains to run on the G line and creating transfer connections between the G and J and Z lines, where there is no connection or free transfer.

In addition, Lynch believes that the streetcar program will go against de Blasio’s Vision Zero traffic safety program.

“If the line ran in mixed traffic, it would be an absolute disaster, and my worry is that it would require removing a lot of the dedicated bike lanes that have been installed along Kent Avenue or Flushing Avenue,” said Lynch. “There’s only so much space on the road.”

Lynch did consider de Blasio’s point of view, but still did not see any positives.

“I understand he’s trying to do something and he doesn’t have a lot of options, but to be fair, this is a big idea that is going to galvanize a lot of support — but when it comes down to the details, the whole thing is going to fall apart.

“It’s just the real estate people pushing de Blasio to do it. He should be trying to improve bus service in Brooklyn and Queens. Not many people are trying to get between Astoria, Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn that can’t already take the G train.

“It’s just not a good idea in the grand scheme of things,” Lynch concluded.

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