OPINION: Waterfront streetcar plan has obstacles to overcome, despite de Blasio’s boost
On Feb. 4, as readers of this site know, Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed a proposal (first reported by the Eagle about a year ago) to build a streetcar line between Astoria and Sunset Park, serving the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront.
With the mayor’s endorsement, a plan that has been bubbling under the surface for a year or two has suddenly taken center stage.
The $2.5 billion plan, known as the Brooklyn Queens Connector, is the project of a nonprofit called, appropriately, the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector. It has some heavy hitters on its board, such as Doug Steiner, Fred Wilson and Helena Durst. A study of the project was spearheaded by well-known traffic planner Sam “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz.
According to DNA Info, the connector would require an estimated $26 million in annual operating costs, but could bring in an estimated $3.7 billion in tax revenue. It will definitely benefit Brooklyn’s waterfront communities, especially Red Hook, where the nearest subway station is on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
If this plan is to succeed, however, it will have to overcome New York City’s historic bias against light rail — a bias that goes back 80 years.
Other cities across the country have newly built or expanded light rail systems over the past 30 years or so — Buffalo, Phoenix, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Denver and more. Even in our own metropolitan area, you can cross the Hudson River to Hoboken or Jersey City and ride the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line.
In New York, however, proposals that were made 40 years ago are still in the talking stage.
Where did the problem begin? Some say it began with the LaGuardia administration. In the first half of the 20th century, New York City had a huge trolley, or streetcar, network. Brooklyn, in particular, was known for its trolleys. One of the original names for its baseball team was the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers — later, of course, shortened to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Brooklyn also was the only one of the five boroughs to run the streamlined, ultra-modern “PCC” trolley cars that were made in the 1930s in an attempt to save the industry. PCC cars continued to ride on several Brooklyn routes until 1956.
When Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor in 1934, he vowed to replace the trolleys, which he felt impeded motor traffic on the city’s streets. He began by banning them in Manhattan. The demise of the city’s trolleys was stalled by World War II, but afterward, lines were converted to bus routes, one after another. The last two lines to shut down (other than the Queensboro Bridge route, which was a special case) were Church Avenue and McDonald Avenue, both of them in 1956.
However, it may be too simple to blame LaGuardia. After all, many other cities dismantled their trolley systems around the same time as a result of pressure from the automotive industry, but built new systems years later.
The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line has come quite a long way since it first opened in 2000 and has expanded several times. By contrast, plans for a 42nd Street crosstown light rail line in Manhattan were being discussed in the 1980s; today, they’re still being discussed. Longtime readers of this paper know the fate of Bob Diamond’s partially completed Red Hook trolley line, whose tracks were ripped out the city after initial government support.
One reason light rail and streetcars haven’t gotten off the ground may well be the city’s hyper-crowded traffic situation. I’ve driven occasionally in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn — usually on the way to or from a car-rental place — and it’s a whole different experience from driving in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Another reason may be the narrow streets, remnants of the horse-and-carriage 19th century, which one finds in many parts of the city, especially in the areas surrounding Downtown Brooklyn. Such narrow streets, along with their narrow turning radius, were one of the main reasons why the city Department of Transportation in 2011 rejected a revised Red Hook trolley proposal that had been backed by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
A blogger known as “Cap’n Transit” has an interesting observation — he points out that many of the light rail lines in other cities have been built on the roadbeds of now-unused freight (and passenger) railroads. For example, parts of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line were built on the roadbeds of the old Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Lackawanna Railroad and the New Jersey Junction Railroad.
We don’t have that many unused railroad right-of-ways in New York City nowadays. Here in Brooklyn, the Bay Ridge Freight Line is still alive and kicking, so the opportunity doesn’t exist there. Overall, Cap’n Transit quotes another urbanist, Ryan McGreal, who criticizes the notion that “if it works in Jersey City and Phoenix and Seattle, it should be the next hot new thing in New York.”
Still, we hope the mayor’s support will help the Brooklyn Queens Connector plan to succeed, despite the obstacles.
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Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, recently retired as Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.
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