Panel on BQX lively, biting look at new transportation idea
Many, vital unanswered questions raised by transit experts
Is the city on the right track with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed $2.5 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar?
That was the topic of discussion at the Brooklyn Heights Association’s (BHA) 2017 Annual Meeting on Monday.
Following a recap of BHA’s annual report and a presentation of awards , the bulk of the meeting, which took place in a packed auditorium at St. Francis College, featured a panel discussion of transit experts on the feasibility of the BQX.
The panel consisted of David Bragdon, executive director of Transit Center; Candace Brakewood, assistant professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York; Benjamin Kabak, who runs the blog “Second Avenue Sagas,” which has provided news, views and commentary on the city’s transportation system since November 2006; and Samuel Stein, a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from Hunter College.
The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Dwyer moderated the evening.
Since its inception at the mayor’s State of the City address in February 2016, the BQX has been a contentious subject.
The trolley’s proposed route 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 streetcar has been praised by some as a necessary step towards serving transit-starved communities, but it has also been criticized by others who believe that the project is uneconomical and fueled by developers.
“If you look at who proposed this idea in the first place, it’s a group called the Friends of the BQX. I’m no ace investigative journalist. I just looked who made this thing up and then I compared their property holdings to it and it’s basically a list of who has either new developments done or coming along the route,” said Stein whose comment elicited applause. “So the people proposing this thing and ostensibly paying for it are people whose property values will increase dramatically because of it.
“If we think about the businesses along that route, especially the industrial businesses, if we think about the low-income tenants who live in many of these neighborhoods, they are immediately displaced by rising property values.”
The panel fielded questions from the audience and discussed several areas of concern about the project, including how it would be paid for.
The BQX, as it is currently proposed, would be funded through tax increment financing, which is a method that would allow the streetcar to be built and paid for through public infrastructure development and a gradual increase in property tax.
This method, however, would only be feasible if property values rise significantly.
Yield amounts from the Village Voice, according to Stein, determined that properties would have to rise at least 17 percent in areas that have already seen major growth.
“For the buildings along this route to have that kind of value increase, a four-story building would have to become a 15-story building,” said Stein. “We’re talking about significant new development that’s A. in a flood zone, especially in Red Hook and Sunset Park, which were both hit very hard by Hurricane Sandy and B. in a number of neighborhoods that are pretty vulnerable to gentrification.”
An area of concern for the panel was the location of the streetcar’s storage station, which would be situated in Sunset Park, an area prone to flooding. The trolley’s wires would run underground in flood zones, unlike other light railways that have elevated wires. An environmental impact study will be conducted in 2017.
Brakewood noted that in order for the BQX to be effective, it would need dedicated right of way paths, which require removing traffic lanes and on-street parking.
“We really need to consider how this is going to be an effective transportation option even before we can get into some of the other debates about it, and in order to do that, it needs to be frequent, it needs to be fast and it needs to be reliable,” she said.
Kabak cast doubt on the project and its potential ulterior motives. Kabak cited the transit hub at the World Trade Center, which cost $4 billion and “didn’t do much to improve transit.” He also mentioned Gov. Cuomo’s desire for a LaGuardia air train that would bring commuters into Queens rather than Manhattan, where the majority of passengers need to go.
“You look at the history of New York City transit and the word folly is certainly a good word to use,” said Kabak. “You have a lot of projects that have been built for questionable reasons … The question is who is driving the agenda and why? Are you building something that you can network out to other areas?
“If you build this line along the waterfront, does it go further into Queens, does it go to LaGuardia, does it go up to the Bronx, does it go further up into Brooklyn or are you building something that you can’t network and that you can’t capitalize? Are you building something that is so discreet that it sort of becomes a gimmick? That’s what you need to guard against; otherwise you do end up with one of these follies.”
Bragdon suggested that the city use its money to improve other areas of the city that are in more dire need of reliable transportation.
“New York is highly quantified and studied,” said Bragdon. “We know where transit is most needed in this city: It’s huge spots of eastern Brooklyn, central Brooklyn, eastern Queens, the Bronx, Marcy, Belmont, Flatbush, Flatlands, you name it. There are low-income people, hundreds of thousands of them who have crappy transit today, and those are the needs that ought to be addressed.”
“If our concern was generally serving those who are least served by transit right now, there would be connectors to those couple points,” added Stein. “We’re talking about Red Hook and Queensbridge. Those are the only areas that are not within walking distance of an existing subway right now.
“You could have a connector that is either a bus line, a shorter streetcar or some other form of mass transit that would service those communities very well to existing subways. That would be much more useful.”
Stein also voiced his concern that the tax increment financing would cause the rising property values to fall on low-income tenants.
“Who are these tenants that can pay more, especially in places that need it the most like Red Hook and Queensbridge?” asked Stein. “It doesn’t add up without gentrification.”
Following the meeting, Executive Director of Friends of the BQX Ya-Ting Liu told the Brooklyn Eagle, “The hosts ignored three months of offers from [BQX] supporters to explain why they are in favor of the project and blocked everyone with a different viewpoint from sitting on the panel, so it’s really no surprise that the discussion was entirely one-sided and got key facts wrong.”