Columbia Waterfront

Exclusive: Critics, advocates of BQX go head-to-head in heated panel

Memo casts doubt on project's ability to pay for itself

April 18, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
At a recent conference at Brooklyn Borough Hall, proponents and opponents of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s BQX streetcar went head-to-head in an impassioned debate regarding the viability of the project. Shown: The trolley runs through Williamsburg. Rendering courtesy of Friends of BQX
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To build a trolley or not.

 That was one of the topics of discussion at a recent conference dubbed “Moving Goods and People to, From and Along the Brooklyn Waterfront.”

The gathering, which took place at Brooklyn Borough Hall, was hosted by CUNY’s Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center and its Urban Transportation Research Center.

The two research centers brought in representatives from maritime industries, elected and appointed officials, representatives from waterfront communities, developers of residential, commercial and industrial properties and transportation scholars.

 The first half of the conference was devoted to how goods are moved along the waterfront, while the second half was dedicated to moving people along the shoreline.

Panel members included, Alan Minor of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, Ryan Chavez of UPROSE, Elliot S. Matz of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Corp., Andrew Hoan of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Dani Simons of Motivate, Matthew W. Daus of the City College of New York, Franny Civitano of NYC Ferry and Adam Giambrone of the BQX Streetcar project.

A unique aspect of this particular panel was that, for the first time, proponents and opponents for the streetcar were at the same table.

Chavez, the infrastructure coordinator of UPROSE — Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization and a group that promotes the sustainability and resiliency of Sunset Park — articulated why his organization and his neighborhood’s residents are staunchly against the streetcar.

“As a community-based organization, we cherish community-based planning,” said Chavez. “We have long track records of working with primary interests, industry, government — you name it. But, there is a distinction between that type of collaboration and ideas that are hatched out of elite real estate interests.

“This is a red flag from the get-go. We understand that many of the drivers behind — no pun intended — the BQX are elite waterfront real estate developers.”

A Daily News article from December noted that seven developers with projects along the proposed route wrote checks totaling $245,000 to the mayor’s nonprofit the Campaign for One New York.

 They include Jed Walentas of Two Trees, Toll Brothers and Alma Realty Corp.

Other criticisms raised by Chavez included a conservative price tag of $2.5 billion and a lack of free transfers between MTA systems, which would require commuters to pay a double fare.   

 “As practical and feasible as a streetcar can be, when we’re speaking about waterfront resiliency, a fixed streetcar line does not exactly lend itself to the type of flexibility that we would really prioritize, especially considering the fact that the BQX seems to assiduously navigate its way through storm surge zones if you take a look at the map,” Chavez said.

 “As an environmental justice group … when we talk about resiliency, it’s not just bouncing back from climate disasters. It’s also recognizing how a community’s resiliency is partially intertwined with their economic resiliency. There is deep fear in the Sunset Park community that in many ways this particular proposal may be undermining both.”

Giambrone, director of the BQX Streetcar Project, was asked by an audience member to address the specific concerns outlined by Chavez, which prompted an impassioned response.

Giambrone acknowledged that the BQX would run through flood zones, but that it would not store the vehicles in an area prone to inundation. He said that the biggest concern would be how fast it would take to get the trolley up and running after a natural disaster.

“If you think about the physical structure of the track, it sits on a concrete bed with rails,” said Giambrone. “The issues that we saw with transportation around Sandy, [are] obviously, if there is going to be water in the streets, buses are not running, streetcars, people are not moving around.

“There are lots of options. Frankly, from that resiliency perspective, we have to be mindful of it. There are lots of examples around the world, so not that much concern.”

Giambrone said that parking and vehicle lanes would need to be removed to accommodate the BQX, but that a similar outcome would be the case with dedicated bus lanes.

“Let’s be frank, you cannot maintain all the parking, all the vehicular lanes,” said Giambrone. “If you have dedicated service for buses, not painted lanes, which are a great enhancement and very cost-effective, but if you’re going to do seriously good bus traffic, you have to physically separate them and when you do that you will have impacts on both.”

Confidential BQX Memo 

Since the conference, the Daily News and Politico obtained an internal memo addressed to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen from the city’s BQX Project Team casting doubt on the project’s ability to pay for itself. 

 The BQX, as it is currently proposed, would be funded through tax increment financing or value capture, 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 determined that properties would have to rise at least 17 percent in areas that have already seen major growth.

The memo says that money from that method may not provide “sufficient revenue to fund the entire project as originally stated.”

The memo also states that a serious challenge involves “The cost and time associated with relocating or rehabilitating utilities and the uncertainty of budget and timeliness associated with this part of the project.”

“When we are talking about running transportation infrastructure through an industrial zone, which depends on lower land values to survive, this tax increment financing is another red flag,” said Chavez.

“That not only runs counter to local priorities, but in many ways runs counter to public positions taken by city administration in terms of encouraging, maintaining, preserving and expanding our industrial manufacturing base.” 

Giambrone responded by saying, “We’ll continue to evaluate the price. We’ve been quoting in 2015 dollars. I will say today that when we price it in 2022 dollars, it will be higher. That’s a matter of inflation.”

He added, “There is no federal funding applied on this one. It does look at value capture. Any improvement in the community will lift property values: New community centers, better transportation options, nicer parks.”

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