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BQX streetcar plan jeopardized by Amazon withdrawal, transit buffs say (Updated)

Project's boosters reiterate support

February 21, 2019 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photos courtesy of the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector
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Backers of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector have touted Amazon’s potential arrival as an illustration of the critical need for a new interborough transportation option. But when the company canceled its $2.5 billion plan to bring 25,000 employees to Long Island City, it may have taken with it any hope of the streetcar becoming a reality, transit advocates said.

“It’s one less arrow in the mayor’s quiver,” Ben Fried, a spokesperson for commuter advocacy group TransitCenter, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “But the fact is — with or without Amazon — this project was losing momentum and was on its last breath.”

(Update [February 22 at 2:25 p.m.]: This story has been amended to include an additional statement from Friends of the BQX.)

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Proponents of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, disagree, saying the project continues to enjoy support.

“The BQX has widespread and varied support – both citywide and along the route,” James Yolles, a spokesperson for Friends of the BQX, wrote in an email. The group is a nonprofit founded to organize support for the streetcar. “Supporters include a range of transit advocates and experts – including four former MTA chairs – along with numerous NYCHA tenant leaders, small business owners and civic groups.”

Amazon played a visible role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s justification for reviving the project after months of inertia, and his spokesperson pointed to the tech giant as justification for using taxpayer funds on a study that would move the project along.

“I think [Amazon] makes the need for the BQX even greater,” de Blasio said in November. “The BQX has made sense for a long time. … That was before Amazon. This amplifies that many times over.”

The campaign progressed at a snail’s pace for more than three years, and many thought it was stalled until de Blasio signaled renewed support for it earlier this month. He announced a $7.2 million contract to a consulting firm to study the environmental impact of the trolley. Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen told the Wall Street Journal that Amazon’s HQ2 plan justified the investment.

The Environmental Impact Study is a requirement for the project to move along in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Following public hearings, the plan will go in front of the City Council, whose approval is required before construction can begin.

“The recent awarding of the EIS contract marked the most significant step forward for the project to date and demonstrates a clear commitment from the de Blasio administration to move it through ULURP,” Yolles said.

Transit advocate Fried believes even that was a lackluster embrace by the administration.

“The mayor is basically kicking this to the next administration; keeping it alive in some way,” Fried said of the grant. “That’s highly irresponsible, and they should just let it die a dignified death.”

But the loss of Amazon could weaken the mayor’s ability to move any faster.

“The Queens tenant and labor community’s successful mobilization against Amazon has deprived the de Blasio administration of one of its key talking points to justify their real estate plan disguised as a transportation plan,” said Samuel Stein, a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center who teaches urban studies at Hunter College.

“Surely the administration will come up with some other excuse to promote it, but Amazon’s change of course is certainly a major blow to the BQX’s high-powered ‘friends.'”

Since its inception at the mayor’s State of the City address in February 2016, the BQX has been a contentious subject.

The streetcar has been praised by some as a crucial step towards serving transit-starved communities, but others believe the project is unnecessary, uneconomical and fueled by developers.

In August, the mayor said the route would be shorter — Sunset Park would no longer be included — and more expensive: up to $2.73 billion from $2.5 billion.

He also said the project would now require about $1 billion in federal funds. The streetcar was initially proposed to pay for itself through tax increment financing, a method that would allow it to be built and paid for through public infrastructure development and a gradual increase in property tax.

The trolley’s new route would run from Gowanus to Astoria. Sunset Park’s five-mile portion was scrapped for fear of low ridership. Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who represents the neighborhood, is a staunch opponent of the project.

Still, proponents say the streetcar was needed even before Amazon announced it was bringing HQ2 to Queens.

“The need for high-quality mass transit along the BQX corridor was glaringly clear before Amazon chose Long Island City and still is today,” Jessica Schumer, executive director of the Friends of the BQX, told the Eagle. “Amazon chose LIC for a reason, and there’s no question that demand to live and work there remains strong.

“From 44,000 public housing residents to fast-growing job centers like LIC, the Navy Yard and Downtown Brooklyn, there are few proposed projects that match the BQX’s potential to create jobs, spur equitable economic growth and leverage city resources to expand opportunity.”

The BQX, according to Fried, will not offer much help, however, to transit-starved areas. The route of the project, he said, is already close to the G train, and there are already “a ton of subway stations” around the building that Amazon had planned to occupy.

He claims that city resources could be better spent on the existing subway and bus systems.

If approved, the streetcar is slated to be operating by 2029.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

The headline of this article has been amended to reflect the update.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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