An unfortunate trend in urban politics is that a lot of politicians who are generally and transit and zoning/land-use policy are also inclined to succumb to the allure of that wasteful fad of 21st century urban development, the urban streetcar. Unfortunately for New York, De Blasio is one of them:
Today Mayor de Blasio rolled out the full court press for his Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar proposal, known as BQX. A story in the Times compared the street-running BQX to Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which runs mostly on exclusive rail rights-of-way. The City Hall press shop sent out waves of endorsements from various elected officials, advocates, business executives, developers, and civic honchos. The morning culminated with a press conference in Red Hook where the mayor made his case for the project.
The big takeaway is that City Hall has lined up a lot of people to endorse BQX. Specifics about the project itself remain in short supply. We don’t know a whole lot more about the streetcar than we did before, and I remain skeptical that the project will be successful. It still seems likely to be a highly-subsidized, low ridership route for the reasons Streetsblog and others listed earlier this month.
The alignment doesn’t create good connections to the subway, a free transfer to MTA services seems unlikely, the right-of-way will probably have significant stretches where cars will slow down and occasionally block trains, there are higher priorities throughout the city and better ways to serve people along the waterfront, and the financing mechanism depends on the streetcar spurring development in areas that are already booming.
It’s hard to imagine a compelling narrative to justify the route choice here, which avoids dense, high-ridership locations in both burroughs in favor of the waterfront. One might theoretically hold out hope for better transit-prioritizing choices along the route, producing something better than the dismal speeds riders of the new urban streetcars can usually expect. But De Blasio is already signalling how foolish that would be:
To guarantee the streetcar can travel unimpeded, many streets along the route would have to either be stripped of parking or go entirely car-free. Claiming all that street space for transit would be thrilling — but will it happen? At the press event, the mayor said the city will “be sensitive” to the loss of parking along the route.
More here, here and here. Investing 2.5 billion in improving Brooklyn-to-Queens transit is an absolutely fantastic idea in the abstract; it’s among the more urgent needs for New York’s public transportation network. But this is just awful.
Making things worse: On the one hand, De Blasio is selling the routing as a win for social justice, providing better transit access to under-served, less wealthy neighborhoods like East Red Hook. Which is, potentially true. However: he’s go no answer for the question of whether free subway transfers will be provided, which is important if this is to be a useful service for low income riders. Furthermore, he’s promising to pay for this out increased property tax revenue from an increase in land value along the route. If this optimism about the effect of a streetcar on property values is warranted, will it do the poorer residents of Red Hook much good if it contributes to pricing them out of their neighborhood?
And finally there’s his effort to boost plausible ridership estimates by selling this as a kind of mobile tourist trap (“A lot of people are going to take this just to take this”). While I don’t think it’s a particularly good justification for spending scarce transportation infrastructure funds on inefficient streetcars, I can at least sort of sympathize with mayors from places like Tuscon, Oklahoma City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee offering up this kind of justification. From the Mayor of New York City, it’s a remarkable thing to hear.