Transit experts and Brooklyn Heights residents convened at St. Francis College, 182 Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights last night to discuss the planned Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar (BQX), expressing a deep, unflinching sense of skepticism towards the highly ambitious project.
Mayor Bill de Blasio first floated the $2.5 billion transit project proposal in February 2016. The plan calls for an above ground streetcar line stretching from Sunset Park to Astoria, cutting through several neighborhoods across Brooklyn, including Red Hook, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The route will span 16 miles across the East River waterfront corridor and will operate 24 hours a day.
Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) Transportation Committee Chair Chris Bastian offered a brief overview of the project, which then transitioned to a panel discussion featuring five different authorities on New York City transit.
The panelists were as follows: New York Times journalist Jim Dwyer, Transit Center, Inc. Executive Director David Bragdon, CCNY Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Candace Brakewood, Second Avenue Sagas blogger Benjamin Kabak, and CUNY Graduate Center Ph.D. student Samuel Stein.
Though they all came from different educational backgrounds, the five experts all agreed that the plan, in its current state, was deeply, deeply flawed.
One of the principle concerns raised about the plan was its proposed method of funding. According to the plan, the project will be funded via tax increment financing. This means that the surplus revenue caused by rising property values along the corridor will be allocated towards the project. The problem, said Stein, is that the project won’t receive the necessary funding unless those property values rise astronomically.
“So we’re talking about significant new development that’s a) in a flood zone… and then b) in a number of neighborhoods that are pretty vulnerable to gentrification,” said Stein.
Brakewood, meanwhile, pointed out the sacrifices that would have to be made to keep the streetcar running smoothly and efficiently.
“To get dedicated right of way on street space, we need to take a few things away,” she said. “So what does that mean? That means probably taking away some lanes of traffic, and/or on-street parking in some of these areas- which is gonna be a decision that you, as a community, need to make.”
While the experts conceded that there were several transit-starved neighborhoods in Brooklyn that could conceivably benefit from the project (particularly Red Hook), they expressed serious doubt that the BQX was an ideal solution.
“You could have a connector that was either a bus line or a shorter streetcar or some other form of mass transit that would service those communities very well to existing subways,” said Stein.
The attendees, it seemed, were no less apprehensive. When Dwyer claimed that some of the BQX’s proponents were attempting to frame the project as an “anti-poverty program,” he elicited scattered bouts of derisive laughter throughout the audience. By contrast, when Stein suggested another bus line as a less costly and laborious alternative, he was met with a round of applause.
“I’m increasingly of the belief that it’s overly ambitious and overly costly,” said Brooklyn Heights resident Roger Alder, 71.
Ya-Ting Liu, Executive Director for Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, expressed dissatisfaction with the way the panel was organized.
“I think that I definitely would have liked to see a more balanced panel,” she said.
She suggested that it could have included a member of her organization, or a city official involved with the project’s planning, to provide a contrary point of view.
But Peter Bray, Executive Director of the BHA, maintained that the panel was designed strictly for educational purposes, and that the BHA’s intent was not to sway public opinion.
“The BHA has not adopted a formal position yet,” he said. “We’re just trying to get objective information out to the community about the project.”