The Brooklyn Queens Connector: reviving the American streetcar

11 May 2016 (Last Updated November 10th, 2017 09:56)

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has unveiled a new light rail system linking the iconic waterfront neighbourhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. While the proposed $2.5bn Brooklyn Queens Connector is still a long way away, one of the main challenges is seamlessly fitting one of the largest urban streetcar systems in the US into the history-laden boroughs of New York.

The Brooklyn Queens Connector: reviving the American streetcar

In his annual State of City speech on February 4, 2016, Bill de Blasio announced his administration's most ambitious urban engineering project to date: a 16-mile long streetcar called the Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX).

The streetcar is envisioned to run along the East River waterfront between Astoria and Sunset Park, linking a number of key neighbourhoods along its route.

The two most densely populated areas of the city currently lack the necessary public transport connections to serve the needs of their commuters. According to statistics from the mayoral office, over 400,000 people live in the neighbourhoods that run along the East River from northern Queens to Sunset Park, and the area is projected to experience the largest growth in population in the years to come.

"We are seeing explosive growth on the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens," de Blasio said in his address. "The BQX has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers [...] and to generate over $25bn of economic impact for our city."

If everything goes to plan, construction will start in 2019 and service is expected sometime in 2024.

During the first three years, various studies and community reviews will tackle the numerous challenges of incorporating the lengthy rail system into New York's scenic promenade, home to some of the country's most historical sights.

The BQX takes shape

Unlike many similar proposals of its size, the BQX was largely embraced as a good solution to the city's connection problems, not least because more public connections are sorely needed to accommodate the city's population boom in the years to come.

According to a document published by the mayor's office, New York's all-time high population of 8.4 million is expected to reach 9 million by 2040, with the largest growth around Brooklyn and the Bronx. To add to this, the population is also ageing, with the number of New Yorkers over 65 expected to surpass school-age children by the same year.

It is little wonder that the government is predicting a significant strain on the city's infrastructure. A new streetcar servicing this area was therefore a welcome proposal.

Firstly, the project's $2.5bn price tag is "significantly less" compared to building a new underground subway line, according to city officials quoted in The New York Times.

"New York's all-time high population of 8.4 million is expected to reach 9 million by 2040."

The new light rail line is envisioned to run over ground and to be integrated within the road traffic, potentially separated only by barriers along a portion of its route. The 60 streetcar vehicles will travel at 12mph between 30 stops along the route, cutting approximately 18 minutes off passengers' typical commute times, compared to today's transport options.

Although details regarding costs are still scarce, president and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists Alexander Garvin suggested that "the capital cost of the new light rail line could be financed from the tax increment generated by new and renovated housing created on underutilized properties within walking distance of the new light rail line."

A bigger mystery yet is how the connector will be powered. During a press event, city transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg said that the 16-mile line would not use overhead wires, a feature that is also missing from the artist's rendition of the system.

In their analysis of the BQX, transportation consultants Sam Schwartz concluded that "by avoiding use of catenaries, construction and maintenance costs were lowered, the system was visually pleasing and less intrusive to neighbourhoods, and greater resiliency was provided along an alignment that runs through flood zones."

The firm's analysis also estimates that the route would carry "53,000 daily riders on what would be New York City's first streetcar line in 60 years".

"This is about equity and innovation," de Blasio said in a statement. "We are mapping brand new transit [routes] that will knit neighbourhoods together and open up real opportunities for our people."

Protecting the area's historic significance

The project undoubtedly has a nostalgic feel about it. Electric streetcars were a ubiquitous sight across American cities and towns before being dismantled or converted at the middle of the 20th century.

It is fitting therefore that de Blasio plans to introduce a "glammed-up" version of the old streetcar between two of New York's most culturally significant boroughs.

Both Brooklyn and Queens served as the backdrop of many American classics, from literature to music, cinema and theatre, and now represent a cultural attraction to millions of tourists around the world.

That is more of a reason why a city official's hint at the possibility of building two new bridges to support the railway was a source of worry for many.

According to The New York Times, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen mentioned during a press briefing that the existing structures crossing the waterways may not be able to support the BQX, and two new bridges could be considered as part of the construction.

"Both Brooklyn and Queens served as the backdrop of many American classics."

Glen said planners have determined that the Pulaski Bridge, between Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens, and the bridge that traverses the Gowanus Canal at Hamilton Avenue near Red Hook, Brooklyn, may not be able to sustain streetcars. She suggested that the new bridges could include bicycle and pedestrian paths.

Apart from new infrastructure, the plan will also require existing utilities and sewer lines to be unearthed and moved, causing significant disruption.

It is also likely the plan will see the removal of hundreds of street parking spaces in order to accommodate the new system, although de Blasio insisted impact will be kept to a minimum.
Writing in 2014 about a "desire line", consistent with what would become the BQX, The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman said: "Why a streetcar? Buses are a more obvious solution. Improved bus service is an easier sell, faster to get up and running, and cheaper up front. A bus would be ... fine.

"But where's the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change. It invites investment and becomes its own attraction. I'm not talking Ye Olde Trolley. This is transit for New Yorkers who can't wait another half-century for the next subway station."

Criticism over potential disruption

The connector's announcement has not come without criticism.

Firstly, there are doubts over whether the streetcar will be integrated into the wider Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) fare system, as the connector is considered a "city project" as opposed to an MTA project.

Residents from neighbouring areas also expressed their frustration at feeling "left out" by the announcement. While the BQX hopes to "knit neighbourhoods together" and reach a multitude of underground stations, residents from Staten Island and South Brooklyn decried the lack of new transportation projects dedicated to them, despite Staten Islanders receiving $1bn in economic investment over the coming years.

But apart from anger over what the BQX doesn't do, there are also concerns over what it has the potential to disrupt.

"The streetcar has the potential...to offer ease of access to thousands of daily passengers."

According to a spokesman for the mayor quoted by online news service DNAinfo New York, the streetcar is feared to interfere with the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a partly finalised 14-mile bike lane along the waterfront.

However, co-founder of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Brian McCormick insisted "there was nothing to worry about" and that the project's team are "looking forward to hearing more details on how the project can enhance Greenway itself".

As pointed out before, details of the project, from its exact route to infrastructure requirements and funding methods, are still few and far between and as such, the BQX is still very much a "desire line" for the time being. However, if delivered successfully, the streetcar has the potential not only to offer ease of access to thousands of daily passengers and spur local economic growth, but also eventually to become an integral part of the cultural heritage of New York City.