Streetcar Proposal Brings Both Hopes and Fears for Residents Along Brooklyn and Queens’ Waterfront

By Rawson Jahan

A mother of two places her seven-year old daughter on her lap. Laughing, and giggling, the mother-daughter duo pick out the perfect television show to watch. For Tauheda Amin, the weekends are always the best. She doesn’t have to wake up at four a.m. or transfer two trains just to get to work in Brooklyn.

“I think that the trolley idea is a great opportunity for people without cars who need to use public transportation daily,” Amin, a mass transit user and a resident of Astoria for 14 years, said. “But I’m worried about how it will be funded, only time can say.”

Amin, like other residents along the waterfront are conflicted about the BQX Brooklyn Queens Connector, a $2.5 million project proposed by Mayor De Blasio and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. If passed, the BQX would run from Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn by 2024.

The system would provide streetcar service, separate from traffic and bike lanes in a 16-mile radius, and would connect users to over 30 bus routes and 15 subway lines, 100 CitiBike stations, and 10 ferry stops, according to the BQX website. Fares for the trolley will be the same as MTA fares, $2.75.

The main concern for some residents are whether or not low-income families will be forced to move. Funding for the project might come from tax revenue increases from commercial and multifamily properties along the streetcar route, according to the project’s website.

“Some people are worried about gentrification and are not sure if the streetcar is needed,” Jerome Nathaniel, manager of the Healthy Neighborhoods Queens Action Council, said. Members in his organization are skeptical and have voiced their concerns about the streetcar, asking if it’s even necessary, Nathaniel said.

“It kind of smells like someone is trying to provide a separate and distinct transit system that keeps people from newly developing areas separated from the existing larger system,” James Izurieta, a New Yorker for 43 years and a resident of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, said. Izurieta lives within walking distance of the proposed route and uses mass transit daily to get to work.

When Mayor de Blasio announced the BQX route in Red Hook, he emphasized that transit transcends gentrification, city officials said. Red Hook is home to the Red Hook Housing Projects, which provides low-income families with affordable rent. “By building the BQX we will be creating new opportunities for hundreds of thousands of residents along the corridor,  the kind of investment needed to fight gentrification along the corridor,” Stephanie Baéz, vice president of public affairs at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said.

The streetcar system was initially proposed to serve waterfront communities in Brooklyn and Queens that are more than a half-mile far from subway and bus service, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s website.

In a recent poll, the Friends of the BQX, found that 74% of New Yorkers across seven city council districts supported the route, while 16% did not. The organization is a non-profit advocacy group of leaders from community, civic, and transportation organizations working to advance the city’s BQX proposal.

“With more than 2 in 3 New Yorkers supporting the project, we feel that the City is on the right track to bring greater public transit access to currently underserved areas,” Ya-Ting Liu, the executive director of the Friends of the BQX said.

Some transit users have questioned the accuracy of the poll and want to know why the city is not considering other options besides a trolley system.

“The poll was conducted by a public relations firm and you don’t conduct scientific studies or polling of any kind in any rigorous way if you’re being paid to provide propaganda in favor of the project,” Thomas Angotti, a transportation expert and professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, said.

What they really needed to do was give people a range of options,” Angotti said. “What about this line versus building trolleys that would extend throughout Brooklyn and Queens, which is the majority of the area under served by buses?” he asked.

Last spring, the city held seven community visioning sessions throughout Brooklyn and Queens to speak to residents about the need for north-south transportation and to hear from local residents about their commute patterns, Ya-Ting Liu, the executive director of the Friends of the BQX, said. Liu’s organization is a non-profit advocacy group of leaders from community, civic, and transportation organizations working to advance the city’s BQX proposal.

“The BQX will provide reliable public transit to the 700,000 New Yorkers that already live and work along this corridor today,” Liu said.

The Brooklyn-Queens Connector would bring benefits to transit deserts in Western Astoria and help make our neighborhoods more interconnects,” Costa Constantinides, council member for the 22nd district of the New York City Council and supporter of the BQX route, said.

But there are already routes in place that mimic the BQX line, Izurieta said.“There’s way too many buses and subways that go to the Barclays Center, including the G train which more or less parallels much of the BQX route as it is,” Izurieta said.

Nathaniel agrees too. “There are buses already running along the 21 line in Astoria,” he said.

But unlike buses, the streetcar will have its own dedicated route, allowing it to travel faster, Baéz said. “Additionally, streetcars function better on narrow streets versus buses thus why they are the mode of choice in most European countries.”

And unlike subway systems, the streetcar will resume service faster during major weather events like heavy snowfall or rain, Baéz said. “Catastrophic weather events like Hurricane Sandy for example, showed us that underground tunnels can flood easily and require tremendous amounts of fiscal resources and time to repair track lines, as we’re now experiencing with the inevitable 18-month shutdown of the L-train,” Baéz said.

The BQX proposal is one of the projects the city can implement on its own, without approval from the state, Liu said.

For New Yorkers packed onto existing subways, or piling on to buses traveling at record-low speeds, we cannot wait for the next MTA Capital Plan to first start talking about a solution to our transportation challenges,” she said, “As a long-time transit advocate, I’m optimistic that this approach can be a new model that we can deploy to other transit deserts throughout the city.”

Construction for the project will begin as early as 2019 and will end by 2024, city officials said.