It’s back to school time and New York commuters are back in force with memories of their vacations. For those in Astoria, Queens, and Red Hook, Brooklyn (not the previously planned Sunset Park) they might also be thinking about when the much touted BQX streetcars will be built, shaving off valuable minutes (10-15 minutes to be specific) from their commute.
Infrastructure challenges and, therefore, budget issues have delayed plans for the BQX, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, which include a route between Brooklyn and Queens. It is estimated that in the first year, ridership is expected to reach 50,000 people daily, according to the administration. Overall, the 26-stop line is expected to serve around half a million people in waterfront communities.
Originally, the route was planned to run about 16 miles between Astoria and Sunset Park and cost approximately $2.5 billion. The City’s streetcar team then updated the plan and developed a shorter route to Gowanus that will cost $2.7 billion. That’s a per-mile increase of $247 million from $156 million.
Why the increased costs? In February 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio first announced plans for the streetcar route. As other routes were examined, serious underground infrastructure issues were found and resulted in the increased budget estimates for the project. It probably also resulted in an extended planning time as the area would have to be more thoroughly studied. Crain’s put it best in their report: The infrastructure study helped to insulate the city from risk in the event it had to scrap the project, but it also delayed the project and drove up costs.
The project, which was scheduled to be completed in 2024, was supposed to be funded through property tax revenue as the land around the route increased in value. Those plans changed too. Now, the project is scheduled to be completed in 2029 and requires $1 billion from the federal government. Money set aside by the city for the BQX is being spent on other priorities, including affordable housing.
It sounds like de Blasio is still focused on the prize. “The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has experienced incredible growth. Now it’s time for our transit system to catch up,” de Blasio said in a statement. “The BQX is one of the biggest, most ambitious projects in a generation. It will be a challenge, but New York City is taking it on.”
Plans are still underway for the city to examine the environmental impact of the project and kick off the public review process in 2020. Friends of the BQX, the tram’s independent booster group, support the plan. “This commitment to moving the BQX forward is a huge win for New Yorkers who have been cut off from transit for too long—including more than 40,000 NYCHA residents along the route,” the organization’s executive director, Jessica Schumer, said in a statement. “With the city embroiled in a transit crisis, the BQX will serve as an innovative model for how to build new mass transit sustainably and equitably.”
Of course, much of this depends on the situation in Washington, D.C. according to de Blasio. “We’re about to have two elections, 2018 and 2020, that could entirely remake the Congress and the White House, and then we would be having a very different conversation about infrastructure,” the mayor said. “In any competition for light-rail funding, this proposal would go to the front of the line instantaneously. … Looking around the country, it would cover the most people in the smallest amount of area.”
In addition to timing, costs, and infrastructure issues, there seems to be a few additional challenges. First, if the project starts in 2020, de Blasio has only one year left in office and a successor might not pursue the BQX project. The other issue is that de Blasio has refused to say whether he has discussed the possibility of federal funding with Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer.
Schumer has been struggling to secure funding from the Trump administration to construct a new Amtrak tunnel under the Hudson River and to refurbish the atrophied existing conduit.
In a way, this project is running like much of the transit system – late. But in this case it hasn’t even left the station. And the burning question remains…will any property owners or businesses be displaced by eminent domain in order to make this happen? Stay tuned.