The Federal Transit Man: Brooklyn’s Streetcar Named Desire

Written by Larry Penner, FTA Region 2 (Ret.)
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It is no surprise that due to the financial crisis resulting from COVID-19 on New York City’s municipal budget, Mayor Bill de Blasio is reconsidering advancing his $2.7 billion Brooklyn Queens Streetcar Connector (BQX) project. He has 16 factors to consider:

  1. There was never a guarantee that the Federal Transit Administration would pay for 50% of BQX’s cost. Dreams of Amazon doing the same have come and gone, since it canceled coming to Long Island City, Queens.
  2. There is no funding for this project in the New York MTA’s $51 billion 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan. 
  3. There is no commitment to use future Manhattan congestion pricing toll revenues starting in 2021 to help fund this project.
  4. It remains to be seen if BQX will be included within the pending long-range MTA 2020-2040 Capital Needs Assessment Plan document.
  5. There is no proposed funding to advance this project in either the New York City or New York State budgets.
  6. No one knows if the next mayor will support this project and make it a priority.
  7. Mayor de Blasio has yet to request approval to enter the FTA New Starts process for future funding.
  8. The project is not included within the February 2020 FTA New Starts report for federal fiscal year 2021. Don’t count on seeing it in the next FTA New Starts report for federal fiscal year 2022. Successful completion of this process averages five years before there is an approved Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement in place.
  9. BQX has a fatal flaw. It is missing $1.4 billion in federal funding. This has been overlooked for those who champion the project. After five years, there has been no progress in securing federal funding.
  10. In 2015, the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector claimed it could be built for $1.7 billion. In 2016, the NYC Economic Development Corporation said $2.5 billion. Today, the estimated cost is $2.7 billion. How much more might it cost upon completion?
  11. It takes more than a simple planning feasibility study to turn BQX into a viable capital transportation improvement project. There have been no completed environmental documents or design and engineering efforts to validate the $2.7 billion construction costs.
  12. Awarding a $7.25 million consultant contract to perform environmental work supplemented a previous $7 million feasibility study, for a total of $14.25 million. This leaves the project $2.685 billion short of funding needed for completion. The original completion date slipped five years, from 2024 to 2029.
  13. Claims that construction would start in 2019 and service begin in 2024 have come and gone. The environmental review process has been under way since in 2017. Final design and engineering would require several more years. 
  14. De Blasio’s plan to finance BQX by taking a percentage of property taxes (value capture) on new development was always robbing Peter to pay Paul. This would reduce the amount of money available for police, fire, sanitation and other essential municipal services.
  15. Both the NYC Department of Transportation and Economic Development Corporation have no experience in design, construction or operations of streetcar systems. Mayor de Blasio will have to ask the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to serve as a project sponsor and future system operator. The MTA, not wanting to use its own funding, would have to enter the project into the FTA New Starts program. MTA, NYC DOT, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak are all attempting to qualify other projects for the same federal New Starts program.
  16. Completion of a planning study is just the first step of any potential capital transportation project improvement. The journey for a project of this scope can easily take 10 to 20 years before becoming a reality.

Reducing headways and adding equipment to the Brooklyn/Queens Crosstown NYC Transit subway G Line, which runs in close proximity along the same corridor, could quickly be implemented.

Without a billion or more from Washington, don’t count on riding the Brooklyn Queens Connector in your lifetime. Instead, try running simple limited-stop bus service on the same route. The ongoing MTA NYC Transit Queens Bus Network Redesign Draft Plan proposes creation of the new QT 1 bus route. It would cross the Pulaski Bridge to connect Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and downtown Brooklyn. This might make for a low cost, easy to implement improvement, rather than the $2.7 billion Brooklyn/Queens Street Car Connector.

Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Railroad, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit and 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

Editor’s Note: Larry Penner has been contributing contrarian editorials from his perspective as a former FTA official working within the “interesting” world of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area, whose massive agencies account for more than 25% of all public transportation spending, annually. We thought we’d give him a “handle.” Penner came up with The Federal Transit Man. We agreed. — William C. Vantuono

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