It is no surprise that due to the financial crises as a result of COVID-19 on the municipal budget, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has abandoned his $2.7 billion Brooklyn Queens Streetcar Connector project known as BQX.
There was never a guarantee that the Federal Transit Administration would pay for 50 percent of the cost. Dreams of Amazon doing the same have come and gone, since they canceled coming to Long Island City. There is no funding for this project in the MTA $51 billion 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. There is no commitment to use future Manhattan congestion pricing toll revenues that may start in 2022 to help fund this project. It remains to be seen if this project will be included within the pending long range MTA 2020 – 2040 Capital Needs Assessment Plan document.
There is no proposed funding to advance this project in either the city or state budgets. No one knows if the next mayor will support this project and make it a priority.
De Blasio never asked NYCDOT Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg to request approval to enter the FTA New Starts process for future funding. The project was 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.
The project always had a fatal flaw. It was missing $1.4 billion in federal funding. This has been overlooked for years by those who champion the project. After five years, there has been no progress in securing federal funding. 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? It takes more than a simple planning feasibility study to turn it 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.
Awarding a $7.25 million consultant contract to perform environmental work supplemented the 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.
Claims that construction would start in 2019 and service begin by 2024 have come and gone. The environmental review process has been underway since 2017. Final design and engineering would require several more years.
The mayor’s plan to finance this project 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. The city DOT and Economic Development Corporation have no experience in design, construction or operations of street car systems. Mayor de Blasio never asked 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.
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. Given the uncertainties of project financing and growing costs for utility, sewer lines and water main relocation, a new limited stop bus route along this corridor makes more sense.
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 MTA NYC Transit Queens Bus Network Redesign Draft Plan currently on hold proposed 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 advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office