• Links: Competing views on the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar · I’m heading out of town to take a few extra days off around the Presidents’ Day Weekend so content will be light over the next few days. I’ll post the service advisories on Friday night, but unless big news breaks, I don’t plan on publishing anything else. That doesn’t mean I’ll leave you with nothing though. We’ll always have streetcar takes.

    For your consideration, Yonah Freemark offers up a wary view of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector proposal while Sam Schwartz defends his work. Schwartz, who led the team studying the transit options, explains how his group determined a subway was too costly and bus too slow and insufficient for the area’s transit needs. Freemark, on the other hand, wants to see truly dedicated rights-of-way, free transfers and better connections between a streetcar and other transit modes, and, most importantly, zoning that eliminates parking requirements and allows for greater density along the streetcar route. The problem with hugging the waterfront is, of course, that we can’t build for height in the ocean.

    I’m in the process of learning more about the nuts and bolts of Schwartz’s proposal, and while many think this plan is dead on arrival, from what I’ve heard, it seems to have a better chance than most at becoming a New York reality. (Unfortunately, the same may be said for the fatally flawed Laguardia AirTrain, but more on that next week.) For now, enjoy the weekend reading. If anything, the streetcar proposal has thrust the option of light rail in New York City back in the public mind, and hopefully, something good can come of it, whether it’s the Brooklyn-Queens Connector or a better route through a more transit-starved area. · (15)

Before Mayor de Blasio’s streetcar bombshell last week, the MTA’s L train problem had taken center stage. With word out that the agency will have to shut the Canarsie Tube for either 18 or 36 months to perform unavoidable Sandy-related repairs, the Williamsburg and Bushwick communities, to say nothing of those further east, were up in arms, and the group’s first meeting with the MTA ended badly. The MTA official sent to listen wasn’t prepared to talk, and the community organizers summarily kicked him out of the meeting. Things could only go from there, and so far, they have, bit by bit.

Following meetings at the end of last week with local politicians, the MTA sent out a Saturday press release promising to work collaboratively with the neighborhoods to minimize the affects of the shutdowns. As the bench walls that line the Canarsie Tubes, for starters, will have to be torn out and rebuilt, lengthy shutdowns are all but unavoidable. The agency, however, will listen to concerns and plot alternative options as best it can.

“The Canarsie Tubes were heavily damaged during Superstorm Sandy when they were flooded with 7 million gallons of saltwater, which has eaten away at the metal and concrete materials that make up the tubes’ infrastructure,” agency head Tom Prendergast said. “We need to bring the Canarsie Tubes to a state of good repair, and we need to work closely with the community and its elected officials to determine the best way to proceed with this work and provide travel alternatives while it occurs.”

On Friday, Prendergast and new NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim met with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney along with State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, City Council Member Stephen Levin and representatives from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ and Senator Daniel Squadron’s office. It was a veritable gathering of the minds, and these politicians convinced the MTA to consult with the communities affected by a shutdown while planning the work. Maloney, who was key in securing billions of federal dollars for the Fix & Fortify work, seemed happy. “Our meeting with Chairman Prendergast was productive,” she said, “and I am very pleased that the MTA has agreed to host community engagement meetings in the near future so that all my constituents who will be affected by the work can be sure that their concerns are heard.”

In announcing these meetings, the MTA stressed the benefits of the L line work. The agency plans to piggyback additional upgrades onto the Sandy repair work, which will include more entrances at the Bedford Ave. stop and staircases at Ave. A on the Manhattan side of the tunnel. The MTA will also install three new power substations which should allow for more frequent service. If only digging out tail tracks west of 8th Ave. were part of the plan as well.

But in announcing this community consultation process, the agency stressed that, while the tubes are reliable for now, 7100 feet of tunnel need to be repaired, and there’s no real good way around that. The community group is set to convene again on February 24, but the MTA hasn’t yet pledged to attend that meeting. Hopefully, the next few sessions are more cooperative and collaborative on both sides that the last. Otherwise, this already-painful process will just become worse.

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A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

Once more unto the Brooklyn Queens Connector we go. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

In the likely scenario that the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Bill de Blasio’s developer-backed waterfront streetcar, never sees the light of day, an inch of progress, a foot of rail, or revenue service, what happens to the $2.5 billion the mayor thinks he has lined up to boost this project? It won’t wind up going toward some other transit project. As hard as we wish it to, the Mayor won’t come to his senses and fund more of the Second Ave. Subway, the Triboro RX proposal, or reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch. It won’t even go to his long-forgotten nine-month old call for a Utica Ave. Subway extension.

As various sides coalesce for or against the BQX, I believe it’s important to recognize this plan as an all-or-nothing affair. As I’ve mentioned before, de Blasio has latched onto it for two reasons. First, follow the money. The developers who stand to benefit — and who could help fund a reelection campaign — see this is a value-add for their waterfront buildings. It helps Two Trees, a company that will otherwise face a massive transit crunch as it builds out the Domino Sugar Factory site in Williamsburg, and it can be billed as an assist for transit-starved areas and neighborhoods lacking in interconnectivity. Second, it allows de Blasio to promote a transit project that his political nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo can’t touch or exploit. In essence, that’s the realpolitik of the QBX, and if it doesn’t happen, the money will simply go toward other city services and not some badly needed transit enhancements.

By itself, though, that the money and political will may be there isn’t enough to drive the project to completion. A previous feasibility study focusing on only the Red Hook-to-Dumbo section of the streetcar line [pdf] couldn’t justify the expense, and while this new routing is an improvement with connections north through Williamsburg and into Queens and south past Sunset Park and Industry City, it’s not a top-five corridor in need of better transit and may not even crack the top ten.

As reactions have rolled in, planning and politics have pushed the realpolitik of the money situation and Cuomo dynamic a bit out of the picture. Let’s look at Jon Orcutt’s take. The former DOT policy director and current advocacy and communications director of the TransitCenter offered up this view that a $2.5 billion project isn’t worth the cost:

From my experience, the biggest travel problem for most people is commuting to Manhattan, as straphangers battling their way onto rush-hour No. 4 or L trains will attest. The apparent lack of connections to subways in Williamsburg and an absence of free transfers to the subway and buses could further depress usage. Add it all up, and the market for travel along the waterfront seems far too small to warrant an investment of this size.

There’s a reason the streetcar proposal runs where it does: because it was hatched by developers putting in high-end condo buildings along the waterfront, now incongruously backed by the populist de Blasio. And although supporters are now putting forth arguments about transit access for low-income New Yorkers, most NYCHA sites along the streetcar route are already near subway stops. In fact, the streetcar route into Sunset Park directly parallels D, N and R subway service one block away. Red Hook certainly needs transportation improvement, but executing the city’s plan for a Select Bus route from Red Hook to Manhattan via the uncongested Battery Tunnel would meet the area’s travel needs in a much more direct way.

From what we know about the BQX to date, it is not part of any thought-out transportation strategy. Compare this to London, where light rail was introduced in the 1980s with deliberate planning for an area with no Underground service and for high-speed, completely dedicated rail rights of way. The service was always well integrated into Underground stations and fare systems.

I highlight that sentence regarding a transportation strategy because I said something similar to The Guardian last week. Is de Blasio planning to create a streetcar network or is this single line, with a massive up-front capital investment, all he has since that’s all his developer supporters have requested? It’s a question worth asking.

Meanwhile, as we stray further into politics, the realpolitik comes back into play. A bunch of Brooklyn politicians have more or less decried the streetcar plan because it’s not going into other projects. Mark Treyger, for reasons he probably cannot defend, wants the money to restart F express service; Chaim Deutsch wants to invest in subway accessibility; and Vincent Gentile wants better R train service and a streetcar into Bay Ridge. Conveniently, these three council members seem content to let Gov. Cuomo, the real man in charge of the MTA, off the hook. After all, why should de Blasio invest billions of dollars into something he can’t control that’s run by someone with whom he cannot cooperate?

I’ve said in the past I want to like this project, but it’s starting to rub me the wrong way. We haven’t seen the report defending the ridership figures or investment dollars. We have a map produced by Crain’s New York that’s laughable in its twists and turns, and we have a political fight between Albany and City Hall being waged by a mayor who comes across as the pawns of real estate interests. It’s ugly and not quite kosher. But when the dollars go back into something that isn’t a transit investment, will be worse off or not? That’s the $2.5 billion question.

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The post-Super Bowl party clean-up got the best of me on Sunday. So I didn’t have time to write up a full post with additional reaction to the Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar and the realpolitik behind the mayor’s developer-backed initiative. As you might guess, that’s coming later tonight. In the meantime, two links for you to browse today.

Gothamist takes on subway slashings

If you listen to NYPD brass talk about the subway, it’s a dangerous place where too many riders are creating unsafe conditions because they keep jostling each other and also it’s not crowded enough at certain times. In other words, none of it makes much sense, and the contradictions are laid bare in this unsigned editorial that relies on anecdotes from unnamed police officers to make it sound like the subways are more dangerous than ever. They’re not, and in fact, despite a spate of recent slashings, the subways are safer than they’ve ever been. A small uptick in crime numbers this year and last hasn’t kept pace with massive ridership gains, and the crime rate underground is at a record low.

As I wrote last week, the NYPD refuses to get serious about sexual assault underground and instead are using slashing as a scare tactic. Over at Gothamist, Jake Dobkin tried to do away with this argument once and for all. As Dobkin notes, nearly all of the subway slashings have come about as a result of an argument between two passengers. These aren’t random attacks but rather avoidable incidents that shouldn’t be treated as a symptom of danger. Prior to another incident this weekend that arose from a fight between two passengers, he writes:

Sure, I understand that it’s annoying to get screamed at by a crazy person, but you have to be pretty stupid, insecure, or insane yourself to get upset by it. Take a deep breath, summon up some sympathy for the poor, afflicted soul who’s causing the trouble, and then feel lucky that you had the presence of mind to avoid a preventable altercation. Seven out of ten of this year’s subway stabbings and slashings happened because people ignored this advice! Don’t let that happen to you…Our subways and our streets are safer now than at any time in the last forty years.

By promoting the idea that the subways are somehow unsafe when they are not, the NYPD is, intentionally or not, undercutting public support for a vibrant subway system. That’s a dangerous, dangerous game to play.

City Journal takes on the Port Authority

For your weekly dose of Port Authority hate, check out Seth Barron’s magnum opus on the agency’s incompetence and corruption. For those who have followed over the years, Barron’s piece treads familiar ground: no accountability on either side of the Hudson, no ability to set priorities or control costs, and no real long-term vision all plague the Port Authority as it has deviated from its core mission. Barron toys with dismantling the Port Authority entirely but realizes there are considerable obstacles to such a plan. But no politician has an appetite for reform. It’s as close to an intractable problem as the region’s transportation structure has right now.

Categories : PANYNJ, Subway Security
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If you somehow missed the big news this week, boy, are you in for some fun regarding streetcars. Read about Mayor de Blasio’s plan for a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront street first and then browse the reaction to his plan. Earlier in the week, we discovered once again that NYC’s top officials never seem to ride the subway. More on that — and the NYPD overreaction to a few discrete instances of assaults in the subway — next week.

Meanwhile, we have some weekend work to contend with. That snow storm on Friday morning wasn’t enough to send everyone into a tizzy so the service diversions continue as planned. As always, these come to me from the MTA. If there are mistakes, take it up with them.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, 1 trains are suspended in both directions between 14 St and South Ferry. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Chambers St and South Ferry.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, 3 trains are suspended in both directions between Harlem-148 St and 96 St. Take the 2 and free shuttle buses instead. Free shuttle buses operate between 135 St and 148 St stopping at 145 St.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, February, 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run local from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, February 6 and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, February 7, 5 trains run every 20 minutes between Eastchester-Dyre Av and Bowling Green. Downtown 5 trains run local from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, A trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 59 St Columbus Circle.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, A trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, February 7, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Uptown A trains run express 59 St-Columbus Circle to 125 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Brooklyn-bound A trains skip 104 St.


From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, February 6 and February 7 C trains are rerouted on the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.


From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, February 5 and February 7, Uptown C trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to 125 St.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, February, 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Uptown D trains stop at 14 St and 23 St.


From 5:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, February 6 and February 7, Norwood-205 St bound D trains skip Bay 50 St and 25 Av.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, E trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and W4 St-Wash Sq. Free shuttle busses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, February 7, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, February 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer bound E trains run express from 21 St-Queensbridge to Forest Hills-71 Av.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer bound E trains skip 75 Av and Briarwood.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, February 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, World Trade Center-bound E trains run local from Forest Hills-71 Av to 21 St-Queensbridge.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains skip 75 Av, Briarwood, and Sutphin Blvd.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F trains skip 4 Av-9St, 15 St-Prospect Park and Fort Hamilton Pkwy. Take the G instead. Transfer between F and G trains at Smith-9 Sts, 7 Av or Church Av.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, February 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F trains run local from Forest Hills-71 Av to 21 St-Queensbridge.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, J trains are suspended in both directions between Hewes St and Broad St. J service operates between Jamaica Center and Hewes St. Take free shuttle buses and 46F trains instead. Free shuttle buses operate between Hewes St and Essex St, stopping at Marcy Av. For direct service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, consider using the AC or L via free transfer at Broadway Junction.


From 6:00 a.m. to 12 Midnight Saturday, February 6 and Sunday, February 7, M trains are suspended in both directions between Myrtle Av and Essex St. M service operates between Metropolitan Av and Myrtle Av all weekend. Take the JL and/or free shuttle buses instead. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Hewes St and Essex St, stopping at Marcy Av. For direct service to/from Manhattan, use the L via transfer at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, February 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, February 8, Q trains are suspended in both directions between 57 St-7 Av and Kings Hwy. Q service operates between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Kings Hwy. Free shuttle buses operate as follows:

  • Express (non-stop) between Kings Hwy and Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr.
  • Local between Kings Hwy and Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr, making all stops.
  • For service To Manhattan, take the DFN from Coney Island-Stillwell Av. For service to Coney Island-Stillwell Av, take the DFN at 34 St-Herald Sq or the DN at Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr.


From 6:00 a.m. to 12 Midnight Saturday, February 6 and Sunday, February 7, Forest Hills-71 Av bound R trains run express from Queens Plaza to Forest Hills-71 Av.

Categories : Service Advisories
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A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

The Brooklyn-Queens Connector is metaphorically and physically heading right toward us. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

After a day of headlines and intense discussion regarding the Mayor’s endorsement of a $2.5 billion waterfront streetcar connecting Brooklyn and Queens, Bill de Blasio’s State of the City speech was almost anticlimactic. His prepared comments contained only a few sentences on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, and the fact sheet [pdf]his administration released on Thursday was light on details. We haven’t yet seen the report promoting this plan with its projections of 53,000 daily riders and $25 billion in economic activity over some indeterminate period of time, but it’s coming. Or so the mayor said.

“Tonight,” de Blasio said, “I am announcing the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, a state-of-the-art streetcar that will run from Astoria to Sunset Park, and has the potential to generate over $25 billion of economic impact for our city over 30 years. New Yorkers will be able to travel up and down a 16-mile route that links a dozen waterfront neighborhoods. The BQX has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”

According to the mayor’s fact sheet, the administration “will begin engaging communities along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront this year to develop a conceptual framework and expects to break ground on the project in 2019-2020.” That’s an aggressive timeline considering how Community Boards are structured to say no to everything new, and the city is going to have to line up the dollars while assuaging NIMBY concerns. Even with these challenges and a revenue service date that extends beyond de Blasio’s tenure in office whether he wins reelection or not, there’s plenty of reaction to go around.

First, a few of my random one-off thoughts.

In a way, the tweet speaks for itself. We need to be careful about what sort of infrastructure we’re placing in flood-prone areas and how we can best protect these investments. There is also a more expansive conversation to be had about whether or not city policies should be encouraging more development and growth in neighborhoods most vulnerable to climate change and future flooding.

In another vein, although it’s promising that de Blasio is the first city official in a while to look outside of Manhattan for transit expansion efforts, a mix of valid complaints and New York City parochialism has other boroughs peeved. Staten Island is upset that its five-year requests for streetcars has gone largely ignored, and no one is even considering transit through the Bronx, a densely populated borough that desperately needs additional high-speed, high-capacity transit lines. Even certain areas of Manhattan should be miffed as we’re only a few months removed from Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway being delayed. There are clear class issues at play as waterfront developers fund their streetcar project while East Harlem has to wait longer for a badly needed Second Ave. Subway. In fact, this speaks to the next issue regarding state and city cooperation.

As Jillian Jorgensen explores, de Blasio’s streetcar proposal highlights the tensions between NYC and Albany with regards to transit planning. We live in a city where our local transit decisions are controlled by the state capital and governor. The only way the mayor can bring projects into being is by bypassing the agencies that run our extensive transit network. Thus, a waterfront streetcar that isn’t part of the MTA’s network avoids meddlesome interference from Andrew Cuomo and the other electeds in Albany.

“I’m agnostic on the politics,” Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, said to Jorgensen. “I’m not a political commentator, but yes, it’s obvious that the city is looking for things that it controls, and it control the city streets.”

Others involved in the planning process see benefits to avoiding state agencies. “Everything is within the city family to do it,” Sam Schwartz, a major proponent of the BQX, said “It makes it easier and faster, and in my estimation probably would cost less, than having the feds involved, the state involved, all these oversight committees, whereas the city has a pretty good process.”

Others were a bit more skeptical of the plan. The Transit Center posed a series of questions New Yorkers should see answered before they embrace this plan. Two stand out to me: “If New York City has $2.5 billion to spend on improving transportation, what evidence indicates starting a streetcar system is the best use of the money?” and “What is the anticipated role of streetcars in the city’s transportation strategy?” It’s not really clear if de Blasio (or, for that matter, Cuomo) really has a holistic plan for improving transportation in New York City or anything related to access and mobility. Is this streetcar part of a bigger plan or is it just a cool idea? These are questions the administration will have to answer.

And finally, over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried unequivocally states that the proposal simply doesn’t add up. He looks at underserved neighborhoods and subway connections, questions surrounding the price tag and fare integration, and what should be the cities other transit priorities to conclude “there’s no way this proposal will deliver on the hype. What we’re going to end up with is a highly-subsidized transit route with modest ridership at best.” His critique is well worth a read.

Ultimately, though, I’m struck with a question regarding our assessment of this project. The transit literati will always have their pet projects and their fantasy maps. Right now, the consensus seems to be focusing around the idea that this project isn’t A-Number-One on the priority list, but it seems to be good enough. There’s a powerful coalition of backers who are willing to contribute the resources to see this through. It may not be great, but there appears to be a need for it. It also solves issues of interconnectivity and mobility between neighborhoods. Is that good enough? So long as other, more worthwhile projects aren’t jeopardized, it just might be.

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This rendering shows the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar passing Industry City. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

This rendering shows the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar passing Industry City. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his State of the City speech, is set to announce support for a $2.5 billion plan to build a light rail that would connect the rapidly developing Brooklyn and Queens waterfront areas. The proposal, developed over the past six months by a group of real estate developers, transportation advocates and urban planners calling itself the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, aims to provide better transit options for job centers in Industry City, Red Hook and the Brooklyn Navy Yards while easing the north-south connections between Astoria, Long Island City and parts south throughout Brooklyn. It is not a slam-dunk proposal from a transit perspective, and the city will have to make the case that it is a sound investment considering the city’s competing needs.

We learned about the plan, in fairly specific detail, a few weeks ago when initial studies were leaked to the press, and on Wednesday, Michael Grynbaum of The Times broke news the streetcar would be a headliner during de Blasio’s speech. He wrote:

The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic — a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys…The streetcar system, which would realize a long-held fantasy of the city’s urban planners, is expected to cost about $2.5 billion, significantly less than a new underground subway line, city officials said on Wednesday.

Its operation, however, remains far-off. Under the plan, construction would start in 2019, after studies and community review; service would begin several years after that, perhaps not until 2024, officials said. Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, acknowledged “some significant engineering challenges when you are putting a modern system like this in a very old city.”

But Ms. Glen said the city’s existing transit network no longer met the needs of a metropolis whose commuting patterns have shifted significantly in the last two decades. A streetcar route, she said in an interview, offered a novel and practical fix at a time when federal money for infrastructure is scarce. “The old transportation system was a hub-and-spoke approach, where people went into Manhattan for work and came back out,” Ms. Glen said. “This is about mapping transit to the future of New York.”

A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

The routing is as reported a few weeks back. The system would terminate in Sunset Park near Industry City, travel through Red Hook and then along the waterfront through Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO to the Navy Yards before passing the Two Trees’ Domino development in Williamsburg and journeying through Greenpoint en route to Long Island City and the western edge of Astoria. While early reports aren’t definite on this number, I’ve been told that, despite renderings, the city would like more than 70 percent of the streetcar route to run on a dedicated right of way. Any mixed-traffic plan should be discarded immediately, but those details have yet to be fully made public.

Some of the city’s transit and development experts are excited by the deal. There is a desperate need for north-south transportation between Brooklyn and Queens,” NYU’s Mitchell Moss said to The Times in an earlier version of Grynbaum’s article. “This is going to do more to encourage more housing than any other transit improvement currently underway.”

Others though are less convinced, and in an explosion of analysis early on Wednesday, various folks who contribute to what has been termed Transit Twitter expressed a healthy degree of skepticism directed toward this project. It isn’t, they contended, on a route that isn’t already served by somewhat nearby subway lines or, in some places, very nearby subway lines, including the G train, and buses that run through the areas don’t have ridership that would lend itself to a successful fixed rail system. Plus, for $2.5 billion, the city could effectively ensure enough money for the MTA to bond out the dollars required to build more phases of the Second Ave. Subway and the Utica Ave. subway, two projects that would be more impactful that a new light rail system not prohibitively far from an existing subway route.

A map of the proposed streetcar route. Click the image to enlarge.

A map of the proposed streetcar route. Click the image to enlarge.

There is the question too of the drivers behind this route. Considering the city’s other needs and potential funding opportunities, why a streetcar and why here? Two Trees seems to be a major player in this effort and in waterfront development up and down this Brooklyn Queens Connector corridor, and they stand to benefit the most from more waterfront access. Plus, as The Times notes, this light rail project wouldn’t require state approval or oversight. Thus, de Blasio can push through a major infrastructure project without running into interference from Andrew Cuomo, his gubernatorial nemesis up the road.

Despite the initial objections and the ins and outs of the politics behind this plan, as I said a few weeks ago, I don’t hate this idea so long as it’s implemented properly. The city has been pushing to bring jobs to both Industry City and the Navy Yards, and while few people would take the 27 minute north-to-side ride from Sunset Park to Astoria, a lot of people would ride from one end to the middle or from the middle to an end. (Anyway, who rides the A regularly from Inwood to the Rockaways? That’s not quite the point of a lengthy transit route.) Plus, with a northern terminus planned for Astoria, it’s not a stretch to see a future connection to Laguardia Airport via the BMT’s Ditmars Boulevard terminal. That’s a far more appealing option than Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s misguided Willets Point AirTrain.

To be a success, this light rail line must run in its own dedicated lane and, for better or worse, be integrated into the MTA’s fare structure. The city should consider upzoning where possible along its route, but already, many including former NYC DOT planning director Jon Orcutt, don’t believe the funding scheme is realistic. That’s part of the case the mayor will have to make.

Ultimately, it’s a big idea and it’s a new idea with shiny technology that we don’t have here in New York City. That angle is going to drive part of the dialogue around this plan, but in reality, we need to see a rigorous defense that justifies $2.4 billion in light of competing needs. Building because some developers are willing to foot the bill simply supports the idea that there are two New Yorks — one where access to money and power gets things done and another stuck depending change but unable to realize it. Transportation investments that will reverberate through the decades deserve a bit more consideration than that.

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens
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  • MTA announces record ridership on Metro-North, LIRR · In what has seemingly become a regular rite of passage for the region’s commuter rail lines, the MTA yesterday announced record ridership on both Metro-North and the LIRR for 2015. Metro-North saw 86.1 million customers last year, and the LIRR carried 87.6 million customers, the highest total since 1949. Metro-North’s ridership has doubled since the agency came into being in 1983.

    The MTA believes that a mix of a younger ridership base that doesn’t want to drive (coupled with how miserable it is to drive into New York City) along with a strong regional economy has led to this higher ridership levels. “When ridership set records back in 2008, many said it was because of high gasoline prices, and that certainly is one factor,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “But gas prices have sunk to low levels and the trend is continuing. We are seeing the confluence a strengthening regional economy, healthier downtowns around the region, a new generation of millennials who values public transportation, and greater productivity on board our trains through the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops. Customers are also responding to improvements we have made, including more frequent trains, improving on-time performance, a fleet of modern new electric cars, expanding availability of real-time information, and more channels for customer communication.”

    Interestingly, the MTA notes that Metro-North’s gains in non-commuter trips is increasing faster than its regular commuter base, and the railroad reports that its stations west of the Hudson are seeing higher spikes in ridership than those to the east. The Port Jervis Line and Pascack Valley Line saw gains of nearly 5 percent. Meanwhile, the MTA notes that ridership should continue to increase over the next six years when the East Side Access project comes online, and Metro-North begins service into Penn Station shortly thereafter. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s main line expansion project as well as local pols’ push to introduce a Freedom Ticket could lead to higher ridership numbers as well. It’s all part of an improved mobility picture for the New York region. Now how about that capital funding? · (25)

The MTA’s new subway stations, such as 34th St.-Hudson Yards, are fully accessible, but the feds are putting pressure on the agency to make more older stations accessible as well. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

When it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the MTA has a rather tortured history with accessibility improvements the agency needs to make. Due to ever-spiraling costs and issues regarding available space, the agency has likely not fulfilled its obligations to make stations accessible during rehabilitation work, and it has hid behind the shield of its list of 100 Key Stations that will be fully accessible within the next few years. A new report though exposes these efforts for what they were: insufficient and likely wasteful.

Most recently, the MTA has used accessibility issues to stonewall on reopening closed entrances. The agency has claimed at various points that restoring station access via entrances closed in the early 1990s would trigger ADA requirements that make efforts to reopen closed stairways cost-prohibitive. That seem concern didn’t lead the agency to make the Smith-9th Sts. station fully accessible during a multi-year, multi-hundred-million dollar renovation effort, but I digress.

Late last week, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal brought some attention to this issue. I quote at length:

The cost of making the New York City subway more accessible for disabled riders could rise by more than $1.7 billion as federal regulators prod the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to add elevators to more stations in the 111-year-old system. The higher price tag through 2019 for subway-station improvements represents an unforeseen potential expense for the MTA as it struggles to pay for a backlog of repair and expansion projects…

At issue is how the nation’s largest transit system complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal law aimed at making public spaces accessible to those who have difficulty climbing stairs and may rely on a cane or wheelchair. The MTA quantified the potential increase in station costs in a recent filing for investors who buy the authority’s bonds, citing stricter federal guidelines for complying with the 25-year-old law. The Federal Transit Administration’s push is the latest bout in a decadeslong fight over making MTA’s sprawling network more accessible for the disabled. Advocates for the disabled and a former top MTA official say the authority has moved too slowly in making the city’s now 469 subway stations more accessible. An MTA spokesman said the authority is sensitive to disabled riders’ needs and has been working to improve accessibility…

As pressure to accommodate disabled passengers began to grow years ago, the MTA and other transportation agencies around the country invested in making bus systems more accessible and paratransit services that offer automobile rides for the disabled, said Howard Roberts, a former top official at the MTA. “It turns out that was a horrendously bad decision,” Mr. Roberts said. “It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”

…The federal government, which provides a major chunk of funding for transportation funding nationwide, aimed to clarify how local agencies should comply with the law, this former federal official said. That could mean triggering ADA-required improvements—including expensive elevators—sooner than local agencies might have planned. That has resulted in a behind-the-scenes tug of war between federal and MTA officials. Inside the MTA, officials have balked at the suggestion the agency must install elevators when it makes repairs to subway-station staircases, according to people familiar with the matter…A Federal Transit Administration spokeswoman said in an email that the agency has been “advising MTA for years to comply with ADA during renovation projects.”

You may wonder why no one has sued the MTA over ADA violations, and this is a question I’ve asked recently as well. I’ve been led to believe that the disabilities advocacy groups are facing funding issues and simply have not been able to raise the money to fund the lawsuits necessary to force the MTA’s hand on this issue. (Roberts’ words too are rather damning for similar reasons.)

As you can see, the feds are applying pressure as they can — which could end up jeopardizing the MTA’s access to certain federal dollars — but ultimately, this is an issue of misplaced priorities and lost opportunities. We can debate for hours whether the ADA, an unfunded federal mandate, is a net positive for everyone, but the MTA should be creating an accessible system that doesn’t rely on the money-suck that is Paratransit. For the dollars flushed down the drain, the MTA could have vastly expanded elevator access at subway stops around the city. Instead, only 22 percent of stations are accessible, and as the population ages, this problem will become more pronounced. Your ideas for solving this are as good as mine, but the MTA could start by reassessing its interpretation of the ADA.

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NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, left, found the subways to be quite crowded during a ride last week. He shouldn’t have been so surprised. (Via Twitter)

I don’t tend to cover subway crime much on these pixeled pages. As a storyline, subway crime tends more toward clickbait than real coverage with the city’s tabloids preying on decades’-old fears of the subways a hot bed for crime. The reality is far more boring with the NYPD reporting less than seven major felonies per day in the subway, a far cry from even as recently as 1997 when major felonies topped 17 per day. The subways are very safe, and that truth makes for dull press.

Now and then, though, something related to subway crime draws me in. This story is tangentially related to the “spate” of subway slashings. I use “spate” with some trepidation as six incidents in January is hardly a sign of a return to the bad old days, but these crimes follow a pattern. Two people have a heated interaction on a crowded subway car or platform, one slashes the other and flees. The cops have made three arrests and are investigating the other three, including one that unfolded this past weekend.

The slashings, in and of themselves, are warnings to be wary of altercations underground, but the NYPD’s reaction has been telling. To assess safety underground, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton last week decided to ride the subway — with some fellow higher-ups and a security detail — to assess the safety of the subways. He proclaimed the subways “very safe” and added, “As [NYPD Chief of Department] Jimmy [O’Neill] and I found out this morning, they’re jammed in there like sardines. It’s amazing anyone can assault anyone. People can’t move in some of those cars.”

So it is early 2016 and apparently news to the police official in charge of the entire department that the subways are crowded and room is at a premium. Stop the presses indeed.

Bratton’s attitude and words are indicative of a bigger divide in New York City politics that comes about from granting so many top officials, elected and appointed, the perk of free parking and drivers. These leaders do not take the subways and view the subways and subway riders as “other.” Rather than experiencing the city as so many New Yorkers do on a daily basis through the lens of an hour or more spent riding subways each day, they view the subways as this thing that people who aren’t them — people who are the Other — use. The subways remain vaguely unknown and unsafe. Thus, crowded trains are all hours are viewed as a sign things are hunky dory underground.

It’s true as Bratton surmised, that crowds indicate safety. On a basic level, this indicates safety in numbers as the more riders there are, the safer we all feel. Plus, if millions of people didn’t feel safe taking the subway, the trains would be as empty today as they were during the doldrums of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As an infrequent rider, Bratton drew that seemingly common-sense solution, and he’s not wrong. But he’s also not quite right.

As trains get more crowded, the safety concerns manifest themselves in other ways. Subway riders — especially women — are more worried about sexual harassment and assault in the subways. After all, crowded trains give those so inclined cover for inappropriate contact or worse. Bratton wouldn’t pick up on that nuance if he were only last week discovering how crowded trains were. Riders too are worried about confrontations as space on peak hour trains is at a premium. These slashings have arisen over disputes over seats or standing space or those blocking doorways. With trains packed, we grow protective over our square feet, and watching the MTA’s service strain to meet peak-hour capacity means tense crowds and confrontations that can spiral out of control quickly. This too is not something an infrequent rider would immediately notice.

So what’s the solution? I don’t believe we should force politicians to take the subway. Such a requirement leads to disenchantment and bitterness, and it doesn’t help anyone understand the ins and outs of daily life with the subway. Rather, officials and politicians should take the subway because they want to learn and understand what their constituents experience and want to see the city through the eyes of its millions of transit riders. It’s an instructive way to understand the concerns of the millions of people who ride the subway each day. Thus, politicians and key officials would learn how safety concerns are implicated and what crowded trains mean, and subway riders would become the Normal rather than the Other. As the Other, we’ll be treated at arm’s length. As the Normal, conditions can improve in the right way for the better.

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