Last year at his State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a five-borough ferry network. This year, he’s proposing a $2.5 billion streetcar to link Brooklyn and Queens.
Besides boosting transportation in growing waterfront neighborhoods, those projects have something else in common: they don’t require the involvement of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, controlled by the state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I’m agnostic on the politics—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,” said Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg did it when he made bike lanes a huge part of his transportation agenda. Mr. de Blasio began charting a course last year with the ferries—the MTA isn’t in the ferry business, at least yet—and now he’s doing the same by proposing a method of transit that runs on city property: its streets.
“The city is kind of working with the assets that it has,” Mr. Wright said.
The streetcar, dubbed the Brooklyn Queens Connector, will stretch from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens, connecting several neighborhoods that are seeing a boost in population and jobs. The 16-mile train line will cost the same to ride as the subway, just like Mr. de Blasio’s proposed ferry network. But like the ferry network, the street car will not be an MTA project.
There is, of course, a political upside to this for Mr. de Blasio, who has seen Mr. Cuomo stomp all over previous proposals that would require state action, like an income tax hike, plans to build housing over Sunnyside Yards, and an indefinite extension of mayoral control.
“But more broadly, this is a technology that isn’t being utilized in New York, and that’s a missed opportunity,” Mr. Wright said. “It happens to be something the city can do without federal funding or state involvement, but it’s more about that this is something that should be part of the mix for future mobility in New York City.”
And there are plenty of benefits to the city working on its own that are more tangible and grounded in the real world than the politics at play.
“Everything is within the city family to do it,” said Sam Schwartz, a former traffic commissioner and engineer whose firm worked on the streetcar project early on. “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.”
The city also plans to keep it local when it comes to paying for the streetcar. Mr. de Blasio is arguing the development that is spurred by the streetcar—which he suspects will lure developers to build along the route—will pay for the project. He proposes doing that by creating a Local Development Corporation that can issue tax exempt bonds, and then paying off that debt by capturing part of the increase in property values of existing and new development.
The streetcar line would mark the return of a transportation system that has long been absent from the city. While Mr. Schwartz noted streetcars are not quite light rails, they are similar—and Mr. Wright argued other cities had moved ahead on light rail while New York hadn’t.
“The irony is there’s three systems in the tri-state area. They’re all in New Jersey,” Mr. Wright said. “Including the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which was built in advance of a lot of vacant properties and is now doing quite well and was instrumental in the redevelopment of Jersey City.”
Read more about the streetcar at the Observer.