If you’ve been following the saga of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build a $2.5 billion streetcar stretching from Astoria to Sunset Park, you’ll be forgiven for having thought it had died multiple times over now. Instead, the BQX (as its creators at City Hall and Two Trees Management dubbed it) was back in the news last week, earning a front-page shouting match between the Daily News and Hizzoner, as well as headlines insisting it can totally still happen so long as it’s bailed out, improbably, by none other than Donald Trump.
A quick recap is perhaps in order. When the streetcar was first proposed by City Hall back in early 2016, it was presented as a fiscal magic trick: The city would sell bonds to finance the $2.5 billion construction nut for the new line, then pay them off by collecting all the increased property taxes that would pour in from newly valuable waterfront property. Et voilà! A whole new transit line would appear, without having to muck around with the MTA or Governor Andrew Cuomo or new taxes of any sort.
Unfortunately, doing the math revealed that this “value capture” plan — which isn’t the same as Cuomo’s MTA “value capture” plan, that’s another thing entirely — had a major problem. Or two major problems, really. In order to generate $2.5 billion in new tax revenues, the BQX would have to singlehandedly increase property values along the East River by 17 percent — a leap that would earn the streetcar its moniker of the Gentrification Express.
The good news is that there’s almost no way that a new streetcar alone would ever cause such a leap in property values, if only because making the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront real estate market any more white-hot would cause it to completely vaporize. “New York is doing this backward in some ways: They have the real estate development that’s gone all along the water; they rezoned all that stuff in Williamsburg ten years ago,” Columbia University Ph.D. candidate and transit finance expert Lauren Fischer told the Voice last year. “They have the demand, they have the people — and now they’re putting in the transportation.”
The bad news about the good news is that without the gentrification, there’s no way to pay off the bonds. Fischer, who has studied light-rail financing in many cities worldwide, was blunt: “People see it as ‘I’m not even going to worry about the money, because it’s self-sustaining.’ But the truth is, it’s not.”
Fischer’s comments came as the city’s Economic Development Corporation was preparing to release a financial report explaining just how the BQX would too pay its own way, and not just cannibalize property-value increases that would happen anyway because Brooklyn’s gotta Brooklyn. Originally scheduled for release last spring, the report still hadn’t materialized by August, and then disappeared off the radar; in a reply to an email sent by the Voice last month, EDC confirmed there was still “nothing imminent” on the financial-study front.
Into this breach stepped Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s pet vampire squid, who has made it her job to promote real estate development at all costs, with predictable results to her public image. Last week, the Daily News reported that Glen had given a talk at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, where she’d acknowledged that “assuming that [the BQX] does not pay for itself…then we have to decide whether or not this is the right use of capital money.” Then she added that if the streetcar can’t pay its own way, maybe the federal government could help out, concluding jokingly (we think): “Hi, Donald, please send us money for urban mass transit.” That article drew complaints from the mayor during his weekly radio appearance — even while he admitted he would be asking for “some federal support” for the project — which led the News to respond in classic understated fashion.
While all this makes for some great Nelson Muntzing opportunities, it’s important not to lose track of the main story here, which is: Mayor loves streetcar; mayor promises streetcar will be perpetual money-generating machine; mayor backs down and tries to love Trump for long enough to get streetcar money. It all feels like a bit of a Hail Mary — Trump’s announced infrastructure plan is light on actual spending and heavy on providing seed money for private projects (this isn’t one), and we don’t even know how big the funding gap will be, and won’t until EDC releases its financial projections, hopefully before the streetcar site is underwater. For the time being, classify the BQX as mostly dead: The showrunners are holding out hope of bringing it back for a final scare, but we all know how it’s likely to turn out in the end.