The Mysterious Disappearance of Mayor de Blasio’s $2.5B Streetcar Plan


Yesterday morning, a group of Hunter College filmmaking and planning students announced the YouTube debut of Gentrification Express: Breaking Down the BQX. In this seventeen-minute documentary, filmmakers Amanda Katz and Samantha Farinella lay out the case that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s planned $2.5 billion streetcar project is really a Trojan horse for developers to reap a windfall from increased waterfront property values in Brooklyn and Queens.

In the short film, residents of Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Astoria scoff at the notion that a new mode of transit paralleling the G train is even needed (“I don’t go to Brooklyn — I have everything right here,” says one Astoria Houses resident), while transit and planning experts insist that a pricey rail line only makes sense if goosing property values is your goal. “Having a nice bus line will not increase property values nearly as much as a streetcar will,” concludes Hunter College urban studies instructor Sam Stein.

All of which raises the question: Hey, what the hell happened to BQX, anyway? After being the focus of neighborhood “listening sessions” all last year, followed by a winter that saw questions raised about the project’s financing and an April revelation of an internal City Hall report that the streetcar plan “faces several serious challenges,” the onetime showpiece project has largely gone silent, with little mention by City Hall.

Since that internal City Hall memo was leaked last spring, “there’s been real crickets on the city’s side,” says Jon Orcutt, spokesperson for TransitCenter and a former policy director at the city’s Department of Transportation.

A planned in-depth route evaluation by the city’s Economic Development Corporation never appeared in springtime as scheduled. Neither did a refined economic impact study by EDC that was supposed to look at whether increased property-tax receipts would really be “net new,” or merely cannibalized from taxes that otherwise would have been collected if development had gone elsewhere in the city. EDC spokesperson Shavone Williams tells the Voice that “we will continue to study all aspects of the project and work on both analyses,” but “as of now” there’s no target date for their release.

As for Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, the developer-funded transit-wonk group that has taken up the mantle of pushing for the project, executive director Ya-Ting Liu has an op-ed out in Gotham Gazette today that recapitulates supporters’ main arguments for the streetcar — the waterfront needs more transit, the value-capture funding model (i.e., take increased property-tax revenues and kick them back to pay off the streetcar bonds) is “innovative” even if details of how it would work “are still being studied by city government” — without providing much in the way of new information. (Liu did not return Voice queries by press time.)

Mayoral press spokesperson Melissa Grace acknowledges the delay but says there’s no one specific reason for it. BQX is “important and complicated,” she says, and EDC is “working very hard” on its studies. “These are normal things from our point of view.”

For those unsatisfied with the official line and seeking more tea leaves, transit experts offer some possible theories for the radio silence on the part of City Hall:

  • BQX is dead, but nobody wants to identify the body. “That memo that came out was proposing some different climbdown scenarios to the mayor,” says Orcutt. “It seemed like one of the ideas was to not cancel the project, but not build it either.”
  • BQX is waiting on a funding plan that’s surer than value capture, which the April memo noted might not provide enough cash to pay the streetcar’s bills. Lauren Fischer, a Columbia University Ph.D. candidate in urban planning who has extensively studied streetcar projects, notes that it’s not uncommon for cities to hit snags at this stage of the planning process — usually thanks to funding problems.
  • BQX is in stasis until after the election, when it will re-emerge from its chrysalis and once again soar across the city policy landscape.
  • BQX is on hold until the subways stop melting down on a daily basis, at which point it would be less likely that sweat-soaked straphangers would march on City Hall with pitchforks and torches.

Orcutt agrees with Fischer that delays at this stage of the game aren’t unusual — the H Street streetcar in Washington, D.C., he notes, took “three or four different mayors” to get rolling, and even now is a “real dog,” with years of delays and cost overruns, and ridership projections only being met with the help of fare-free rides for at least the next four years. And D.C.’s H Street line is only about one-sixth the length of the plans for BQX.

“I don’t think anybody [else] in the U.S. has talked about building a 17-mile streetcar — this is pretty titanic,” says Orcutt. “Which is one reason the buildability of it is in question: You’d be really tearing up a big part of the borough to actually do this all at once.”

For those who’d like to check out Gentrification Express, it’s embedded below.