BQX’s ambition is unmatched, but its finances are misunderstood

By Rohit Aggarwala

August 6, 2017

The idea of bringing back streetcars to New York City is often discussed with an air of carnival and nostalgia. Though New York was once home to the nation’s largest trolley system, streetcars haven’t been used since the last one was decommissioned in the 1957. Since then, there have been various plans to bring streetcars back to New York, but they emerged at the wrong time or were too unrealistic in their ideas for what a streetcar might achieve.

Now, there is a plan that is both realistic and visionary, and which comes at exactly the right time: the Brooklyn-Queens Connector. The BQX would be a modern streetcar running along the waterfront from Sunset Park to Astoria. With a dedicated right of way for almost all of its route, the BQX would be faster than driving and far more pleasant than the bus. It would link the entire set of waterfront neighborhoods and give them access to the subway and the East River Ferry system.

But the BQX would be more than just a transit improvement. It would knit multiple neighborhoods into a single, well-connected waterfront, giving it the kind of identity and unity that the Hudson River Park provides for a long stretch of Manhattan’s western edge. Unlike a bus, the geographical power of a streetcar line is self-reinforcing, physically and symbolically creating community where it previously did not exist.

BQX would also offers the opportunity to explore how a state-of-the-art system could be operated and managed. Construction can and should use a design-build model of procurement, which will leverage private-sector expertise while retaining public control. Operations could be contracted out to a responsible operator who would be required to use union labor and pay living wages, but would still deliver the efficiency of the private sector. All in all, the BQX could help New York develop the template for how our transit system needs to evolve.

Further, the BQX would allow New York City to develop a new funding model at a time when budgets are being slashed in Albany and Washington. The BQX relies on value capture, where the increase in property value (and consequent tax revenue) generated from a large infrastructure project pays for the project itself. This has proven effective at Hudson Yards, and New York needs to use that model more.To build the infrastructure necessary to support a 21st-century global city, we must be smart and diversify how we fund large municipal projects.

This speaks to a common misconception about the BQX: that the funds used to build the streetcar could instead be allocated to other transportation projects. The BQX’s self-funding model is linked to economic development along its route. Outside of some pockets where residential development has grown in recent years, there are large stretches of waterfront property along the East River that remain relatively underutilized, and this creates the unique conditions necessary to fund this project.

Not moving forward with the BQX will not result in more funds for other projects—only in lost opportunity. As a result, it’s a mistake to think of BQX just as a transportation project. In reality, it is integrated, transit-oriented economic development. Its ambition and scale are unlike anything seen in this country, where streetcar projects have not always delivered the benefits promised. Rather it will be more akin to the urban light rail that is so common in major European cities.

And that, in turn, raises perhaps the greatest opportunity the BQX presents: as a project through which to develop a new model where neighborhood change does not force out the people who live there. Some neighborhood groups have expressed the concern that the BQX will be yet one more engine of gentrification. To the extent that that means neighborhoods will be more attractive, accessible and prosperous, that is true. But it doesn’t need to mean current residents get priced out. At the Regional Plan Association, we have been exploring ideas for how tenants and small businesses can be served rather than fall victim to rising rents. We don’t have all the answers, but if both the proponents and the concerned neighbors of the BQX can work together to arrive at a plan, it could be the template for an approach to economic development without displacement.

From construction to completion, the BQX would improve the lives of the 400,000 residents who live along the waterfront or work in emerging jobs centers like Brooklyn Navy Yard. It will create hundreds of jobs for the New Yorkers who build it, and connect residents to thousands more once it is complete. It would also finally eliminate many transit deserts that families have lived in for generations, including thousands of New York City Housing Authority residents along the route.

The citizens of New York City can be proud of a project like the BQX—one that is funded from, built by, and works for those who live here. It will not only bring jobs but also a sense of community to the neighborhoods along the East River. Most importantly, it will serve as a model for future projects in the city.

Rohit Aggarwala is chairman of the Fourth Regional Plan of the Regional Plan Association and a former director of sustainability for the Bloomberg administration.

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this op-ed was published in the Aug. 7, 2017, print issue of Crain’s New York Business.