Supporters of the proposed light rail line unveiled a life-sized prototype of the streetcar, which would run along the 14-mile waterfront corridor from Astoria to Sunset Park. On Monday, proponents of the project said it would signify the next step of public transportation in New York City.
“Public transit is the key and the missing link to connect New Yorkers to opportunities, to good paying jobs, to education,” said Ya-Ting Liu, executive director of the Friends of BQX, a nonprofit advocacy group pushing the project. “On the heels of Mayor de Blasio’s re-election, we call on the city of New York and the mayor to take action and move this project forward.”
Since the mayor announced the project last February, the BQX has been a topic of discussion among officials, residents and local leaders. Those in favor of the rail project tout its potential to connect 400,000 residents, including 40,000 public housing residents, to booming employment hubs in Long Island City, Williamsburg and Sunset Park.
The unveiling event was hosted at the Navy Yard, a site that is projected to add 10,000 jobs in the next three years, thanks to city investment in expanded manufacturing space.
Liu said the subway system was built more than a century ago, designed to move people toward Manhattan. In 2017, she said, more people are living and working in Brooklyn and Queens, so the transportation system should reflect that shift.
She added that the streetcar will have curb-level boarding that will be accessible to all New Yorkers, open gangways to create more boarding capacity, and possibly a dedicated right of way to move the streetcar faster than buses.
The city is currently analyzing potential routes and financing models as part of the BQX’s feasibility study. It could open as soon as 2024, according to officials.
Liu said letting the public to see an example of what the streetcar could look like allows people to realize that “the city is for real” about the project. The prototype was 46 feet long, nearly nine feet wide, and compromise of two cars and a driver cab.
“Putting something more concrete forward will help crystalize it for more New Yorkers,” she said.
In an interview, Liu also addressed an array of issues that BQX detractors have raised since its conception. Recent news reports raised concerns that the streetcar project would be denied by the governor, but Liu said the land the BQX bypasses is city owned. They wouldn’t need any zoning changes or eminent domain, she said.
“There will always be bureaucratic resistance to these kinds of projects,” Liu said.
On the question of fare integration with MTA buses and trains, Liu said it’s too early at this stage of the planning process to talk about integrating fares. She said she’s confident once the project is further along, it will be “sorted out” by the MTA and city officials.
“It’s used to distract from the main vision,” she said. “This is a red herring.”
Opponents of the project have also denounced the BQX for possibly leading to over-development of waterfront communities. Liu noted that the corridor is already one of the fastest-growing stretches in terms of population growth and development. She said residents will need more reliable transportation soon.
Another concern is how to pay the $2.5 billion price tag, which city officials are sorting out now. Liu said “all options are on the table,” but the Friends of BQX recommended the strategy of value capture, a mechanism that allows the city to generate property tax revenue on the higher land value.
Liu said she believes it’s a way to pay for the project without competing with items in the city’s budget.
“That is a viable financing model,” she said. “We think it’s a progressive way to fund public transit.”
At Monday’s event, both Queens and Brooklyn borough presidents spoke in support of the BQX. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said transportation needs to be a coordinated effort, including ferries, subways, Select Bus Service, bike lanes and even the BQX, which is “part of that huge discussion we need to have.”
“Right now, the most important thing is to make sure that we can move New Yorkers from borough to borough to borough,” Katz said.
She acknowledged that more discussions need to take place first, including figuring out what happens to parking and bike lanes on the corridor.
“Move forward, have this discussion, and see how BQX can benefit the entire city’s economic development, transportation and families that we serve,” Katz said.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said the “devil is the details,” and pledged to analyze the project to make sure it is a win for the public.
“The concept is there. The concept is always the first seed that must be planted until we can produce the right harvest,” he said. “This is on the right track. I fully support this concept.
“Everyone is on board, for the most part, with the concept that we need to improve the transportation that we have from the waterfront to the inland,” Adams added. “BQX should not have a question mark at the end of it. It should have an exclamation point.”
Leaders, advocates and representatives from a variety of industries attended the unveiling to support the project. Claudia Coger, tenant association president at Astoria Houses, said the BQX would provide another mode of transportation for her isolated community.
“Living without easier access to transit means our residents have to struggle more for the opportunities provided to so many others,” she said. “Opportunity means upward mobility.”
She urged the mayor to follow through on his promise to bring more transit to help connect residents to jobs and young people to cultural institutions.
“Mr. Mayor, the time is now for the BQX,” Coger said. “If you want to help the NYCHA residents living along this corridor, if you want to end the tale of two cities we are living today, it is time to get to work.”
April Simpson, who leads the tenant association at Queensbridge Houses, said the BQX would not only connect local residents to jobs, but it would also help those with disabilities get around easier.
She said although Queensbridge Houses has the F train right on 21st Street, it’s often over capacity.
“I think this would be an excellent alternative for people to get around,” she said.
Simpson also said she appreciated that BQX streetcar team approached her and other public housing tenant leaders for input before proposing the project. She noted that as developments continue to go up in nearby Astoria and Long Island City, no developers have approached her for consultation.
“The only ones who did that was the BQX, that speaks volumes,” Simpson said. “Sometimes I didn’t always agree with what they were proposing, but the BQX was the first to come and sit down with the residents. They wanted to know what we think about it.”