New Yorkers React to Streetcar Proposal With Hope and Skepticism

A rendering of the proposed streetcar line. Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

A rendering of the proposed streetcar line. Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

Reporting contributed by Muna Habib

In his third annual State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio headed back to the future, proposing to build a new streetcar line to connect Queens and Brooklyn that will snake along the East River from Astoria to Sunset Park. Potential riders along the route voiced a bit of skepticism about the plan, but for the most part welcomed new mass transit between the boroughs.

In his speech, de Blasio recognized the explosive growth of the two boroughs’ waterfronts and the lack of public transit to easily access them. “Today, we take the next great step in connecting New Yorkers to the heart of our new economy,” he said. “New Yorkers will be able to travel up and down a 16-mile route that links a dozen waterfront neighborhoods.”

The proposed route fro the streetcar line. New York City Mayor's Office

The proposed route for the streetcar line. New York City Mayor’s Office

The Brooklyn Queens Connector, or the BQX, will serve as an alternative to the congested Brooklyn-Queens expressway and the overburdened G train. The project has a target completion date of 2024 with an estimated price tag of $2.5 billion —significantly less than constructing a new underground train line like the Second Avenue Subway, which is decades in the making and has already cost the city $4.5 billion; the total costs is expected to be upwards of $17 billion.

The streetcar proposal is de Blasio’s latest reimagining of New York City’s public transit. In his 2015 State of the City address, he announced a plan for a citywide ferry service set to launch in 2017. In last night’s speech, de Blasio reminded New Yorkers about the service and said that the project is well underway. The streetcar, he added, “has the potential to generate over $25 billion of economic activity for our city over 30 years. We’re going to make it a reality.”

Still, in other cities that have invested in new streetcars or attempted to expand existing lines, fiscal and operational challenges have caused the streetcars to stall. In 2014, San Antonio abandoned its planned streetcar system after a new mayor took office who felt city funds were better spent elsewhere. That same year, after a lengthy political battle the Columbia Pike line in Arlington, Virginia was abandoned even though developers had begun investing along the route.

As news of the proposal began to spread, Queens residents and workers welcomed the idea. At least one resident was skeptical. Anne Caporusso, a lifelong Queens resident, has owned a thrift store on Vernon Boulevard for 32 years. She doubts the proposal will come to fruition.

“There’s no way the streets are big enough,” she said, explaining she didn’t think the streets were wide enough to accommodate an additional streetcar lane. Caporusso also noted that the city once had streetcars. “We were almost there once, we had trolleys back in the day,” she said gesturing to the street. “You can still see the trolley tracks.”

The trolleys were eventually phased out in Queens to introduce buses. Roosevelt Island was once connected to Manhattan by a trolley line that crossed over the Queensboro Bridge when it first opened in 1909. The trolley was used as public transport till it was dismantled on April 7, 1957. This was the last trolley line in New York State, which was also replaced with buses.

1900s NY Streetcars

A 1917 view of Broadway with a horsecar on the left and an electric streetcar on the right. The Brown Brothers

Streetcar Rendering

A rendering of the proposed streetcar in Brooklyn. Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

“I think 2 billion dollars is too much to spend on a new form of transportation,” Caporusso continued. “Put the 2 billion dollars into the tube and we’d be happier riding it.”

But other residents in Queens and Brooklyn, see a need for a new transportation service.

Jake Abblebey, 30, is a professional makeup artist who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and commutes to work in Queens. Abblebey welcomed the proposal.

“I think it’s great, anything is better than the G train,” he said, referring to the winding and infamously unreliable train line.

For others who work in Queens and Brooklyn, like Mary Marks, a 25-year-old sales representative, her subway commute takes over an hour between the two boroughs.

“You have to go back to Manhattan just to get to Queens from Brooklyn,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.” Marks usually drives to save time.

Annie Morrison, 54, thinks the trolley line will provide a great opportunity to reduce New York congestion. “This will help New York tremendously as far as the traffic is concerned,” she said on an empty street in Long Island City. “If we have the money we should definitely do it.”