Brooklyn Queens Streetcar Hopes to Learn from D.C. Streetcar's Mistakes

The long-awaited opening of the D.C. Streetcar on Feb. 27 brings time for reflection on Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed $2.5 billion Brooklyn Queens Connector, part streetcar, part light rail. D.C.'s line took a decade of planning and construction.
February 29, 2016, 12pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Washington’s experience serves as a cautionary tale, underlining the challenges even supporters say could complicate the de Blasio administration’s plans," writes Emma G. Fitzsimmons of The New York Times. "Asked about Washington’s troubles, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, predicted a smoother path for New York."

Fitzsimmons goes into detail on the troubled past of the D.C. Streetcar, the operations that began on Feb. 27, and planned future extensions.

"Gabe Klein, a former district transportation director who inherited the streetcar project under the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat who served from 2007 to 2011, said a major challenge had been that priorities shifted across four mayoral administrations and six transportation chiefs," writes Fitzsimmons. Klein went on to head Chicago's Department of Transportation.

“One of the biggest problems with the D.C. streetcar is the lack of continuity,” Mr. Klein said.

One advantage the BQX, as the proposed streetcar is called, is that assuming Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn't quash it—a big assumption in itself—is that de Blasio has just begun the third year of his first term so he will have six years to pursue it, assuming he runs for reelection and wins.

"His transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, said that she had spoken with officials in Washington and that New York would learn from their mistakes," writes Fitzsimmons.

Ms. Trottenberg recently told reporters that one lesson from Washington is the city must carefully consider preliminary decisions for the streetcar, because it would have to live with them for a long time. The project will need a sound organizational structure, she said, and the city is considering creating a local development corporation to oversee the plans.

Calling the boom in streetcars “a national and a worldwide phenomenon,” Ms. Trottenberg named the system in Portland, Ore. [touted in a 2011 NPR article] and France’s many lines as examples of successful models that New York would examine.

"France is not alone in using trams, of course; Germany, notably, has dozens of such systems across the country, as do Switzerland, the Netherlands, and others," wrote Yonah Freemark in The Transport Politic in 2012. "But as of late, France’s cities have made an unparalleled investment in the mode."

Not all local governments stick with streetcar plans. Arlington County, Virginia dropped a plan that had been under consideration for 15 years, to the disappointment of Fairfax County. The New York Times goes into detail about the surprise decision to drop the plan, as well as other streetcar disappointments, as does NPR.

Another notable streetcar that didn't leave the drawing board was in San Antonio, Texas, though it appeared political forces got the best of it. 

Before Mayor de Blasio proposed the BQX, his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, was interested in pursuing a Red Hook, Brooklyn to downtown Brooklyn streetcar. See 2010 press release and feasibility study [PDX].

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Published on Friday, February 26, 2016 in The New York Times
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