In a major reimagining of the New York City waterfront, Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to propose a streetcar line that would snake along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens, a 16-mile scenic ride that would be his administration’s most ambitious urban engineering project to date.
The plan, to be unveiled on Thursday in the mayor’s State of the City speech, calls for a line that runs aboveground on rails embedded in public roadways and flows alongside automobile traffic — a sleeker and nimbler version of San Francisco’s trolleys.
By winding along the East River, the streetcars would vastly expand transportation access to a bustling stretch of the city that has undergone rapid development — from the industrial centers of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to the upper reaches of Astoria, Queens — but remains relatively isolated from the subway.
For Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat focused on social reform, the plan also represents a shift to the kind of ambitious Robert Moses-style planning that New Yorkers more often associate with his predecessor, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who made transportation a hallmark of his tenure.Image A rendering of the streetcar in Brooklyn. The system is expected to cost the city about $2.5 billion, significantly less than a new underground subway line.CreditFriends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector
The streetcar system, which would realize a long-held fantasy of the city’s urban planners, is expected to cost about $2.5 billion, significantly less than a new underground subway line, city officials said on Wednesday.
Its operation, however, remains far-off. Under the plan, construction would start in 2019, after studies and community review; service would begin several years after that, perhaps not until 2024, officials said.
Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, acknowledged “some significant engineering challenges when you are putting a modern system like this in a very old city.”
But Ms. Glen said the city’s existing transit network no longer met the needs of a metropolis whose commuting patterns have shifted significantly in the last two decades. A streetcar route, she said in an interview, offered a novel and practical fix at a time when federal money for infrastructure is scarce.
“The old transportation system was a hub-and-spoke approach, where people went into Manhattan for work and came back out,” Ms. Glen said. “This is about mapping transit to the future of New York.”
Streetcars are a staple of European capitals, and have arrived in cities like Atlanta; Portland, Ore.; and Toronto. But they have failed, until now, to catch on in New York, where the Bloomberg administration rejected a proposed line in Red Hook, Brooklyn, as being too expensive.
The de Blasio streetcars would travel about 12 miles per hour, with a trip between Greenpoint and Dumbo in Brooklyn lasting around 27 minutes, less than current routes on buses and subways. Barriers could physically separate the streetcars from automobiles along some portion of the route, although officials said those details would be determined later.
The cars would directly link Brooklyn and Queens, two boroughs that can be difficult to travel between without a detour into Manhattan. And though an exact route has not been made final, the system would most likely serve growing commercial centers like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Long Island City, Queens. About 45,000 public-housing residents live a short walk from the route, the administration said, a priority for Mr. de Blasio, who has focused on combating inequities.
Administration officials believe the system’s cost can be offset by tax revenue siphoned from an expected rise in property values along the route.
Because the cars would operate on city streets, the project is not expected to be subject to state approval — meaning it would not require the blessing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who last year was quick to quash a major State of the City proposal by Mr. de Blasio to build lower-cost housing over train yards in Sunnyside, Queens. (Mr. Cuomo said the yards, which are partly controlled by the state, were not available.)Image A map supplied by the city. Neighborhoods that the proposed streetcar line might serve include Astoria and Long Island City in Queens and Greenpoint, Dumbo, Red Hook and Sunset Park in Brooklyn.CreditNew York City Mayor’s Office
The neighborhood review process for the streetcar route could be onerous, given the vast distance it would travel. But Mr. de Blasio can expect support from major developers, including Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management, whose residential conversion of the Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn is set to open soon. Mr. Walentas, who has both clashed and collaborated with the mayor, has championed the streetcar plan, helping to pay for a study on its feasibility and cost.
Mr. de Blasio, a self-proclaimed political ideologue, has acted more attentive of late to his mixed reputation as a manager, which could be a vulnerability as he looks ahead to a re-election campaign in 2017. His State of the City address is expected to include a plan for quicker trash pickup and a smartphone payment system for the city’s parking meters.
Transit has never been a passion for Mr. de Blasio, and while the mayor earned praise from transportation advocates for his Vision Zero safety plan, he was criticized after casually suggesting that the city tear out the open-air pedestrian plazas in Times Square.
On Wednesday, his embrace of the streetcar idea yielded positive reviews, even as some transit experts complained about wanting more details.
“The more mass transit we have, the better off we are as a city that is growing,” said Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
In his book, Mr. Ravitch said, the plan was “brilliant.” He added, “Not everybody’s going to ride bikes.”
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