RED HOOK — Skeptical residents grilled officials about the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar Thursday night, quizzing them about its hefty price tag, the people behind the project, and most of all, why it's needed at all.
"It feels like a solution in search of a problem," said local resident Jonathan Hessney, who pointed out that the proposed streetcar, known as the BQX, parallels much of the G subway line, which has so few riders it doesn't even use full-length trains.
The $2.5 billion BQX would have even fewer riders than the G — roughly between the low 50,000's to the high 50,000's daily — but would serve more riders than any bus route in the city, BQX director Adam Giambrone and Jeff Peel of the Department of Transportation told Community Board 6 members.
On top of the riders it would serve directly, the taxpayer-funded streetcar would generate some $25 billion in economic activity over the next 30 years, BQX officials said in a recent report.
About two miles of the 16-mile route linking Sunset Park to Astoria would go through Community District 6, and Thursday's meeting was supposed to help BQX officials gather feedback on potential routes in Cobble Hill and Red Hook.
But the audience was more focused on the projected $2.5 billion cost and why the same transit goals couldn't be accomplished with more buses.
"If these transportation objectives are so very important to the city, why are not just regular bus routes being used?" asked one resident. "We did have a much more robust bus system here that actually accomplished many of these objectives, and they were eliminated by the MTA."
Giambrone responded that he couldn't speak for the MTA, but noted that while buses cost about 20 percent less than streetcars do, they aren't as fast, reliable or smooth-riding as streetcars.
"Our modeling suggests that [the BQX] will run around 50 percent faster than the average local bus as it is now, maybe a little bit more," Giambrone said. "You can decide whether it's worth the investment."
BQX officials aim to start the approvals process for the project next year and want to have the first streetcar up and running by 2024. One angry local got a round of applause when he accused officials of talking about the proposal as if it were a done deal.
"You seem to be asking us what we think about the project, but you haven’t asked us the foundational question of, ‘Do we want it?'" said Matthew Fairley, who described himself as a proud MTA employee. "I haven’t heard that question asked here or anywhere else." He added later, "There are literally hundreds of other things we could spend this money on — new schools, better roads."
Giambrone noted that the project must clear several approval hurdles, including an environmental review and the city's land use review process, and that the City Council will have to weigh in as well.
Eliza Hetterly, an urban planning student, asked officials about the role of the Friends of the BQX, the nonprofit booster group that includes developer Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management and other builders with interests in the area.
The Friends group initially approached the city with the streetcar idea, but city staff are now evaluating the proposal solely from a "transportation perspective" and the Friends aren't involved in that process, Giambrone said.
"It's so obviously about increasing property values to benefit private developers," Hetterly said in an interview after the meeting.
Another local asked whether BQX officials anticipate major residential development along the route. Giambrone responded that he "takes direction" from the Department of City Planning on how much development is projected along the route.
Peel added that development is already underway, especially along the northern part of the BQX route.
"There’s been a huge population boom there," Peel said. "But there was not a transit connection built along with that, so there are transportation problems associated with that. … Part of this is offering a transportation solution to that development that has come and that is coming."
Ya-Ting Liu, the executive director of Friends of the BQX said in an emailed statement Friday that the group is "thrilled to see the city's transparency" about the process of selecting a route.
"The focus on dedicated lanes, integration with the MTA system and providing access to underserved communities show the city is taking lessons from the best streetcar systems around the world and that the planning process is headed in the right direction," Liu said. "We applaud the City for seizing this opportunity to reimagine our transit system and our streets for the 21st Century."
Many of he same neighborhoods are also in line to get a transportation boost with the launch of the Citywide Ferry, another project backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.