Put a turd on it! Portland pol-turned-transit guru says most streetcars stink

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It is a streetcar named quagmire.

A trolley along the Brooklyn waterfront would be a $2.5-billion gift to developers, likely providing a sluggish service that few straphangers will actually use, warns a public transit advocate who was also a top political honcho in Portland, Ore. when a similar service was taking off there.

“Most streetcar projects in the U.S. provide slow, unreliable service that does not serve many people,” said David Bragdon, who served as president of the area’s regional Metro Council from 2003 to 2010, and now heads Transit Center, a foundation that funds and advocates for public transit projects in New York. “We don’t want New York City to repeat the mistakes of other places and spend $2.5 billion if the result is not useful transportation for riders.”

In the days since Mayor DeBlasio announced his plan to construct a streetcar from Sunset Park to Queens, pols and media commentators have repeatedly cited the West Coast hipster enclaves’ tram service — the first modern-day streetcar system in the country when it launched in 2001 — as a model of success.

But Bragdon says the Stumptown cable car — which claims to cart around 15,000 people every day, though its operators have been caught dramatically inflating ridership figures in the past — is regarded by locals as sluggish and erratic, as are many others across the country that have followed in its tracks.

“I lived right on the streetcar line, across the street from a stop, but I rarely rode it because I could walk most places faster,” said Bragdon, who first moved across the country to work for the Bloomberg administration.

DeBlasio claims his so-called Brooklyn-Queens Connector would shuttle 24,500 straphangers along the waterfront every week day — compared to the 125,000 who ride the G train every day. Around 30,000 commuters currently ride waterfront bus services, but those all hook up to Manhattan-bound subway stops — many of which are struggling with rush-hour overcrowding — while the mayor’s vague route appears to connect with only a few, Transit Center said in a recent blog post slamming the idea.

One thing the Portland service has done well is help spur development along its tracks, Bragdon says. The line runs through several formerly industrial areas that developers were turning into Dumbo-esque condo districts when it launched.

But those same developers also made direct financial contributions to the project, he said, unlike the funding model DeBlasio is pitching, which rests on the assumption that property values will rise along proposed 16-mile line — even though construction and house prices in Red Hook, the Navy Yard, and Greenpoint are already booming.

“Developers in Portland truly did contribute a significant share of the capital cost, not through theoretical tax appreciation, as is talked about here, but through firm commitments,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean allowing developers and businesses to bankroll public transportation is a good idea, says one of Bragdon’s colleagues. Too many of the country’s streetcar projects have been created by politicians and the real-estate industry with the goal of making money, rather than getting people around, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector — which is being pushed by developer Two Trees and other business interests along the proposed route — would be no different, he said.

“Developers, like our friends here behind the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, feel the need for some transportation in places where it may not be that strong,” said Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for Transit Center and a former policy director at the city’s Department of Transportation. “They want something visible to sell the area, but they don’t know anything about transporta­tion.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Soured from Red Hook says:
Regardless of sentiment, the headline works.
Feb. 8, 2016, 9:58 am
Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York, United States says:
BOONDOGGLE ALERT!! BOONDOGGLE ALERT!! That $2.5B couldn't be used for improving the transportation infrastructure in NYC: Half of it are going to use by maintaining the mass transit system in NYC; while the other half of it are going to use by maintaining bridges and roads in NYC.
Feb. 8, 2016, 10:22 am
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
But Bob Diamond needs to be right !
Feb. 8, 2016, 10:36 am
best plan in 50 years from Brooklyn says:
this is it! from BQX says:
Best plan ever! Holistic!

And MUST connect:

- the Majority, not just the RICH MINORITY
- to existing public transportation
- localized freight movement and interconnect to existing freight infrastructure (less trucks & buses the better)
- bike hook-ups/hangers

Something for everyone!!! This IS it!
Feb. 8, 2016, Noon
Jym from PLG says:
Basically it comes down to this: dedicated right-of-way will have good service, mixing with cars will not. No matter how many times words like "flow" and "share" are used.
Feb. 8, 2016, 12:41 pm
Stanley Kowalski from New Orleans says:
Read about the failures of streetcars in Atlanta, Washington DC, and other cities. If this were a light rail that could avoid cars and red lights and buses, it would be a great project, but it's going to go 12 mph! It's not much faster and it may even not be as fast as the subway and bus connections we have now.

Streetcars are s-l-o-w. They make great tourist magnets but they are not for everyday travel.

My wife Stella and sister-in-law Blanche agree with me. Do not depend on the kindness of real estate developers for your transit needs!
Feb. 8, 2016, 1:16 pm
Polly from Water Street says:
Jed Walentas and Doug Steiner are smart businessmen. If they think this is a good idea, they should double-down on their real estate investments by applying for consent to build and operate the streetcar line, providing themselves with two sources of income.
Feb. 8, 2016, 2:06 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Streetcars might have been a good idea back in their glory days, but that all changed when other forms of transit were found to be faster. What surprises me is that some of those who advocate for this streetcar were either not alive when NYC used to have streetcars or probably didn't say much when they were removed originally. Part of the reason the streetcars were removed in the early days of the postwar era was because grade level rails were found to be dangerous. Another reason was that motor bus was found to be more dominate in the fact that they weren't limited by polls and rails as the trolleys and streetcars that were. Others just found them to be noisy as the same reason for why the elevated trains were taken down as well with subways replacing some of those lines. More importantly, if it's not going faster than a bus, then what is the reason for this anyway? Overall, this just seems like a pie-in-the-sky idea that even Bloomberg decided to shelve during his time as mayor.
Feb. 8, 2016, 4:54 pm
Kristian G says:
Hi Tal, Wikipedia has an extensive list of active trams and light rail systems throughout the world. It's pretty interesting to learn about how other places address issues such as congestion and pollution. As for the logistics of this particular proposal..?
Feb. 8, 2016, 11:59 pm
Gary from ex-Portland says:
Streetcars are not light rail, though. Portland has a great light rail system that is generally well-liked and used by most residents.
Feb. 9, 2016, 10:56 am
No to StreetCars from Williamsburg says:
In his recent State of the City address , Mayor De Blasio came out in support of a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar connector along the waterfront of the East River. The projected cost was estimated to be $1.7 billion. The projected funding source was special tax or fee dollars collected from developers who build along the waterfront the proposed streetcar would serve.

It seems to this citizen of the city and resident of Williamsburg that there are far better uses for an allocation of these funds. First the G train which is underground and would not be susceptible to the weather and street traffic delays that would potentially impact street car service already serves a significant portion of the proposed streetcar route.

These funds in full could be better allocated toward an upgrade and extension of existing G train service. Two full cars could be added to the current G line and the funding would exist to extend the line in Queens north from Court Square into Astoria along the same route as the proposed street car. Further, at the far north end the G could swing east to connect to the BMT Astoria line at Astoria Ditmars Blvd and continue to LaGuardia Airport. Finding for this could be allocated from Governor Cuomo's AirTran plan from the 7 train as this would provide a better alternate proposal.

At the southern end of the G, the line could be extended west from the Hoyt Schemerhorn stop to High St along the A/C line and then swing south to connect to the 2/3 at Clark Street and then swing south along the same route as the proposed street car plan to serve a stop near the Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6 Ferry stop and go down Columbia street into Red Hook, terminating near the IKEA and IKEA ferry stop. The current stops on the G south of Hoyt Schermerhorn would continue to be served by the F train.

This G extension alternative would serve the exact same areas that the Brooklyn streetcar proposal would serve, better connect those areas to the rest of the transit system, provide a more weather and traffic mitigated transit option, and also provide a better solution to connect the transit system directly to LaGuardia Airport than Governor Cuomo's current AirTran proposal. Funding could be provided from the same source - development surcharges along the waterfront route the new service would link to, and diverting the funding for Governor Cuomo's current LGA AirTran proposal. The $2.2 Billion funding need for the streetcar service and the AirTran's funding need of $450 million, would be combined to provide a $2.7 billion budget for the G line extension and be a far better use of funds and end up with a significantly better transit solution for New York City.

Alternative to this G line extension proposal, phase 2 of the 2nd Avenue Subway remains unfunded and delayed. Wouldn't another alternative use of funds be to get back on track with fully funding Phase 2 of this project? It may not be as good a use as the proposed G line extension above, but the Mayor and the Governor should probably secure full funding for projects already underway before throwing out proposals for a streetcar that would have the majority of its route, excluding Red Hook, already served by the subway system's G line.
Feb. 9, 2016, 6:30 pm
Chris Bastian from Brooklyn Heights says:
Just for clarity; Port has BOTH streetcars (operating on street in traffic) and light rail (operating largely on exclusive rights of way, and with parking at many stations. The MAX light rail system is a model for LRT design.
Feb. 10, 2016, 1:35 pm

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