Brooklyn considers a waterfront streetcar

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A vintage streetcar at Fairway grocery store on the Red Hook waterfront. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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For years, developers have been drawn to the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront, enticed by its skyline views and proximity to Manhattan.

But while the waterfront has decent subway connections to Manhattan, the paucity of north-west transportation connecting Astoria to, say, Red Hook, has long been a source of frustration. The G train alone just doesn’t cut it.

And so an advisory committee of some of the city’s more prominent developers, transportation experts and community organizers has taken shape in an effort to find a remedy.

Together, they’ve commissioned HR&A Advisors (planning commissioner Carl Weisbrod’s former employer) to study the economic impact of a streetcar or lightrail connecting Brooklyn’s Sunset Park to Astoria, Queens. The route could include hot housing markets like Red Hook, Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn, as well as areas where commercial outfits and offices are setting up shop, such as Long Island City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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“It’s a cool idea,” said David Lombino, an executive at development company Two Trees, which is helping to organize the effort. “We’re a supporter. Could be transformative for Brooklyn and Queens someday. We’ll see.”

The committee also includes Regional Plan Association president Tom Wright, traffic engineer [Gridlock] Sam Schwartz, Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership president Tucker Reed, Industry City executive Andrew Kimball, urban planner Alex Garvin, Fifth Avenue Committee executive director and City Planning Commission member Michelle de la Uz and Red Hook Initiative founder Jill Eisenhard.

Schwartz will conduct the feasibility study.

"I’m interested in seeing how the research comes out," Wright said. "There’s the possibility of both connecting to other existing transit services—bus, rail and ferry—and complementing other proposals."

"It's a big idea we're definitely taking a look at," City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell said.

The idea is not a new one.

This latest effort to better connect Brooklyn to Queens was inspired, in part, by Garvin, president and C.E.O. of design firm AGA Public Realm Strategists, who has long advocated for this sort of thing.

"Some of the greatest opportunities for new housing and development within a stone's throw of Manhattan line the East River in Astoria and Long Island City. By creating a new light rail line in those neighborhoods, we could create an enormous opportunity for new investment," Garvin has written.

One Garvin proposal would have the light rail run along 21st Street from Astoria, then cross Newtown Creek and continue along the Brooklyn waterfront to Red Hook.

That sort of transportation option would have some obvious beneficiaries.

Two Trees is redeveloping the Domino sugar refinery on the South Williamsburg waterfront. It’s not particularly close to the subway.

The company also controls much of DUMBO, which has marginally better transportation options. Getting from DUMBO to South Williamsburg is difficult.

Industry City, meanwhile, is in Sunset Park. It’s served by the N and R trains, and not much else.

Residents in transit-starved housing projects adjacent to the Navy Yard would also benefit.

But many questions remain.

How would the light rail be funded? Who would operate it? And where, precisely, would it go? 

The potential route, by all accounts, is being studied by HR&A.

“The funding issue is a critical one and part of the idea is to figure out if it can be self-financed with user fees or figuring out how to capture revenue streams from the areas that will benefit from it,” Wright said.

As to who will run it, Wright suggested a private operator might make sense.

"One of the attractive alternatives is this wouldn’t necessarily be run and operated by the M.T.A., but that it’s open for a concession operation, which would probably be a good thing,” he said.