(image: BQX rendering via NYC EDC)
Near daily failures in New York City’s transit system this summer have accomplished the seemingly impossible: they’ve sparked a wide-ranging conversation among New Yorkers of all stripes about overdue investments in our existing transit infrastructure, while also highlighting the limited alternatives to our century old subway system.
So how can we improve both with a limited budget? The proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) provides a good example of how we can fix today’s transportation problems while planning for the future. A vibrant, sustainable and equitable city must do both.
The Manhattan-centric pattern of our subways was laid over 100 years ago when economic development was largely concentrated in the city’s core. This hub and spoke system is no longer reflective of how New Yorkers live, work, and play in 2017. The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is one of the fastest growing corridors in New York City, yet there has been no significant investment in its transportation infrastructure, leaving some neighborhoods behind and limiting access to jobs and opportunity.
The proposed BQX is an emissions-free light rail system that will unify the currently fragmented transportation corridor along 14 miles between Astoria and Sunset Park, connecting to various subway lines, bus routes, ferry landings, and Citi Bike stations. It will be able to serve at least 50,000 riders a day, greatly easing the burden on existing transportation infrastructure in the area. The demand for more transportation options along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is clear, evidenced by the large crowds lining up to take the newly launched ferry system.
People living on the waterfront who have long faced limited transportation – including over 40,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority – will have more employment opportunities and easier access to schools and healthcare facilities with the BQX. Local small businesses in these neighborhoods that are currently isolated from the rest of the city will be more accessible, and a new transit line will help attract even more businesses and employers to the waterfront.
But the direct benefits of the BQX to New Yorkers is just one aspect of this smart infrastructure investment. It also provides a model for how we can both fix today’s problems and plan for the future.
First, because of an innovative financing tool known as “value capture,” the BQX isn’t in competition with laudable transit initiatives like Fair Fares or Bus Rapid Transit. Value capture works like this: based on the fact that access to transportation typically increases property value, funding for the BQX would be derived from the additional value it generates in properties surrounding the transit line over 30 or 40 years. While details of how this value capture mechanism would work are still being studied by city government, the concept is that the largest commercial and residential landlords who will see the greatest increase in their property value as a result of increased access to mass transit would pay additional property taxes on new value that is attributable to the BQX — a more progressive form of taxation than a sales tax, which many other cities have used to finance public transit. This expectation of new value could be bonded and sold to investors, similar to how the city funded the extension of the 7 train to Hudson Yards.
This is why calls for BQX funding to be used elsewhere are misguided – money used for this project are not being drawn from already existing dollars in the city’s general fund or its critical annual contribution to the MTA because the money does not yet exist and will never exist unless the BQX is built and operates effectively.
Second, much like recent ferry and bikeshare expansion efforts, the BQX is a city-led, owned and controlled transportation project, providing an alternative to the confounding structure of the MTA that has led to quarrels over who is legally responsible for paying for upgrades and repairs of our transit system. And if the BQX is successful, the model could be expanded to other parts of the city.
The positive impact this project will have on transportation in New York City – as well as its creative funding mechanism – is why the BQX has received strong support from some of our city’s most experienced transit leaders, along with local business leaders and community groups. MTA Chair Joe Lhota sits on the board of directors of the group that I run, Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, as does Jay Walder, who has held roles as CEO of the MTA and Managing Director of Finance and Planning at Transport for London.
Leaders of the Resident Associations from five different NYCHA developments that will benefit from the BQX also sit on our board, and our coalition includes the Regional Plan Association, tech advocacy group Tech:NYC, the Transport Workers Union, and a long list of local small businesses and community groups.
When it comes to transit investment in New York City we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and should find ways to fix our current system while also expanding transit options where they are needed most. The BQX and its proposed funding model does just that.