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Rail talk: BQX advocates invite trolley experts to discuss streetcar system with biz owners • Brooklyn Paper

Rail talk: BQX advocates invite trolley experts to discuss streetcar system with biz owners

Looking ahead: Advocacy group for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector Friends of the BQX hosted a panel discussion Tuesday with entrepreneurs and streetcar experts from cities across the country at the Brooklyn Brewery.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

They’re ready to roll!

Advocates of Mayor DeBlasio’s beloved Brooklyn–Queens streetcar project are so confident officials will fill the scheme’s $1-billion funding gap that they invited experts from other cities with trolley systems to discuss such infrastructure’s pros and cons with local business owners on Tuesday.

The city’s recent decision to tap an engineering firm to conduct an environmental-review for the so-called Brooklyn Queens Connector is sign enough that the project won’t derail, according to the leader of the project’s main advocacy group.

“I think actions speak louder than words, and we’re seeing action from the city to move it forward,” said Jessica Schumer, the daughter of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D–New York), who runs the Friends of the BQX. “It is moving forward. The city just announced it is starting its environmental-review process, so that’s a really exciting opportunity to get the community to weigh in on it, evaluate the impacts of the project, and the necessary steps to move it forward.”

Last month, officials awarded a $7.2-million contract to firm VHB to study how the light-rail will affect neighborhoods it is set to snake through, which include Red Hook, Gowanus, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Downtown, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and other areas in distant Queens. That news came months after Hizzoner dialed back his initial promise that the streetcar — whose initial $2.5-billion budget ballooned to $2.73-billion — would pay for itself via tax revenue generated by development along its tracks, and called on the Feds to foot $1 billion of its price taga request Brooklyn pols on both sides of the political aisle deemed unlikely at the time.

But part of the environmental review will be looking into other revenue streams, according to Schumer, who said there’s still plenty of time for the Feds to come through with some cash, too.

“The environmental review is looking at all types of funding,” she said. “Federal funding is one of the options and we’re glad the city is looking at it. You never know.”

Schumer and her group hosted four speakers — hailing from Seattle, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Portland, Ore. — at the recent small-business summit emceed by Borough President Adams, where the visitors explained how entrepreneurs from those cities got involved in the construction of their trolley systems, and tackled issues relating to construction, parking, and displacement.

The St. Paul panelist, who also leads a do-good group in her hometown, said the Midwestern city’s light rail helped revitalize some vacant, transit-starved areas, but in turn raised some property costs to prices that threatened to push out long-time locals for new residents with deeper-pockets.

“We are worried about gentrification, because in many of our neighborhoods we want to be sure that this investment is really truly benefiting the people that have been there, and that’s always a challenge,” said Isabel Chanslor, the vice president for national programs at the Neighborhood Development Center in St. Paul.

Chanslor admitted that St. Paul’s trolley didn’t hike property values on its own — pointing to other causes such as an influx of younger residents to the city in the decade since the streetcar debuted. Still, she encouraged local officials to demand that any developer who might receive tax breaks or subsidies for building along the Brooklyn–Queens light rail in turn reinvest in nearby communities.

“If any city, state, or federal money went into those projects, there should be a mandate that says, ‘Okay what are you willing to provide as a community benefit?’ It either has to be a small space for a small business to incubate at a lower rent rate, or it has to be something that is given back to the community,” she said. “Because you can’t just have exterior ownership.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the agency overseeing the streetcar project, said officials expect VHB to start its environmental review soon, which must be completed before the firm leads the scheme through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that the proposal must pass before any straphangers can hop aboard.

But the rep confirmed that the city still needs federal cash to complete the trolley, which it still plans to subsidize in part with tax revenue from potential development along the route, she said.

“We’re seeking federal funding to support its primary construction, as well as other sources,” said Stephanie Báez. “We’re looking at a mix of federal and city funding, in addition to value capture.”

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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