NEW YORK — It was an ambitious idea by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the focus of his 2016 State of the City speech: a sparkling streetcar running along the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens.
But two years later, there has been little progress on one of de Blasio’s key transportation initiatives.
De Blasio has said little about the streetcar in recent months and his office has not identified a route, leading to persistent speculation that the proposal is dead. At the very least, it is delayed. Supporters now question whether a groundbreaking could happen before de Blasio leaves office at the end of 2021.
In a recent radio interview, de Blasio insisted that the streetcar was still on.
“We’re moving forward, but we have to get the exact details right,” the mayor said on WNYC on Friday, calling the proposal “a big complicated endeavor.”
The mayor’s office said it has simply been taking its time to study the 16-mile route and to determine whether the $2.5 billion streetcar could be self-funded, as city officials had anticipated. De Blasio acknowledged Friday that the project would likely need federal financing.
Supporters of the streetcar, which is known as the Brooklyn Queens Connector and would run from Astoria in Queens to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, have grown restless.
A group of real estate and transit leaders who have lobbied for the streetcar sent a letter to de Blasio on Monday urging him to make it a priority.
“We are calling on your administration to take concrete steps to indicate that this critical infrastructure project will indeed break ground during your mayoralty,” said the letter from the board for the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, which was obtained by The New York Times.
The letter said that the streetcar could cement the mayor’s legacy, but it would require “bold, visionary leadership.”
De Blasio, a Democrat who was elected to a second term in November, has often been criticized for being indecisive. Instead of focusing on the streetcar, the mayor has prioritized other transit initiatives, including a popular expansion of ferry service.
The streetcar was pitched as a way to help address the city’s transit crisis and a project de Blasio could tackle on his own, without meddling from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, his frequent adversary. Cuomo, a Democrat, controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the city’s poor-performing subways and buses.
De Blasio said he wanted to connect a string of growing neighborhoods along the waterfront and claimed that rising real estate tax revenue could finance the streetcar. But his deputy mayor, Alicia Glen, raised doubts last week about whether that model was still feasible.
Glen told reporters that if the streetcar did not pay for itself, the city would have to decide whether to cover the costs, according to an article in the Daily News that de Blasio later attacked. Glen and the mayor both suggested Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., might help secure federal funding.
Schumer’s daughter, Jessica Schumer, is the executive director of the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector group. Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
From the beginning, some said the streetcar idea was a gift to real estate developers on the waterfront instead of a response to a real transit demand. Among the leaders of the Friends group is Jed Walentas, a prominent developer.
Benjamin Kabak, a transit advocate who writes the Second Ave. Sagas subway blog, said he thought de Blasio would kill the streetcar plan after being re-elected.
“It seemed destined to be a low ridership, niche project with some faulty underlying assumptions,” Kabak said.
If de Blasio is committed to building the streetcar, it is far behind schedule. The city had aimed to start the public approvals process last year and major design work in 2018. It said it would pick an operator and hold a groundbreaking in 2019, with service starting in 2024.
Now it is unlikely construction could start before 2020 or 2021.
The route could also spark outrage in the bustling neighborhoods along the waterfront where hundreds of parking spots could disappear. City officials released a list of possible routes in 2016, but they still have not announced its path.
Wiley Norvell, a City Hall spokesman, said workers had dug trenches along the route to identify the utilities under city streets and officials were still calculating the exact project costs and anticipated real estate revenues.
“I know people are trying to read the tea leaves or coffee grounds, but real work is happening behind the scenes,” Norvell said.
For those hoping to ride the streetcar in the next decade, the silence from City Hall over the last year has been frustrating. The Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector displayed a sleek life-size prototype of the streetcar at the Brooklyn Navy Yard last fall to try to muster enthusiasm for the project. The group announced that its first executive director, Ya-Ting Liu, was stepping down a short time later.
Now, the streetcar could be vying for federal dollars in a crowded field of transit projects, including the Gateway plan to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Schumer and President Donald Trump have been at odds over the rail tunnel and a broader infrastructure program.
Still, the streetcar project has its fans. Mitchell L. Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said the corridor was thriving and needed more transit options, even if the streetcar would not pay for itself.
“The criteria should not be whether it covers all of its costs,” he said, “but will it encourage housing and investment on the waterfront? And the answer is yes.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.