Streetcars were once ubiquitous in New York, going as far back as the 1830s with the introduction of the horse-drawn trolley. But beginning in the 1920s, a series of developments conspired to put light-rail transit in Gotham out of business. The city began to put unreasonable demands on the private companies operating streetcars, demanding, for example, that the fare be kept to a nickel even when costs exceeded revenue. And in New York as elsewhere in the country, automobile and oil executives lobbied local governments to end trolley service in order to promote travel by car. Infrastructure czar Robert Moses also hated mass transit, preferring to plow expressways through neighborhoods instead. The last streetcar lines in New York ended service in 1956, just a year before a certain fabled team from the Borough of Kings moved to Los Angeles. Their name—the Dodgers—was taken from the term, “trolley dodger.”
Streetcars, however, may be making a return in the form of the Brooklyn Connector. The proposed 17-mile light-rail network would run from Sunset Park all the way to Astoria. It would start out following Third Avenue in Brooklyn before snaking its way into Red Hook. It would then turn onto Columbia Street and head along Brooklyn Bridge Park into Dumbo. A spur would branch off to Downtown Brooklyn and the Atlantic Terminal, where you’d be able to transfer to the LIRR. In addition to Red Hook, other previously isolated neighborhoods such as Vinegar Hill and the Navy Yard would become more readily accessible. The line would also provide an alternative to the much loathed G train, linking Williamsburg and Greenpoint to South Brooklyn before proceeding up to Long Island City and finally, 27th Avenue in Queens.
Development has been booming in pretty much all of the neighborhoods in the path of the Brooklyn Connector. But tying them together by streetcar would create one giant waterfront district, much as the High Line has knitted a super-neighborhood out of Mepa, Chelsea and the Hudson Yards. The project would cost $1.7 billion to build and another $26 million a year to maintain. But it would also generate an estimated $3.7 billion in tax revenue and build a annual readership of up to 15.8 million passengers by 2035.
Now for the bad news: Proposals for light-rail systems far less ambitious that this one have been bandied about for years without success. Who knows, though? Maybe thinking big will make it happen. In the meanwhile, don’t expect to fulfill your streetcar desires anytime soon.