In a sign that the planned BQX rail line along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront is chugging toward reality, the de Blasio administration has hired a streetcar czar: Adam Giambrone, sometime archaeologist, ex-Canadian politician, light-rail booster, former head of Toronto’s transit system, and, for one disastrous week in 2010, candidate for mayor of Toronto. Tall and athletic with a spiky crew cut and a Boy Scout demeanor, the 39-year-old Giambrone comes to the job with both experience and baggage — and with knowledge of New York sketchy enough that at one point during an interview he referred to the “Downtown East Side.”
Since for now the BQX remains an unfunded fantasy-in-progress, Giambrone will have to push the project past the point of no return before the next mayor can quash it. That’s a hard-earned lesson: In Toronto, he spent years working on a network of suburban streetcars called Transit City that mayor Rob Ford killed almost as soon as he took office in 2010. One element of that project, the Eglinton Crosstown line, has since been revived and is under construction, but the failure of the larger plan has left the city hobbled, says Toronto Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. “The vision Giambrone was pushing made a lot of sense, and it died for political reasons.”
Giambrone’s job one is to go out and convince the people who live along the BQX’s proposed route that they should embrace years of construction, rejiggered streets, and the loss of free parking for their own and the greater good. “At these early meetings,” Giambrone says, “you’re out there asking people what they want, and it can be frustrating because they have questions, too, and you don’t have all the answers. But that’s how you begin to build trust.”
It’s more than a little ironic that the de Blasio administration, which has had problems with credibility and corruption in recent months, should turn to Giambrone as a trust builder, since in Canada he’s best known for an Anthony Weiner–like episode of lies and disgrace. His 2010 campaign for mayor of Toronto blew up almost before it had started, when a newspaper revealed that he’d been cheating on Sarah McQuarrie, the woman he lived with, and sent a text message describing her as a political prop. (They have since married.) After a few days of desperate dissimulating, he dropped out of politics for a while, and Torontoans elected the corrupt, clownish, boozy, drug-abusing, brawling Rob Ford.
“I didn’t handle the situation very well,” Giambrone acknowledges. “I didn’t come out and tell the truth, because it was difficult for me personally. I would have changed my personal actions, but I would have also handled it very differently from a public perspective.” A couple more minor brouhahas followed: The Transit Commission dunned him for the $3,000 he spent over budget during his time as chair. Then, in 2013, members of his New Democratic Party complained that he had won the nomination for a provincial council seat in a rigged process. (He lost the election anyway.)
Giambrone decided to hit the road as a traveling light-rail expert, advising Montreal and Milwaukee on their systems before arriving in New York. His sales pitch is well honed: “The subway was a 20th-century technology. Streetcars are a 21st-century technology, which is why all the fastest-growing cities in Asia and the Middle East are all looking at them.” The streetcar, he says, is the perfect compromise between cumbersome and expensive subway projects that bog down in decades of discussion and bus lines that feel too provisional to promote development. That’s an important point, since the funding model for the BQX depends on its ability to boost construction along its route.
“I’ve never owned a car,” Giambrone says. “I make my personal transit decisions based on practicality and reliability. If I buy a place, I want to know that the services that are there today will still be there tomorrow. When I see a streetcar line, I can see where it’s going and I know it’s going to be there. People don’t have the same confidence in buses.”
That confidence may take a long time to coalesce in a city where a stripe of paint on a street can cause an uproar, but Giambrone says that he’s seen the doubts, the political battles, and the neighborhood jitters before. Still, it’s true he doesn’t have many answers yet: The city has promised that the BQX will accept subway transfers and cost the same, but Giambrone makes clear that negotiations over what he calls “fare interoperability” haven’t even begun. “We have eight years to get this built, and that’s a long time to have these discussions. I don’t know how that will play out.”