DOT: BQE rehab must be completed by 2026 or trucks could be diverted through residential streets
Brooklyn Heights residents need to get involved now, BHA says
At a meeting hosted by the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Monday night, concerned Brooklyn residents heard new information about the timeline of the massive Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) rehabilitation project.
The seven-year project will restore the crumbling 1.5 mile stretch of the BQE between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street, a segment that includes the triple cantilever underpinning the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. DOT calls the 1.5 mile stretch of roadway “one of the most critical and complex sections of urban expressway in the nation.”
Inspections of the roadway and its 21 bridges have produced new data about how long the existing structure will last before it becomes seriously dilapidated.
If significant repairs and replacements are not made by 2026, vehicle-weight limits and truck diversions will be necessary, DOT engineers told attendees at Tuesday’s workshop, held at MetroTech in Downtown Brooklyn.
“They have crunched some numbers, they’ve looked at some data in terms of their testing and their scanning, and given us new information tonight on the timeframe of the deterioration of the structure as it relates to its capacity to support truck traffic,” Peter Bray, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“They say in 2026 they’re going to seriously have to consider diverting truck traffic from the structure. It’s a complicated project … but we don’t have a whole lot of time to waste,” Bray said.
“I’m worried about traffic in Brooklyn Heights,” resident Helen Simonson said. “In 1992 there were some emergency repairs to the BQE one summer and the traffic on Hicks Street was so bad and the fumes were so bad that we had to live in the back room of our house and we could not live in the front. So the thought of five years of Brooklyn Heights being perhaps unlivable due to traffic has me concerned.”
Over the next two years, DOT’s consultant team will prepare required environmental documents as well as develop the preliminary design. The environmental process is expected to conclude in 2019 with the approval of the selected design.
Will Albany approve design-build?
The project team will need to know if the project can move forward as a design-bid build project or as a design-build project, which could shave years off construction, said Tanvi Pandya, program manager for the project.
The design-build process works by merging the design and construction bids, usually bid separately on large projects. When bid separately, two firms have to try to work together.
Without design-build, the work will disrupt traffic not only in the Brooklyn Heights area but across the entire region for up to two years longer than necessary, and cost as much as $300 million more, according to the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT).
“Last year design-build made it through the Assembly. It didn’t quite make it through the Senate,” Robert Collyer, DOT deputy commissioner and chief bridge officer, told the crowd. “There seem to be a couple of different folks that have different views of what should and should not be in the law.”
Professional engineers from upstate worried about their jobs and local contractors facing pre-approved union agreements are among those pushing back against the use of design-build in NYC, he said. A lawsuit several years ago put an end to its use in the city for the most part, Collyer said.
“My understanding is that the legislature has to provide the city with that design-build authority this spring, otherwise they’re going to have to proceed with the traditional building approach and that’s going to have to extend beyond 2026,” Bray told the Eagle.
Bray said that meeting with new state Senator Brian Kavanagh (26th District), who took over the seat formerly held by Daniel Squadron, “is top on our agenda. We know that [the BQE project] a priority of his.”
“It’s a very big priority,” Sen. Kavanagh told the Eagle. “Design-build is not a new idea. I have been a prime sponsor of a bill in the Assembly already that would allow design-build to be used in projects like this.”
“We have already had state projects using design-build, including the Kosciuszko Bridge,” he said. “It’s long overdue that we get it in the city. I will be working on the broader bill but also on the particular bill that will allow design-build specifically on this project.”
Kavanagh said he would be working with colleagues like Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, Sen. Marty Golden and other Albany officials to get the bill passed.
“My hope is we can get it done promptly in the new session.” He added, “Albany’s wheels sometimes turn at their own pace. I haven’t heard a good reason not to use it.”
Bray said that BHA organized a campaign “to get other stakeholder groups to sign on to a letter that we sent to [Gov.] Cuomo and to the Senate majority leader and Assembly leader urging passage of this, and we’re going to keep working with Sen. Kavanagh.”
Quality of life in Brooklyn Heights
Bray said the construction, which could last from five to seven years or longer, is going to be “really, really difficult, especially for those people who live closest to it. You can’t undertake a project like this, in which they’re going to be presumably tearing apart the structure in many places and breaking up concrete and cutting down steel and replacing steel and building a new temporary structure, that’s not going to be noisy, dusty, dirty and have a lot of truck activity. This was built 75 years ago, and … the bill is coming due.”
BHA’s next annual meeting is going to focus on this project, Bray said.
“The import thing is all the important decisions about this project are going to be made within the next 12 to 18 months,” Bray said. “By the time the construction starts, all the decisions will have been made, so now is the time for people who have concerns about how best to mitigate those problems that are going to happen to get involved, attend meetings, participate in these workshops.”
Despite her worries about the future livability of Brooklyn Heights, Simonson said she has been “very happy so far with the outreach, and it’s great to talk to the actual engineers on the project.”
Concerns that will be addressed in future workshops involve the impact of the construction on Brooklyn Bridge Park and other parklands; the flexibility of the process; how freight trucks that use the area will be affected; and how the construction will impact businesses.
Another concern is how construction will affect the structure of landmarked buildings, some with cracks already from ongoing vibrations.
Pandya said DOT would have to use the Section 106 process to protect properties, especially if they are landmarked, throughout construction. Section 106 requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties.
“We’ve done a very limited study to get a handle on how much vibration is be generated,” Pandya said. “It’s difficult to tell in some cases where the vibrations are coming from; there are subways running underneath.” Further study will need to be carried out, she said.
When it comes to parks, “We’re looking to make it a win-win in the end. We don’t intend to take [parkland],” she said, adding, however, that the process may include “some kind of swap to make it better.”
The good news is that the city is not considering eminent domain in the project, Pandya said. “Very simply, no … We very much intend to stay within our right-of-way.”
More specifics will be coming at future workshops, Pandya said. The website has gone live at https://bqe-i278.com .
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