Brooklyn citizen lobbyists trek to Albany to push for faster, cheaper BQE fix
Cuomo changes mind, supports design-build; Golden revises bill with ‘add-ons’
Volunteers from six Brooklyn communities attempting to avert years of unnecessary traffic chaos piled onto a bus chartered by the Brooklyn Heights Association early Tuesday morning, headed for the state capitol in Albany.
Stakeholders from Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus and Park Slope were making the trip to lobby for a quicker, cheaper method to carry out the upcoming $1.8 billion rehabilitation of a rapidly deteriorating length of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).
Alarmingly, the stretch of the BQE from Sand Street to Atlantic Avenue will no longer be able to bear the weight of trucks by 2026. The stretch includes the triple-cantilever roadway under the famed Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
The seven-year reconstruction must be completed by 2026. If it’s not, NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) says it will likely have to divert 16,000 trucks daily from the highway onto local streets, causing jams that will reverberate from Brooklyn to Staten Island and Queens.
To get the job done before traffic chaos erupts, Albany must authorize a fast-track contracting process, called design-build, by the end of this month. Design-build would allow the work to be completed as many as two years faster and $113 million cheaper.
But the city needs state approval to use design-build, and this approval has hit a snag in Albany. Though the Assembly approved its use for the BQE last year, the Senate did not. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not initially include the authorization as one of his legislative priorities this session.
Good News: The Governor Gives His Blessing
The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) has taken a lead role in lobbying for design-build.
“I can’t say strongly enough how important this trip is,” BHA Executive Director Peter Bray told his fellow travelers as the bus headed north from Brooklyn Heights. He had some good news for the volunteers.
“Yesterday, the governor’s counsel sent a letter to Corey Johnson, the new City Council Speaker, announcing that the governor is supporting design-build for New York City for certain projects, in particular the BQE,” Bray said, eliciting applause from the riders.
The support from the governor made their lobbying trip even more important, Bray said. The governor’s “change of heart” could be seen as a kind of letter of intent, he ventured.
“Whatever horse-trading takes place in Albany, it is really critical to have the governor behind design-build,” he said. “So we’re going to Albany today to try to close the deal with the Legislature.”
DOT gave the volunteers lists of downstate legislators to call on because of the “courtesy principal” that implies that Senate and Assembly members upstate “are going to show courtesy to our representatives and back this piece of legislation,” Bray said.
Some had already expressed their support, signing a letter that state Sen. Brian Kavanagh and state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon sent to the governor in January. Others attended a rally on the Promenade two weeks ago, or an earlier rally in Brooklyn Bridge Park. But some officials have not yet committed.
“Keep the message focused,” Bray told the volunteer lobbyists. “Get design-build authorization for the BQE.”
Learning How the Sausage Is Made
After checking through security at the Capitol Building, the 18 volunteers split into an Assembly team and a Senate team. Armed with posters and information packets prepared by BHA, each group visited offices on their appointment list, intending to deliver their talking points and, hopefully, seal the deal.
It turned out that lobbying involves a lot of footwork. Many of the elected officials were not in their offices at the appointed times, but were in conferences or in chambers, and some pitches were instead delivered to legislative aides.
At other times the lobbyists ran into their designated officials — including state Sen. Brian Kavanagh — in the wood-paneled hallways surrounding the historic “million-dollar stairway” of the Capitol building.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to do this. So let’s just bring it home,” Kavanagh told the citizen lobbyists, adding, “It’s odd that this has taken this long.”
One insider speculated that Cuomo, famously feuding with the mayor, found he could more easily deal with Speaker Johnson in approving the authorization.
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, also in a hallway visit, said she felt Cuomo’s approval was meant to “signal the Senate.”
The team pitched to Sen. Liz Krueger’s legislative director Carolyn Burke, and then received a quick visit from the senator herself — who reassured the lobbyists she, too, was in favor of the authorization.
Iris Figueras, legislative aide to Bronx Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, personally expressed approval. “If they divert the trucks, it’s going to be chaos.”
The volunteers also met with the governor’s Deputy Secretary for Transportation, Ali Chaudhry, and Matthew Trapasso, senior policy adviser for transportation.
Chaudhry told the group that the state Transportation Department was a proponent of design-build.
“There’s not a single design-build law in the state I have not written — Javits [Center], Penn Station, the Mario Cuomo Bridge,” he said, adding that design-build allowed the first phase of the Kosciuszko Bridge to be completed on time and on budget.
While the Assembly passed the legislation last year, the Senate still hasn’t passed it, he said.
“They spend all their time talking about dive bars and what should be the official snack of New York.
“You need three-way negotiations,” he said. “This is the biggest DOT project in the city.”
Rodney Powis, state Sen. Simcha Felder’s chief of staff, said design-build was “certainly on top of the list of things that have to get done this year.” He added, however, that state Sen. Marty Golden, the sponsor of the Senate legislation, “is really the face of it.”
Golden Reintroduces Bill with ‘Add-ons’
Golden’s general counsel Robyn Cotrona told the lobbyists that Golden is “committed to the BQE.”
She also informed them that Golden has reintroduced the bill in the Senate with “add-ons.”
The reintroduced bill (S07867) requires any savings to go to the MTA capital plan for NYC. It also directs the NYC police commissioner to assign police officers to city schools.
A city insider later told the group that the add-ons were a potentially problematic requirement.
The project should not be held hostage as a “bargaining chip,” the insider told the Brooklyn Eagle. As a priority of the governor, the mayor, Golden and Lanza, design-build should not be “tied to other things,” the insider said.
When asked to comment, John Quaglione, Golden’s chief of staff, told the Eagle on Thursday, “Both school safety and transportation (MTA funding) are by far two of the largest pressing needs facing Sen. Golden’s district and New York City.”
Quaglione said there will be an amendment clarifying the use of the savings.
The bill has been referred to the Cities Committee, headed by Felder.
Community Hopes That Reasonable Minds Will Prevail
After a long day of lobbying — punctuated by BHA’s Bray being interviewed by NY1, two photo ops and a Danny Glover sighting — the volunteers took the long bus ride back to Brooklyn Heights.
Quiet conversations centered around civic activities sponsored by participants’ various organizations, gardening and the effect of the upcoming years of BQE reconstruction on real estate prices in Brooklyn Heights and nearby neighborhoods.
Bray said he was gratified that the people who represent affected communities could all get together and pull in the same direction. “And I think it sets a template for things that we can do together on other issues that confront our communities generally,” he said.
“We had an ambitious schedule of senators as well as assemblypeople. We met with virtually all of them or their legislative aides. And we also were able to sit down with two of the governor’s key people to not only express our thanks for the governor’s position that he has now taken … but also to express our willingness to work with him and his staff in any way we can to further this legislation,” he said.
Bray said he hoped the last-minute change to the bill wouldn’t impede the project.
“The legislative process has many steps to it that seem to vary depending upon who you talk to in Albany, and it’s not abundantly clear to me what’s the most important requirement for getting this legislation past,” Bray said.
“There seems to be a recognition of how important this is for the city,” he added. “We hope that reasonable minds prevail in the city and state, and at the end of the day this legislation is enacted and the governor signs it.”
Design-build advocates included BHA President Martha Dietz; BHA Executive Director Peter Bray; Sidney Meyer, member of the Boerum Hill Association and CB2; Marian Wood, member of the Boerum Hill Association; former BHA President and founder of the Promenade Gardens Conservancy Neil Calet; BHA board member Steve Rothman; Park Slope Civic Council member Bridget Reel; BHA Executive Assistrant Katherine Davis; Cobble Hill Association board member and former President Franklin Stone; Carroll Gardens Association Director and CB6 member Glenn Kelly; BHA Transportation Committee member Kurt Steele; BHA member Jane Platt; Brooklyn Heights resident and volunteer Promenade gardener Karen Schlesinger; Brooklyn Heights resident and volunteer Promenade gardener Maureen Healy; BHA Governor and Landmarks Committee member Lorraine Bonaventura; Brooklyn Heights resident Roger Adler; BHA member and volunteer Promenade gardener Cheryl Baker; and Brooklyn Heights resident Craig Meachen.
Quick BQE Reconstruction Facts
* The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in the Brooklyn Heights area is rapidly deteriorating.
* Design-build is a bidding process that allows engineering and construction to be contracted together rather than separately, saving time and money. It is used throughout the state.
* Using design-build to reconstruct the BQE must be authorized by state by end of March or reconstruction will take years longer, spawning traffic chaos, and cost more than $100 million more.
* Design-build authorization for the project has been stymied in Albany, and time is running out.
* Brooklyn stakeholders learned on Tuesday that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in an apparent change of heart, expressed his support for BQE design-build.
* Stakeholders also learned that Republican Sen. Marty Golden, a sponsor, has reintroduced the design-build bill in the Senate with a potentially problematic “add-on.”
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment