Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn-Queens Expressway panel delivers long-awaited recommendations

Repair cantilever now and reduce BQE traffic lanes, while protecting promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park, group says.

January 31, 2020 Mary Frost
Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
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The BQE panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended starting emergency repairs immediately while removing one third of the highway’s lanes, in its long-awaited report on rebuilding the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The report was released Thursday night following a presentation to the community.

The panel, led by Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, made three key recommendations:

  • Repairs to a decrepit 1.5-mile segment of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway must begin immediately. This finding is based on new data the panel called “alarming,” showing that the stretch, which includes the triple cantilever underpinning the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, may become unsafe within the next five years. NYC DOT could begin maintenance of some sections as early as this spring, and closure of the road for extended periods may be necessary.
  • The highway must immediately be reduced from six lanes to four lanes to reduce traffic volume by 15 percent and create shoulders to handle disabled vehicles. The city’s congestion pricing program, the return of split-toll collection on the Verrazano Bridge and other strategies will reduce traffic, allowing the lanes to be eliminated. Overweight trucks — currently estimated to be at least 11 percent of those using the highway — must also be prohibited, as they are accelerating the deterioration of the highway.
  • Planning for a transformational re-envisioning of the entire BQE corridor from Staten Island to Queens must start immediately, as it could take two decades to carry out. The multi-billion dollar project requires state and federal agencies and elected officials to form a joint working group to carry out its planning and funding.
Carlo Scissura. Photo courtesy of Carlo Scissura
Carlo Scissura chaired the BQE panel. Photo: Carlo Scissura

The panel’s long-term goals reflect a new mindset in transportation planning: reducing the use of vehicles and maximizing use of public transit; providing alternatives for local freight; protecting the environment and promoting quality of life in adjacent communities.

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While removing a third of the lanes sounds counterintuitive, the driving experience could become less frustrating for the reduced number of vehicles on the road because the newly created shoulders would increase safety and allow disabled vehicles to pull off the highway. Currently, the stretch has a higher-than-average crash rate, and an accident can effectively block traffic for hours.

The triple-cantilever, built in 1950, is well past its projected life of 40-50 years, the report notes. “It is a geriatric structure showing significant signs of deterioration including spalling concrete (pieces fall sporadically), exposed reinforcing bars, steel corrosion, salt penetration, joint failures and deck holes.”

The deteriorating triple cantilever. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle
The deteriorating triple cantilever. Photo: Mary Frost/Brooklyn Eagle

The Promenade stays

The panel, which has been studying the problem in collaboration with NYC DOT since it was set up by the mayor in April, flat out rejected the city’s original proposal to replace the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a six-lane BQE bypass for the projected six to eight years of construction.

The city’s proposal, called the “Innovative Plan” (originally backed by the mayor), had triggered a strong backlash from local residents, officials and environmentalists, who pointed out it would bring the noise and pollution of 153,000 vehicles a day up to the street level of the Heights.

The panel also rejected any plan that would infringe on Brooklyn Bridge Park.

“The Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park are both essential to New York City, especially to the surrounding neighborhoods and Brooklyn as a whole,” the report said, adding, “These two destinations are also critical to the economic survival of local area businesses.”

The panel also refused to endorse any of the many alternative plans proposed by residents, design firms and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, as popular as these transformative designs may be with the public.

“We have been tasked with evaluating a mere 1.5-mile section of a highway that is more than 20 miles long and part of a freight corridor running through Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. The proposals that have garnered the most local support and media attention would add acres of parkland, scenic vistas and other amenities to an area that is already home to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park,” the panel wrote in their report.

To endorse plans of this type would “bestow a benefit to only a few neighborhoods, while not considering the needs of other neighborhoods along the entire BQE corridor in Brooklyn and Queens or its effect on Staten Island and the Verrazano Bridge,” the panel said.

Designed by BIG, one of many alternative plans to reconstruct the BQE, offered as an alternative to DOT’s “Innovative Plan.” Rendering courtesy of BIG
Shown above is one of many plans offered by the public as an alternative to a DOT plan that would temporarily replace the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a highway. Rendering courtesy of BIG

The panel’s job, after ten months, is done

The panel, composed of experts from various fields including transportation, technology, urban planning and design, has been meeting on a weekly basis to study the massive problem, one of the largest highway jobs contemplated in New York City in decades.

The panel is “very excited about the report and ready to say to the people in charge, ‘We laid out a framework, now run with it. Get a consensus and get the project done,’” Scissura told the Brooklyn Eagle. 

“We brought the conversation where it needs to be, and I’m very excited about the coming steps. The mayor, in a short time, is going to announce very exciting actions based on our recommendations. DOT will start immediate repairs and maintenance. The city, state and federal government need to come together and build out a new plan for the greater corridor,” Scissura said.

“We’ve had some great comments from the community,” he added, noting there was some surprise at the bad condition of the highway. “We opened a lot of eyes.”

“It was a very, very intensive process,” panel member Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society, told the Eagle. “We met weekly and dove deeply into the many aspects of the problem, and the outcome sets a future direction.”

Goldstein added, “There’s a moment here that is quite unique — there is significant demand for rebuilding and the opportunity to think about this in a comprehensive way. It presents New York City and the state with a wonderful opportunity you don’t get except every couple of generations … A lot of people need to come together. It’s not an easy task, but essential.”

Plymouth Church was filled up to the highest balcony level. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Plymouth Church was filled up to the highest balcony level during a town hall held earlier this year to discuss the proposals to reconstruct the BQE. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Reaction to the report

The panel’s recommendation is advisory, but the city said it will take a close look at the report.

“This is a thorny problem that defies easy solutions. The external panel has put fresh ideas on the table, and we are taking a close look at their proposals,” Olivia Lapeyrolerie, deputy press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, told the Eagle.

Lapeyrolerie added, “We’ll have more to say in the coming days, but New Yorkers can rest assured that we’ll take the steps necessary to keep people safe and keep this city moving.”

The Brooklyn Heights Association and a grassroots nonprofit, A Better Way NYC, were instrumental in the push for a community voice in the highway rehabilitation. Joined by the Cobble Hill Association, they formed the core of a coalition of 12 community groups that united in calling for a “transformative, sustainable solution.”

“We are very encouraged that the panel has embraced many of the ideas the BHA and the Coalition for the BQE Transformation have been calling for,” the Brooklyn Heights Association said on Thursday. “This community’s activism and engagement have had a significant impact so far as evidenced by the panel’s recommendations.”

Amy Breedlove, president of the Cobble Hill Association, said the group was “extremely thankful that there is a call for a comprehensive plan. That this is not just a cantilever repair or rebuild but a look to the future of our entire corridor, a chance to reduce traffic on the highway now.”

She added, “To form a larger multilevel governmental body that includes city, state, federal officials is essential to this larger vision. It was done in San Francisco and the time frame was much quicker then suggested this evening. We, the community and the coalition, have a lot of work to do.”

CHA will be holding a meeting on Feb. 27, where the organization will discuss what a future vision might look like and how other cities have achieved it, she said.

The BQE Panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio is nearing the end of its study, and a wide range of options are being considered. Above, the northbound lane of the BQE can be seen below the Brooklyn Heights Promenade walkway. Eagle photo by Todd Maisel
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Eagle photo by Todd Maisel

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  1. Nomcebo Manzini

    Wonderful summary of a very complex report. Of course, there ARE some things that – likely – couldn’t be covered in an article of any reasonable length – I think I read that the report ran over 70 pages. One that’s – as the entire report and problem are – a mix of promising and threatening is “adjustments” to which entrances and exits stay open.

    Mary didn’t – again, space reasons, almost for sure – rehash the entire “issue,” but I’d say that at its heart is the accident of history (and politics-as-usual) that’s left 2 major crossings – Brooklyn Bridge & Manhattan Bridge “UN-TOLLED,” when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (a VERY sensible alternative for northbound cars) has a hefty toll. Congestion pricing MAY make a difference here, but it’s still more than a year away. Now that the panel has issued SCARY predictions, the DOT is looking for ways (that don’t require Albany or DC approval) to reduce traffic on the cantilever in particular. In theory, if you closed off enough entrances and exits to the BQE – especially near Downtown Brooklyn – you’d “steer” some traffic to the Williamsburg Bridge, some to the BBT, some to local streets, etc. STAY TUNED, because this is one of those “bandaids” that may be worse than useless.

    Ms. Frost has been careful to do old-school journalism, almost entirely keeping what I’m sure are her informed opinions out of her articles. (The early sentence or 2 that explains how fewer lanes might actually make for smoother traffic isn’t NECESSARILY an exception to that, but I’m guessing that IS her belief. I’m an “agnostic” on this sure-to-be-controversial crucial proposal – closing 1 lane in each direction on the cantilevered section of the BQE.)

    But we readers ARE free to opinionate, so here goes: The report was VERY sloppily written and edited, and it’s easy to believe that 2 or 3 active panel members (many of the others probably did little more than lend their names) delegated writing it to staff, and those staffers were very unequal to a tough task – striking a balance between technical and accessible to ordinary New Yorkers … and balancing short-term vs. long-term recommendations.

    And Carl Scissura [the panel’s head] and the small number of genuine stakeholders are definitely to blame for decisions as to the scope of their investigations. It was probably easy to get a consensus that killing the Promenade was insane, and – charitably – maybe, they thought that considering the many BIG alternatives couldn’t be done seriously in under a year.

    But this paragraph is typical of what happens when you start from a very flawed “high level decision” and then try to make it sound reasonable:

    “The Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park are both essential to New York City, especially to the surrounding neighborhoods and Brooklyn as a whole. These two
    destinations are also critical to the economic survival of local area businesses.”

    >> The first sentence is ridiculously exaggerated and the 2nd one couldn’t have been written by anyone who spent even 1 full day in Brooklyn Heights. There is near-zero connection between local area businesses and the Promenade – there’s an ice cream truck nearby which might “suffer” if the Promenade were closed for “resurfacing.” Brooklyn Bridge Park has some commercial enterprises, but even they would be minimally impacted if the eastern edge of the park were re-purposed temporarily to get this project done YEARS EARLIER with fewer negative consequences to both drivers and Brooklynites. Doing most of the work on weekends – as is planned – enriches the builders (not coincidentally, the people who the panel’s leader is beholden to) and harms everybody else. What’s needed to keep this from being a 10-year project are some temporary “by-passes,” and the only feasible place for them is at the periphery of Brooklyn Bridge Park. AND that is land controlled by the City and its part-time and generally clueless Mayor!

    Anyone who looks at a map recognizes that the core activities in (lovely!) BBP would be minimally impacted, and shaving a year or 2 and a $billion or 2 off make any such impact TRULY a small price to pay.

    And then there’s this other paragraph from the report that – like so much of it – should have been re-written by an informed adult; it’s so illogical that only a weak intern would say it makes sense:

    “To endorse plans of this type would bestow a benefit to only a few neighborhoods, while not considering the needs of other neighborhoods along the entire BQE corridor in Brooklyn and Queens or its effect on Staten Island and the Verrazano Bridge.”

    Just as a stent is thought to save people’s lives, because it’s not “for the sake of a single artery but for the entire circulatory system!” it is largely THE OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS that would benefit. Traffic backed up (AND IDLING) from Bay Ridge to Williamsburg will only benefit tow truck operators and doctors specializing in asthma.

  2. it's onlymoney

    No question that BQE can use some deep repairs, as a native and someone who lives in that area for more than 20 years- know that maintenance/repairs are needed on BQE, it’s part of taking care of the infrastructures. It’s overdue, promenade could also use some fixing too. You won’t please everyone. There are no perfect solutions either, BQE is sorely needed, it’s one of the main lifeblood for commerce of Brooklyn, some who object are not really looking @ the bigger picture.