BQE project too big for NYC alone, says City Council
The job of rebuilding the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is just too big, too multijurisdictional and too expensive for New York City to take on by itself, speakers testified at a packed New York City Council oversight hearing on Tuesday.
Speakers said Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are going to have to work together to accomplish one of the biggest infrastructure projects in city history: replacing a 1.5-mile section of the interstate between Sands Street and Atlantic Avenue that carries 153,000 vehicles a day, including 25,000 trucks hauling freight.
Officials also said that the concept must be widened to include not just the triple cantilever underpinning the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, but the entire expanse of the I-278 corridor.
At the hearing, the City Council’s engineering firm Arup explained its top two recommendations to rebuild or replace the interstate, and urged representatives to move immediately to form a special governing body to move the project to the next level.
Arup was hired by the City Council in September 2019 to double-check the work of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expert panel and the city Department of Transportation’s own contractor, Aecom. The Council and Arup released its recommendations on Monday.
One approach, inspired by the Mark Baker/BIG plan, would route the BQE’s cars and trucks along an enclosed highway at ground level along Furman Street, turning the triple cantilever underpinning the Brooklyn Heights Promenade into a park. Atlantic Avenue would run beneath the open space, and the Cobble Hill trench could be topped with green space.
The other approach would replace a section of the BQE with a three-mile long tunnel from the Gowanus Canal to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The former BQE from Cobble Hill to Clinton Hill would be converted into a surface street and new open space. The tunnel idea has long been championed by Cobble Hill resident Roy Sloane, a 35-year member of the Transportation Committee of Community Board 6. While the city had ruled out a tunnel in years past, technology for boring has improved enormously in the past decade, according to Arup.
Speaker Corey Johnson said that he was not endorsing any one particular plan. “It’s about getting information to the public and moving it forward.”
This means “setting up a public authority charged with overseeing this process for years to come,” Johnson said. The governing body would have “oversight over multiple city, state and federal administrations, keeping their eye on the prize and working with the communities and every level of state government along the way.”
“I’m admonishing the governor and the mayor that it’s time to work together and come up with a structure that has the authority to do this kind of work,” Councilmember Stephen Levin said. “It’s incumbent that they set aside any difference they have and work together on a governance structure.”
“We said months ago a governance structure was needed. A true entity that has teeth, money and actual power to build, or nothing will happen — city, state and federal,” said Carlo Scissura, head of a BQE panel appointed by the mayor in April 2019 to study the problem. He added, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this right.”
Scissura said that state Sen. Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon “have to come together to create legislation in Albany” to create the new government entity. “Can we get it done before the budget, I don’t know. But we need to get the conversation started.”
The state had originally planned to carry out the project, but it “dropped the ball” years ago, Councilmembers said.
Whole corridor needs attention
Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez framed the project in terms of social justice. “Underserved communities need to be a part of this conversation.”
Pointing out the mostly white crowd in attendance at the hearing, he added, “When you look at the faces of the audience and there’s no diversity there, it’s a challenge. People are struggling every day [along the BQE corridor]. I feel we can create something that can benefit everyone.”
Roughly 450,000 residents live along the BQE corridor, Arup principal Trent Lethco said. “And 60 percent of these are from environmental justice communities. They pay the price for our infrastructure.”
Councilmember Carlos Menchaca said that Red Hook and Sunset Park must also be included in the discussion. “We have to look at the whole corridor, not just Brooklyn Heights.”
Scissura agreed. “To allocate billions for a mile and a half in only one neighborhood is a disservice to the rest of the communities.”
Emergency repairs starting
The mayor’s panel released its report in January. It recommended starting emergency repairs immediately while removing one third of the highway’s lanes. Converting from three lanes in either direction to two would allow for wider lanes and allow for a breakdown lane.
“We are going to take a hard look” at the idea, city DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said. “It involves traffic analysis, talking with state and federal government. We’re looking at different lane configurations.”
Interim repair work on the existing roadway will begin in the spring, she said. The repairs will include milling, work on the deck, replacing mesh and shoring up the Hicks Street wall. This work is scheduled to be completed in 2022.
The city is also cracking down on overweight trucks on the highway, an idea backed by Hank Gutman, a member of the mayor’s panel, according to Johnson. While the weight limit is 80,000 lbs., sensors installed on the roadway have detected some trucks weighing as much as 170,000 lbs. Law enforcement is currently using spotters to pull overweight trucks off the highway for inspection, but DOT is looking at using automated enforcement in the future, Trottenberg said.
NYPD Inspector Steve D’Ulisse said that many summonses were issued during the first six days of the effort, but weight violations have since decreased. Since Feb. 3, 276 summonses were issued. Of these, 97 were for overweight, and 23 trucks were pulled out of service.
DOT is hoping that other measures could also reduce traffic on the highway in the interim, including tolls and the planned implementation of congestion pricing.
Arup’s two main recommendations were among those originated by residents, officials and design firms in the aftermath of the release of the city’s own controversial proposal in September 2018, which it dubbed the “Innovative Plan.”
This plan would have replaced the Promenade with a temporary six-lane BQE bypass while rebuilding the highway, part of I-278. This would have brought the noise and pollution of roughly 153,000 cars and trucks a day to ground level in Brooklyn Heights for at least six years. It also would have done nothing toward advancing the city’s goals of reducing traffic and pollution, critics said.
Trottenberg said in no uncertain terms on Tuesday that the Innovative Plan was no longer on the table.
Can’t knock it all down
As much as some wish to simply knock the BQE down, “It’s a very important, vital link to the regional economy. We can’t wish traffic away. There has to be some level of accommodation,” Lethco said.
Speaker Johnson said that while numerous strategies could reduce traffic along the BQE, it wouldn’t be possible to eliminate it totally at this time. Roughly 25,000 trucks a day traverse the BQE to carry freight and deliveries across the city and beyond.
“It ignores the reality that people need to get somewhere,” Johnson said. If we create hardship for people on their journey, how are they going to respond to a network that doesn’t fit people’s needs?”
Numerous individuals and members of organizations advocating for a transformative redesign of the BQE submitted testimony at the end of the hearing. These included Martha Bakos Dietz of the Brooklyn Heights Association; Hilary Jager of a Better Way; Amy Breedlove of the Cobble Hill Association; Kate Slevin and Rachel Weinberger of the Regional Plan Association; Eric McClure of StreetsPAC, Doreen Gallo of DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance; Roy Sloane; Toba Potosky of the Downtown Brooklyn Co-op Alliance; Patrick Killackey of North Heights Neighbors and others.
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