NYC releases plan to preserve BQE for 20 years, buying time for a better idea
Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City officials revealed a plan on Wednesday to squeeze another 20 years of operation out of the decrepit Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This will buy time to come up with a more visionary, forward-thinking plan for the highway that reduces dependence on trucks and takes community concerns into account, the mayor said.
De Blasio said the city would “use this opportunity to rethink how people, goods, and services move around our city … The world is changing and we want to find new solutions.”
The plan includes preserving the current infrastructure by waterproofing it and eliminating the use of roadway salt; performing immediate maintenance; and enforcing limits on overweight trucks.
NYC’s Department of Transportation has been warning for years that a one and a half mile stretch of the interstate, which includes the triple cantilever underpinning the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, was dangerously deteriorated. Rebuilding the segment in its current form would be a massive undertaking costing roughly $4 billion, and many advocates have called for the BQE, which is a major truck route and source of pollution, to be cut back in size or even eliminated altogether.
While de Blasio is presiding over the intermediate-term repairs, he will be long out of office before any of the visionary work can begin. But he denied that he was “kicking the can down the road.”
“The notion that you’re going to turn the BQE into a park overnight, obviously that’s not going to immediately happen,” de Blasio said. “You need to reduce truck traffic, [move to] water and rail freight, and transform the reality. It will take years … This plan opens the door to get all those bigger things right.”
Officials pointed out it would also take years to line up the legislation and funding necessary for a major rethinking of the highway.
“This plan is designed to address current safety and structural concerns about the 70-year old roadway, while reimagining not only its future purpose, but how freight is moved in this city in the 21st century,” NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman said.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is freeing up resources that can flow into the highway’s intermediate-term repairs, de Blasio said. Gutman said the BQE repairs are among the city’s top five transportation priorities.
What the plan entails:
- The number of traffic lanes in each direction on a segment of the highway will be reduced from three to two and widened to the regulation-size 12 feet wide with a nine-foot shoulder added, which will reduce traffic delays caused by minor fender-benders. Starting on August 30, DOT will shift lane markings along a half-mile segment (roughly from Atlantic Avenue to the Brooklyn Bridge). Eliminating lanes will reduce traffic volume by roughly 11 percent, Gutman said.
- The city will install “weigh-in-motion” technology to automatically fine overweight trucks, thanks to legislation pushed through by Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and State Sen. Brian Kavanagh. However, the legislation has not yet been signed in Albany. “Whoever is governor will need to sign the legislation expeditiously to address the oversized trucks,” de Blasio said.
- DOT will continue its ongoing concrete and rebar repairs on the Hicks Street retaining wall, and finish this work this year. Work on two other deteriorated deck spans will begin next year.
- Sensors have been installed along the BQE to monitor the structure’s health. Preliminary results will be available later this summer.
The city plans to ‘reimagine freight’
Gutman said the city is looking at a plan to manage “last mile” freight deliveries by incentivizing off-hour deliveries, freight consolidation and cargo bike deliveries.
“Reimagining freight is a critical piece of this,” he said. Between e-commerce and the pandemic, freight demands have only grown, he said. “For the last mile, there’s no reason for oversized trucks to be making local deliveries.”
Gutman recommended building distribution centers in all five boroughs, “where things can be off-loaded to electric carts and small electric vehicles for the last mile delivery.” In the long term, “We can increase our use of rail, and we can turn back to our rivers, which were our original highways. Just like we have passenger ferries, we can have freight ferries.”
Kavanagh applauded the initiative. “It recognizes our transportation options are changing dramatically, with new technology and new ways of people consuming goods. It’s put very serious pressure on our roadways.
He added that the legislation enforcing overweight truck laws that he and Simon sponsored could be used as a national model.
Simon said the plan would “buy us the time to actively plan for a vastly safer, smarter and more sustainable corridor.” She said Robert Moses’ original highway design “divided neighborhoods, increased asthma and excessively burdened low-income communities along the corridor.”
Following recommendations of BQE Panel
Before being appointed by de Blasio to head DOT, Gutman served on the mayor’s BQE Expert Panel. The panel, chaired by Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, was formed after outrage from residents living along the triple cantilever brought a halt to the city’s original proposal. The original proposal would have temporarily replaced the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a six-lane highway, spewing dangerous pollution into local neighborhoods.
Gutman said the city would be following up on the recommendations of the BQE panel by starting “a broad community outreach program” this fall. “One of the things we learned was that this highway has impacts all up and down the corridor, not just where the triple cantilever is.”
It was community engagement that got us to this point
While officials say the new plan will buy time to engage with the community, it was members of the community who put together the unprecedented multi-year campaign that brought the city’s original plan to a grinding halt.
“Community involvement and engagement got us where we are today — initially a rejection of the Promenade Highway Plan, which led to the formation of the mayor’s expert panel on the BQE which made the recommendations we’re talking about now — reducing lanes, looking at the entire BQE corridor and not just the cantilever, etc.,” said Lara Birnback, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association and a founding member of the Coalition for the BQE Transformation.
“We are happy that action is being taken to keep motorists safe on the cantilever in the immediate, and we understand the need to buy some time while the community-based planning takes place for the long-term solution, and we are here to ensure that the twenty-year timeline outlined by the Mayor and DOT will not become a reason to continue to kick the can down the road,” she said.
“Given the attention and funding coming from the federal government for infrastructure, this is an incredible moment to make transformative progress as quickly as possible, which should include a real discussion of how we rely less and less on private vehicles and more on public transit, reduce polluting trucks, and in fact, whether we need the highway at all,” Birnback said.Comptroller Scott Stringer, in 2019, was among the first members of the community to release his own proposal for reconstruction of the affected segment of the BQE.
After Stringer released his design, an avalanche of forward-thinking plans were subsequently donated by design firms and members of the public. (https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2019/04/15/bqe-rehab-plans/)
“The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway has blighted New York City for decades,” Stringer said on Wednesday in a release. “Today’s announcement to scale back the BQE, as I have long advocated, is a positive first step toward ending the harmful legacy of this roadway and finally creating the flexibility and space to comprehensively reimagine a pedestrian-friendly transit and infrastructure network for the future.”
Officials from the aforementioned Carlo Scissura to Councilmember Stephen Levin praised the plan. The Coalition for the BQE Transformation released a statement saying it “looks forward to working closely with DOT during this interim repair process to accommodate a host of near-term pollution, environmental, safety, and connectivity improvements. Today’s announcement is an important step in the right direction.”
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Kicking can down the road or making it eco-friendly,its an 80 year old expressway main hub for delivering goods to parts of Brooklyn,an expressway that is long overdue for repairs/maintenance so is the promenade.