Adams to speed up BQE renovation, but halt previously budgeted patchwork

Plan hinges on getting Biden infrastructure funds

June 14, 2022 Mary Frost
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Mayor Eric Adams said he wants to discard former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 20-year plan to patch up decrepit sections of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), and instead take advantage of the Biden administration’s federal infrastructure funds to kick off a massive renovation project within five years. 

“I will not wait decades and needlessly spend hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars when we can and must start rebuilding this vital transportation artery today,” Adams told The New York Times in a story published Monday. He called the opportunity to access federal funds to re-build the BQE a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Last month, local officials and the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), were taken aback when they learned at a City Council meeting that the city planned to eliminate most of next year’s $250 million budget to patch up the expressway

The temporary repair plan was designed to squeeze another 20 years of operation out of the rickety highway. This would buy time to come up with a more visionary, forward-thinking plan that reduces dependence on trucks and takes community concerns into account, de Blasio said last August. 

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Adams said, however, that many of the short term repairs would not be necessary if a major renovation could be begun within five years. He said his administration would initiate a community engagement process over the next six months to develop a proposal in advance of Spring 2023 federal funding deadlines. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams. AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

Quickly crafting a consensus plan on this contentious issue was something that the de Blasio administration was unable to do. The first proposal backed by de Blasio would have replaced the landmarked Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a superhighway spewing dangerous pollution during the renovation of the triple cantilever section of the BQE. That section of the BQE carries 129,000 vehicles a day. 

This idea was so shocking to residents and a coalition of neighborhood organizations led by the BHA that protests were held in the streets, lawsuits were threatened and civic groups, private citizens and officials came forward with their own alternative plans, some including tunnels and elevated parks.  

The multi-billion dollar project requires city, state and federal agencies and elected officials to form a joint working group to carry out its planning and funding — a daunting task, but one that might be easier for Adams than for his predecessor, who was often feuding with then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

However, Hank Gutman, de Blasio’s former transportation commissioner who was a member of de Blasio’s BQE panel, told the Times it was “wishful thinking” to believe a comprehensive plan for the highway could be approved and built before the structure becomes unsafe. “They have run out of time and options without employing the measures that we announced and adopted last year,” he said. 

DOT engineers told Brooklyn residents in 2017 that a section of the BQE from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue is so decrepit it needs to be replaced before 2026, or tens of thousands of trucks daily will be rerouted through Brooklyn’s residential streets. This 1.5-mile section of interstate runs along the two lower levels of the triple cantilever supporting the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. 

Since that time, DOT has carried out some patchwork, such as concrete and rebar repairs on the Hicks Street retaining wall, and eliminated one lane of traffic in each direction, potentially buying more time. The next round of repairs was to include waterproofing and internal work to fix cracks.

Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-33rd). Photo by Benjamin Kanter

Restler: Why not work on parallel track?

“A six month timeline is indeed highly ambitious, but we should take advantage of this opportunity and work to forge meaningful community consensus around a plan that can be a roadmap for the Adams administration,” Councilmember Lincoln Restler told the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday. “I am hopeful we can build off the work that has already be done.”

Restler believes that the scheduled short term repairs should be carried out at the same time as the mayor’s more ambitious plan is attempted.

“I am laser focused on the safety of our community and preserving the lifespan of the structure as needed,” he said. “We must work on parallel track to preserve the structure and avert potential disaster in case timelines slip.”

Lara Birnback, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, at a BQE demonstration.
Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

BHA: Questions remain

“The timeline is extremely ambitious, even more so given that we’re going into the summer when many people are on vacation or away from the neighborhood,” BHA Executive Director Lara Birnback told the Eagle. 

“At the same time, we aren’t starting from scratch — Brooklyn Heights and nearby communities have been thinking about this problem for many years now and we hope that after some false starts a meaningful community engagement process can finally begin. While many are eager to move quickly, that should not mean sacrificing a quality process,” she said.

Birnback said that the Adams administration told BHA last week “that they plan to start some kind of [community outreach] process very soon, but I don’t have more information. We asked them to organize a meeting ASAP to walk the community through their new approach and answer questions.”

Rather than putting together a borough-wide coalition, the Adams administration told BHA they plan to consult communities along the entire corridor, “Which I imagine will take some time,” Birnback said. 

In an email to BHA members on Tuesday, the organization said, “While we welcome the renewed focus on this pressing issue, many questions remain. We expect the community engagement process will be robust, and that moving with haste will not mean sacrificing a quality process.” 

De Blasio’s BQE panel, led by Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, said in 2020 that 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. 

Transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, who consults with DOT on this and other projects, told the Times that there “will be no consensus on the BQE.”  He recommended that Adams and Gov. Hochul just set a deadline and move ahead with with a plan “over almost certain opposition.”

In an email to constituents, Councilmember Restler said, “As I said to the Times: “No plan can be shoved down our throats by City Hall or anyone else.”

The NYC Department of Transportation referred press inquiries to the Mayor’s Office, which did not respond to the Eagle by press time. The DOT website says, “NYCDOT is undertaking a strategic review of the BQE project. Check back soon for updated information.”

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