Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
In early 2020, the biggest infrastructure debate in our car-plagued city was over what to do about the Brooklyn-Queens freeway. Built over 60 years ago to process 47,000 vehicles per day, the BQE now transports over 153,000, many of which are illegal overweight trucks. The relentless traffic crush – more … than the FDR, Tappan Zee and Cross Bronx Expressway – has dangerously degraded the 1.5 mile stretch between Verrazzano and Brooklyn Heights, including the famous triple cantilever section capped by the Brooklyn Parkway.
The enormity of the problem has given rise to remarkable proposals. Of course, you can just fix the BQE and build a temporary elevated freeway over Furman Street, like a company advised, but why not think bigger? Bjarke Ingels Group suggested bury the causeway and plant trees on top – a “BQP” – which would add ten acres of green space next to Brooklyn Bridge Park and create a massive, leafy amphitheater across from Lower Manhattan. Controller Scott Stringer submitted a plan to keep a single lower section for cantilever trucks and cover the rest, resulting in a two-mile “linear fleet”. The city council commissioned a report from Arup which included an $ 11 billion bypass tunnel connecting the Gowanus Freeway to Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Others (including one by Justin davidson) pushed the Overton window a bit more: What if we just tear up the BQE?
A panel of experts appointed by the mayor concluded that the idea was “unrealistic”. He also rejected any scenario that would create a temporary highway on the Promenade or the park, effectively kill a proposal from the Ministry of Transport intensely opposed by the residents of Brooklyn Heights, furious about losing access to the Promenade for at least three years. Instead, the committee recommended that the DOT immediately remove two of the six lanes of the freeway, one in each direction; impose aggressive fines on illegal trucks; and start working on the shoring of the structure. This, he argued, would address the most pressing concern: The 1.5-mile stretch in Brooklyn would be “dangerous and unable to carry current traffic within five years.”
It was in January 2020. Then the pandemic struck.
Fifteen months after the sign issued its warning – and a quarter of the way in its awful five-year projection – the BQE is still a blocked and deteriorating six-lane highway, and officials aren’t much closer to proposing a real plan to resolve the situation for good.
A DOT spokesperson said the agency has completed or started all immediately needed repairs to the BQE, although fixes to two particularly damaged 50-foot-long spans of the cantilever bridges are still in phase. Design. Carlo Scissura, the head of the New York Building Congress and chairman of the panel, noted that these adjustments are expected to buy the city several years once completed. After which, we’ll be back to where we are now.
A variety of factors have converged to make repairs particularly critical. The Trump administration delayed New York City’s congestion pricing plan for no good reason. People stayed out of the metro due to fear of public transit linked to the pandemic. “What we are seeing is that trafficking has reached near or pre-pandemic levels,” said Kate Slevin, senior vice president of state programs and advocacy for the Regional Plan Association. “This means BQE congestion is becoming just as extreme as it was before the pandemic. Obviously, the air pollution and the environmental and public health implications of this level of traffic are significant. »Vehicle emissions, which are the biggest source of air pollution in New York, has hardly fallen since 2005.
And although all six lanes remain open, the fight against illegal trucks has been inconsistent. The NYPD says that since its “BQE Truck Enforcement Task Force” was formed in early 2020, it has written 6,000 citations, including 874 for weight violations. However, that is only a fraction of the nearly 1,650 overweight trucks traveling on the BQE on the Queens side alone each day, as the panel noted. This is mainly because these posts are so difficult to write, says State Senator Brian Kavanagh, whose district encompasses parts of the BQE. “The officer has to watch it, and the only way to write the violation at this point is to get the truck off the road and put it on a ladder,” he said. “It’s not something you want to do on a regular basis.”
Kavanagh and Assembly member Jo Anne Simon have sponsored bill this would create the country’s first truck weight enforcement system that measures a vehicle’s weight at normal speed and issues fines electronically, like a red light camera. They also have introduced legislation to create a sort of multi-agency governance authority for the BQE, such as the Gateway Development Corporation tasked with repairing the Hudson River rail tunnels, which will be crucial for working in an area teeming with subways, power and communications lines, and water and gas pipes.
Removing the road altogether could avoid this literal, municipal rat pit, and there are signs the federal DOT may be receptive. Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently recognized that “there is racism physically embedded in highways”, and stopped a huge highway project in Texas for civil rights reasons. Buttigieg’s deputy, the city’s former DOT commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, is known for hate BQE and is fully aware of its shortcomings. “There is a horrible legacy here that we should fight and try to remedy by investing money in the future of transport,” said Slevin of the RPA. “For something like the BQE, you have to be bold.”
Michael Lydon, Director at Street maps, a New York and Miami-based town planning firm, said eliminating BQE has compelling precedents. “You get the traffic you allow. If you have less space for traffic, you get less traffic, ”he explains, citing the law of induced demand. Huge highways Seoul, San Francisco, and New York fell without any measurable effect on the stalemate. After the demolition of Seattle’s Alaskan Way overpass in 2019, the 90,000 vehicles that used it every day “just disappeared. »Finally, the same number of drivers has just been filled a $ 3.2 billion replacement tunnel – revealing the pitfalls of projects to replace the BQE by other roads or tunnels. The cheapest and easiest solution here can also be the most environmentally friendly.
The DOT, which is currently headed by Hank Gutman, a Blasio loyalist and Brooklyn Heights resident who was also a member of the BQE panel, said the public could expect an announcement on the freeway later this month. . The agency said the update will focus on “specific short to medium term actions,” suggesting it may finally close the lanes to traffic – something its own experts told it to do ago. more than a year. But the bigger and bolder ideas seem to be out of place at the moment.
The crumbly BQE provides its own deadline, but in a very different way, so does the government. As the Biden administration sets up a $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan, state and city officials have a window of opportunity to secure funding for anything that replaces the highway. “In the worst case scenario, we have billions of dollars that could flow into our region and our city and state are not prepared to spend that money on projects that are ready to go,” Slevin said.
“This will be one of the biggest projects in the city’s capital program for years to come. We’ll have to get a lot of attention from the next one [mayoral] administration whether they like it or not.