Debate intensifies as a New York City expressway crumbles
Proposals for fixing the 70-year-old Brooklyn-Queens Expressway are widespread, including an $11 billion Big Dig-type tunnel that no one has publicly endorsed.
But amid all the blue-ribbon panels, consultancy reports, renderings, public hearings, political bickering and even just blowing off steam — “Why can’t we just tear it down?” New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said — it’s clear that the crumbling highway needs both short- and long-term attention with ramifications well beyond the stretch pivotal to the discussion.
The epicenter of the 1.5-mile city-owned segment of Interstate 278 from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street near the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges is the 0.4-mile triple-cantilever, a seven-decade old three-layer infrastructure cake that carries eastbound lanes in one level, the westbound on another, with the pedestrian walkway Brooklyn Heights Promenade on top.
The BQE, one of the most reviled pieces of city infrastructure, is a throwback to uber-commissioner of yesteryear Robert Moses. Overcrowded, outdated and crumbling, it is to drivers what Penn Station is to commuters.
“We have one chance to get this right,” said City Council member Steven Levin, whose district includes a swath of the BQE.
While plans for now are conceptual, any rehab of the triple-cantilever will involve billions of dollars, plus extras such as parkland and walkways.
The looming need to pay for the project has prompted calls for the state to form a special-purpose governing authority for the I-278 corridor that would identify funding sources and coordinate among several agencies, among other tasks.
“Before we even make final decisions about any of those options, we need a governing structure that could potentially actually deliver any of them,” city transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said.
I-278 snakes throughout New York’s outer boroughs from Staten Island across the Verrazzano Bridge to the Triborough Bridge in Astoria, Queens. Brooklyn has roughly 2.5 million people and little interstate highway access.
“The BQE is a connective tissue that links New Jersey and Staten Island north to the mainstream United States,” said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and a member of a study panel that Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed.
“It's not just a local road, it's a regional road.”
The story resonates nationally, according to Trottenberg, a former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"There's a hunger all over the country. We're not the only city with a hulking, 70-year-old crappy interstate that we're trying to figure out what to do with," she said after a City Council transportation committee oversight hearing. "Our sister cities upstate, Syracuse and Rochester, a bunch of cities around the country are grappling with it."
The cantilever structure itself was a Plan B for the autocratic Moses, who got unexpected pushback when he tried to force a six-lane highway through Brooklyn Heights after bulldozing homes in Carroll Gardens and Sunset Park.
“While relatively short, this part of the BQE has varying structures as well as over a dozen ramps, is heavily trafficked, does not meet modern safety standards, and is deteriorating,” said a report by engineering firm Arup, which the City Council commissioned at Johnson’s behest and paid $245,000.
Matters at hand include capital spending on mass transit, alternative transportation modes, rising outer-borough budget priorities, delivery trucks on local streets and the looming — and possibly delayed — congestion pricing program for Manhattan, which figures to raise $15 billion in bonding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 2020 to 2024 capital program.
“When we reference the word corridor … the corridor is the Verrazzano Bridge all through Queens into the Bronx,” said Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress and chairman of the de Blasio panel.
“The corridor is not Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO. Our options were not to just look at the triple-cantilever."
A city Department of Transportation study said the presence of many overweight trucks on the BQE coupled with deterioration of the cantilever could make existing traffic levels — 150,000 vehicles daily, including 15,000 trucks — unsafe within five years. De Blasio has ordered a police crackdown on oversized trucks.
The de Blasio panel, while recommending no specific plan, called for reducing traffic lanes on the cantilever from three to two in each direction to buy time for the roadway and create a shoulder lane for breakdowns.
“There are a lot of fantasies out there — building a tunnel, for instance — but what can be done is different than what can be imagined,” Moss said.
Arup recommended two options including the tunnel, which would run from the Gowanus Expressway to Bedford Avenue in South Williamsburg, allowing for the reconstruction of the highway from Cobble Hill to Clinton Hill as a surface street and new open space.
The tunnel evokes images of Boston’s “Big Dig” — formally called the Central Artery/Tunnel Project -- where costs ballooned from a projected $2.6 billion to nearly $15 billion, or $24 billion when interest on debt service is added.
"With the tunnel, they're putting out an extreme they know they City Council won't approve," said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. "That would compete with $9 billion in funding for five-borough jails plan. Do we have such a $20 billion chunk within a five-year capital plan?"
More realistic, according to Arup, is a $3.2 billion capped highway, reconstructed at-grade and then topped with an expansion of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer — like Johnson, a presumed mayoral candidate in 2021 — proposed rehabilitating only one level of the triple-cantilever and creating a truck-only roadway at the bottom level. He said cost savings could help fund long-term subway and bus routes.
The city had pull to its original plan amid strong opposition from Brooklyn Heights. That $4 billion proposal called for removing a popular promenade built into the east side of the elevated highway, with promises for a new one six years later. Expanding westward into Brooklyn Bridge Park was also a non-starter.
Debate was visceral. One public hearing at the Ingersoll Houses community center in Fort Greene 18 months ago drew multiple layers of standing room.
“Brooklyn Heights is a very well-organized community. They vote in primaries. And they don’t want to lose their promenade or Brooklyn Bridge Park,” Moss said.
City DOT, constrained by lack of support at other layers of government, confined its original proposal to the cantilever.
That approach offered little beyond rebuilding a six-lane highway in place, said Arup, which encouraged better cooperation among the city, state and federal DOTs, and the state-run MTA.
“We took a swing at it and obviously didn’t have a hit, but the silver lining is, it’s certainly produced the kind of community engagement, elected-official engagement, creative thinking that honestly this project needed and I think we’ll always admit was beyond the ability of just New York DOT,” Trottenberg said.
Scissura called for a full-court press on Albany.
“The opportunity is now to get it done,” he said. “If we introduce legislation in Albany, can we get it done before budget [passage]? I don’t know. But we can get the discussion and the dialogue done before the budget, for sure.”
State lawmakers must approve a budget by April 1.
Challenges to a regional solution include a longtime feud between de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and territorialism among the region’s transit agencies.
“My advice to the mayor and the governor is that it’s time to work together,” Levin said.
Arup referenced the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., formed shortly after Sept. 11, and an entity created within New York State DOT to shepherd the completion of the upstate $4 billion Mario M. Cuomo bridge, the replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge.
The state executed the latter using design-build project delivery, which could cut costs and save time. The city now has full use of that strategy after having limited access the past couple of years.
That head start has given the city a leg up, according to Trottenberg.
“It's interesting, it worked out in a funny way, serendipitously, so to speak, because the city was able a couple of years ago to get it for the BQE, for [the New York City Housing Authority] and the new borough-based jails,” she said.
“It has given the city a couple of years to really get up and running and wrap its mind around how to do design-build, how to change our procurement process, our change-order process, how we work with the comptroller, so we've gotten our feet wet.”
Gelinas questioned the need for a special agency.
“I'm not really clear why they need a new public authority,” she said. “There's no need to add more bureaucracy. They would be creating an authority just to have an authority.”
Gelinas also called for better data.
“Most vehicles over the BQE are single occupancy,” she said. “Whichever plan they choose, I don't think they have done enough tests on traffic. In a functional government, you'd see them try experimental carpooling or free buses across the Verrazzano.”
The MTA, which operates intraborough bridges in addition to its core subway-and-bus functions, is scheduled to resume two-way tolling on the Verrazzano in June, which officials say could discourage truck drivers from “bridge shopping.” The authority plans to begin an $18 million lane-expansion project in the spring on the eastbound wide in Brooklyn.
Transit improvements, meanwhile, could reduce demand on the BQE while filling a pressing north to south outer-borough need. Service expansion options include more cars and more frequent runs on the Q train and express service on the D, R and F lines, according to the de Blasio panel.
Other options, both light-rail proposals, include de Blasio’s long-stalled Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, and the Triboro Rail Line, which the Regional Plan Association supports and for which the MTA is funding a study.
Trucks, meanwhile, will remain a part of the mix, idealists aside. A disconnect exists between neighborhood angst about trucks and preferences for home deliveries of consumer products.
“You can't deliver an air conditioner on a bicycle yet,” Moss said. “And you don't want those trucks on those narrow local roads. Until drones replace them, the truth is we're going to have trucks.”