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BQE overhaul proposal met with public skepticism, anger

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There are many questions about the DOT’s proposed revamp of a stretch of the dilapidated roadway

A yellow cab, a red truck, and several other cars driving on the Brooklyn Heights section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Max Touhey

Emotions ran high at the Department of Transportation’s first public meeting for its long-overdue revamp of a 1.5-mile section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, plans for which were unveiled a week ago.

During a packed meeting at the Ingersoll Houses Community Center in Downtown Brooklyn, speaker after speaker decried a reconstruction proposal that the DOT has billed as innovative: using design-build to completely overhaul the stretch between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street, which would mean replacing the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a temporary elevated roadway for a period of up to six years. A second proposal—to rebuild the span in increments, with a much shorter closure period for the Promenade—wasn’t as unpopular, but still not liked very much by those present.

DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who was there along with BQE project manager Tanvi Pandya and Robert Collyer, the deputy commissioner of bridges, repeatedly emphasized the difficulty of the choice the city is facing. The roadway is “hitting the end of its usable life”—the DOT estimates that it will be rendered completely unusable within 20 years—and tearing it down entirely is not an option the agency thinks is prudent, given the likely spillover of vehicles (particularly trucks) onto the surrounding streets. “The congestion implications and the safety implications of that are just very dramatic,” Trottenberg said.

Audience members, however, were not convinced by either of the proposals that the DOT has put forth. Questions from the public throughout the three-hour meeting—which, at times, devolved into shouting and expressions of frustration—ranged from the environmental implications of tearing down the Promenade, even temporarily, and replacing it with a six-lane roadway; to the impact that construction would have on noise and nearby buildings; to why the DOT hasn’t considered alternative locations for a temporary roadway, such as over or to the west of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The park was something of a recurring theme; multiple speakers from Brooklyn Heights brought up feeling “totally burned” (in one person’s words) by the city after losing views of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Promenade thanks to Pierhouse, one of the revenue-generating developments within the park. That lack of trust (and resentment) was echoed repeatedly throughout the night, with other speakers asking why a more holistic approach wasn’t taken prior to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s construction, or whether or not the proposed roadway could be built where the park’s noise-dampening berms currently sit.

City Council member Stephen Levin, in whose district the Promenade and this portion of the BQE sits, also expressed concern that the reconstruction project is, at this point, falling entirely on the city to fund and execute. The DOT has said multiple times that it can’t count on state involvement—or rely on the state passing measures like congestion pricing or tolling on East River crossings, which could alleviate some of the traffic pressure in that area—but Levin, and members of the audience, pressed the agency to keep trying. (To compare, the BQE sees about 153,000 vehicles traveling over it each day; the former Tappan Zee Bridge has around 140,000, per the DOT.)

But Levin also expressed sympathy for the crappy task at hand for the DOT:

Other speakers asked why the DOT was only presenting the two proposals that are currently on the table; some wondered why this portion of the BQE can’t just be torn down entirely. The DOT reps attempted to answer these questions as best as possible, with Trottenberg promising to look into all of the available alternatives, including getting help from the state, as the process moves forward.

And indeed, it will be a process: Last night’s meeting was the first of many that will happen before the city begins to seek a design-build partner for the project (which will come after an environmental impact statement is completed sometime in the next few years). At the earliest, the agency expects construction to begin in 2020, with the majority of work finished by 2026, when weight restrictions would need to be enacted on the current BQE.

But one thing is clear after last night’s meeting: No matter how this shakes out, this project is going to be one of the most challenging—both from a PR perspective, and a construction perspective—to play out in the city in the next few years.