Those who regularly commute along a crumbling span of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway might want to start searching for a new route. The rapidly deteriorating road—a major artery that connects three boroughs—may see its six traffic lanes slimmed to four, along with a slew of other changes, if the recommendations by a group of civic, transit, and engineering experts are adopted by the city.
That 17-member body, which was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last April, stopped short of backing one of several proposed fixes for the triple-cantilever section that runs between Atlantic and Sands streets in Brooklyn Heights, and instead urged for “a broader vision for the future of the highway.”
“It is our strong view that these proposals cannot be evaluated (or implemented) in a vacuum,” the panel wrote in its report. “Further, we determined at this juncture that it would not be appropriate to endorse plans of this type. To do so would bestow a benefit to only a few neighborhoods, while not considering the needs of other neighborhoods along the entire BQE corridor.”
Carlo Scissura, the head of the New York Building Congress who led the panel, stressed in the report that “kicking the can down the road is not an option.” But can city, state, and federal officials efficiently embark on a comprehensive plan for one of the city’s busiest highways when what is really needed is a swift solution? The answer is nebulous—the expert panel’s role was advisory, and the city has yet to move forward with a final plan—but transportation experts are hopeful.
“We can chew gum and walk at the same time. We can make the BQE safe and come up with new solutions at the same time,” said Sam Schwartz, a transportation consultant who advised the expert panel. “This is not just a city problem. We need the state, the MTA, the federal government. That’s why a holistic approach is the right way.”
The triple-cantilever section that is the focus of the city’s plans is currently in what could charitably be called bad shape: Deteriorated joints, spalling concrete, and exposed rebar all point to severe structural distress; meanwhile, faster-than-expected decay will make the road unsafe within five years, according to the panel’s report. And those problems aren’t limited to the 1.5-mile stretch in Brooklyn; as Schwartz puts it, “this highway should be put in the intensive care unit immediately.”
In 2018, the Department of Transportation put forward two multi-billion dollar proposals to renovate the BQE: a temporarily elevated roadway or an incremental, lane-by-lane approach. The panel rejected those plans, nixing any idea that would destroy the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and also put the kibosh on alternative ideas put forward by concerned locals that would shift a temporary roadway onto the Brooklyn Bridge Park—finding that it would shift the burden from one public space to another.
One thing the panel did recommend is for the city to slash the number of vehicles allowed on the BQE each day down to 125,000; currently, a whopping 150,000 vehicles, including 15,000 trucks, travel along the roadway on a daily basis.
To that end, de Blasio signed an executive order Friday to tighten enforcement on overweight trucks and immediately begin repairs on the troubled road. Federal guidelines limit trucks to carrying 40 tons of cargo on the BQE, but highway sensors found that some trucks carry double that weight. That extra heft translates to serious strain on the road’s structural integrity. Drivers could be hit with up to $7,000 in fines if their trucks are found to be overweight.
The executive order buys transportation officials time as they chart a course forward to “solving the underlying problem,” de Blasio said Friday on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. But the mayor seems less receptive to the recommendation that lanes on the Robert Moses-era highway should be reduced from three to two in either direction to lighten the load.
“The problem I have with that is one, that’s not a guarantee that people get out of their cars. It is a guarantee of traffic jams and it is a guarantee of other challenges,” de Blasio said. However, research shows that the opposite has occurred in similar situations. If lanes on the roadway were reduced, a phenomenon known as induced demand predicts that traffic would disperse into city streets, commuters would find alternative routes, and some drivers would be siphoned from the roads altogether.
“By simply replicating what we have, we’re going to replicate the traffic jams we already have,” said Rachel Weinberger, a senior fellow of transportation at the Regional Plan Association, which also advised the panel. “But I think lane reduction provides a whole lot of new opportunities.” Weinberger also notes that modern lanes are roughly 20 percent wider than they were when the BQE was built; cutting lanes to accommodate for newer standards would actually translate to a 10 percent capacity reduction.
“The reduction is not the screaming headline that it suggests,” said Weinberger. “Truly, any amount of reduction is better to allow the highway to limp along.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has called on the city to study eliminating the highway and other alternatives, told Curbed in a statement that he agrees with the recommendation to reduce traffic and that he finds it “disappointing” that de Blasio has not endorsed the panel’s suggestion. The Council will hold a hearing in the coming weeks on the situation; a report from engineering firm Arup, hired by the Council to prepare an independent report on the BQE dilemma, is expected in February, according to Johnson.
Lara Birnback, the executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, which is among a coalition of local groups calling for a comprehensive planning approach, said the expert panel’s recommendations are a positive step forward, but that the city must act now.
“Whatever repairs need to be done in the immediate certainly need to be done, however, we don’t want that to be an excuse not to create a long-term transformative vision,” Birnback said. “I think that this is really a once in a generational moment to do something innovative. We need to meet that challenge.”
Rob Perris, the district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 2 (and a landscape architect), recalls that in 2011, state and federal officials urged action on the triple cantilever only to abandon a proposed solution; now, he worries that the goal post keeps moving further away.
“On the one hand we keep hearing about this need to move fast, and yet we keep postponing the actual work that will result in whatever solution it’s going to be,” said Perris. “That’s concerning.”