The BQE as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo via flickr user xbettyx.
A few weeks ago, I took a walk through Brownstone Brooklyn from Park Slope to the East River. I wanted to check out the new happenings at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and after a stroll through the playground at Pier 6, I started to head toward Pier 1. Now, this week, a walking and biking path along the waterfront opened, but in early August before this path was ready, the best way to go from Pier 6 to Pier 1 was along Furman St., a little-used road underneath the double-decked BQE. Instead of tracking the cantilevered road way that serves as a barrier between Brooklyn and its picturesque waterfront, we opted for a leisurely stroll through Brooklyn Heights and along the Promenade instead.
Since Robert Moses first started tracing the contours of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the connecting Gowanus Expressway, it was a controversial road. Built mostly above-ground, this elevated magnet for traffic jams tore through neighborhoods, and Moses famously refused to move the planned route one block west so it wouldn’t destroy a vibrant mixed-use community along 3rd Ave. in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. Built without space for transit options, the BQE has cast a shadow on New York’s two most populous boroughs for decades.
Today, the BQE is a mess. It’s part of an important arterial road through that connects New Jersey, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx; provides access to key East River bridges; is well over capacity; and is living on borrowed time. While the road isn’t in danger of an imminent collapse, the physical structure is degrading quickly. Since the late 1990s, the city has toyed with the idea of righting the wrongs of the Moses Era and burying the parts of the BQE that shouldn’t be above ground.
In The Brooklyn Paper this week, reporter Stephen Brown explores one plan to tunnel the BQE underneath Brownstone Brooklyn, thus freeing up the two decks underneath the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for local traffic or other uses entirely. He writes:
State transportation officials are considering a tunnel under Brownstone Brooklyn that would stretch all the way from the Prospect Expressway to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, thereby bypassing all of Downtown and clearing the way for a major repair of the crumbling, sclerotic triple-cantilevered portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn Heights.
The extraordinarily ambitious two-and-a-half-mile tunnel is one of several options for replacing the beleaguered highway that is being considered by the state Department of Transportation, but it is already emerging as a favorite. “It’s brilliant,” said Allen Swerdlowe, an architect participating in state-sponsored design workshops, who praised the tunnel idea because it would discourage traffic-enraged drivers from exiting the highway as they do now and driving on local streets…
According to [Roy] Sloane [a Cobble Hill resident who proposed the idea], the tunnel could serve as an express route to North Brooklyn, while the triple-cantilevered stretch of the BQE would become a “local” route that would funnel traffic to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges as well as local streets.
Still, there were some differences among proponents of the tunnel as to what should be done with the decaying stretch of the BQE. “I don’t like that because it creates more capacity, and once you increase capacity drivers start using it and you create more problems,” said Swerdlowe, adding that he preferred a tunnel with exits to local streets and that the triple-cantilevered roadway could be converted into a recreation area of some sort.
In an ideal world, Swerdlowe’s dream would become a reality. A tunnel to replace the BQE would allow for adequate connections to local roads and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges while the cantilevered roadway would be opened up to allow more direct access to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and waterfront. Furthermore, one goal of the road repair and replacement project should not be to encourage more driving in and around downtown Brooklyn.
For now, this tunnel remains a great idea on paper, but it’s a long way from reality. The Downtown Brooklyn BQE project is already 13 years in the making, and the New York State Department of Transportation doesn’t anticipate construction to start until 2017. By 2020, this road replacement, now budgeted for $254 million, will be complete. A tunnel through Brooklyn would cost significantly more than that and, if Boston’s Big Dig is any indication, take far longer than three years to complete. Still, the city needs to dream big, and by doing so, it can restore access to a part of the Brooklyn waterfront people, and not cars, should be enjoying.