Home Brooklyn BQE reconstruction shelved, but is it a loss?

BQE reconstruction shelved, but is it a loss?

by Benjamin Kabak

The BQE reconstruction will not move forward.

In mid-2010, after years of community meetings and design forums, New York State unveiled some ambitious plans to overhaul the BQE. With price tags ranging from a few billion to many billions of dollars, the proposals included a tunnel that would run underneath the Gowanus and Fort Greene neighborhoods to the Brooklyn Navy Yards that would allow for connections to the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges while siphoning traffic away from the always-congested cut in Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights. Despite the pie-in-the-sky nature of such a project, I liked the ideas behind it.

Today, though, we learn that the project will not go forward. The money simply isn’t there, and the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration do not consider repairs for the BQE and Gowanus Expressway to be “critical needs” any longer. “We assumed it was a necessity because they described the BQE as very deteriorated and substandard,” Brooklyn Heights Association Executive Director Judy Stanton said to The Post. “But if all they are going to do is continue Band-Aid repair work at the city’s expense, it won’t be sufficient.”

Rich Calder has more:

Blaming the national economic downturn, state and federal transportation officials said yesterday that they are abandoning plans to modernize and revamp crumbling stretches of the Brooklyn-Queens and Gowanus expressways…Cobble Hill activist Roy Sloane, who has been fighting for the BQE improvements for many years, said the decision to discontinue studying a highway makeover is a big blow to public safety.

“We were told by the state that the BQE was in danger of collapsing in the 80s,” said Sloane. “It’s also pathetic that they put all these years and effort in, spent money on all sorts of designs and are now dropping it.

However, a state DOT spokesman said recent inspections of the two highways showed they “do not require major repairs at this time.” Naomi Doerner, an urban planner who consulted the state DOT on the BQE project, said in an email that that the city and state “will continue to support efforts to ensure” the highway “remains a safe and reliable roadway in our transportation system.”

So it sounds bad that the state has decided roadways that a few years ago, could not withstand the pounding they took from daily traffic are suddenly sufficient just because the money isn’t there to replace them. That portends ill for the city’s aging transportation and transit infrastructure. But there’s a second side to this story that indicates perhaps it’s not such a bad decision after all.

Take, for instance, Cap’n Transit’s past coverage of the BQE plans. As the Cap’n astutely notes, transportation dollars are limited, and money spent to reconstruct roads in New York City will ultimately mean fewer dollars for competing transit projects. If the state spends a few billion to rebuild the BQE and tunnel through some Brooklyn neighborhoods, that’s a few billion dollars they can’t spend to build better transit service that would take cars off the road anyway.

In that sense, then, not moving forward with BQE reconstruction plans seems perfectly acceptable, if not ideal, for those who want to spend on transit to the exclusion of roads. Building, say, the Triborough RX line could have the same impact on traffic as constructing a BQE tunnel would, and the rail line would be a net gain for the environment and non-auto mobility as well.

Ultimately, if the physical infrastructure is secure, there’s no need to spend billions on a reconstruction. Spend those dollars, if they exist, on transit instead, and congestion will decrease. I’d still like to see the city move forward on plans to green the BQE trench as that would have a tangible positive impact on the Hicks St. neighborhood, but failing to build this multi-billion-dollar project that would increase road capacity isn’t a net loss for the city.

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Douglas John Bowen November 30, 2011 - 1:25 pm

Here’s another option or variant: Let the BQE run the course of its useful infrastructural life and then: Tear … it … down. Take a cue from San Francisco (Embarcadero Freeway) and a smattering of other locales. Growing experience, still counter to conventional wisdom, suggests that this, too, can mean “congestion will decrease.” Otherwise, nice roundup of different viewpoints by Mr. Kabak here.

Bolwerk November 30, 2011 - 1:33 pm

Some of it is below grade, not elevated. If it were dispensed with, some of it actually could be useful as a subway. At least in some places where it truly hurts neighborhoods, it can perhaps be covered regardless.

Jonathan November 30, 2011 - 1:36 pm

How long is that “useful infrastructural life?” The highway would last a lot longer if the DOT closed one lane in each direction and limited speeds to 35 mph. It would last practically forever if it was converted to a bikeway.

And don’t forget, San Francisco “took a cue” from the West Side Highway’s falling down. New York City has its own experience with highway removal.

Duke November 30, 2011 - 8:41 pm

The problem is that the two are not the same. The Embarcadero Freeway was a spur that took traffic only to and from nearby surface streets, so by removing it not all that much was lost in terms of the greater scheme of the regional transportation network. The BQE, however is part of a major through route. Large amounts of longer distance traffic use that section just passing through and there isn’t a good alternative if it is removed and not replaced.

Say you’re moving from Bay Ridge to Astoria. You’re carrying a lot of stuff so you can’t use public transit. You need to drive. Right now, you use the BQE. Without it, you have either deal with surface streets (putting more congestion in neighborhoods that do not need it), drive into and back out of Manhattan and use the FDR (also putting more congestion where it isn’t needed), or you drive a longer way around via the Belt and Van Wyck (also not needing more congestion).

Yes, the BQE severs neighborhoods. Yes, measures to reduce that effect would be quite welcome. But tearing it down and not replacing it? Not a wise decision.

Salem December 4, 2011 - 12:44 pm

I agree. Also, will their be any exits on this tunnel? It runs through some sturdy, well-established neighborhoods that survived the worst of the city’s white flight and the slicing and dicing of the moses-era highways. Even a single exit in this area could destabilize it.

A faster BQE would only encourage more traffic on it, at the expense of queens and southern brooklyn.

Dave 'Paco' Abraham November 30, 2011 - 1:29 pm

Good points Ben, as were Cap’n Transit’s viewpoint last year. The tunnel idea is very ambitious but perhaps not worth it without clear dedicated mass transit components (I’d love to see BRT on the BQE myself). My fear though is sections of the cantilever are going to collapse within a decade and put people not just in congestion, but also immediate danger. Then, there’s also the constant danger of the horrific entrance ramps to the BQE near Atlantic Avenue. Literally hundreds of accidents have been watched, photographed, and documented by bqewatch.blogspot.com and if you compare cost of lives as well as emergency crew dollars spent, I question seeing a silver lining in the fiasco.

Bolwerk November 30, 2011 - 1:31 pm

If the state spends a few billion to rebuild the BQE and tunnel through some Brooklyn neighborhoods, that’s a few billion dollars they can’t spend to build better transit service that would take cars off the road anyway.

I’m pretty skeptical of this kind of argument. I agree spending money on a new tunnel is a serious lose/waste of funds, but I don’t think we’re doing ourselves favors by assuming transit takes cars off the road – if it does, why do we have both the most extensive transit system in the country and some of the highest congestion? Transit is good for its own sake, not as a second fiddle for automobiles.

If you want to actually fix congestion, support congestion pricing – it’s worth it even if not a penny goes to transit.

Scott E November 30, 2011 - 1:56 pm

Agreed. Many of the vehicles are trucks or cars to/from New Jersey and Long Island, where all transit options end in Midtown. I’d love to see an Oyster Bay-Rye connection and a Sandy Hook, NJ-Brooklyn connection, which could take much of the suburban traffic out of the core of the city. (The latter may not help too much, but a connection to the Rockaways is even less likely).

Brian November 30, 2011 - 3:42 pm

we have the most extensive transit system and high congestion because of the sheer amount of people there are here

Alon Levy November 30, 2011 - 5:56 pm

New York actually has much less congestion than predicted by its metro area population. The correlation between total population and per driver congestion is very strong, but New York is so far below the trend line that increasing its congestion level to that predicted by the TTI in the absence of transit, or just eliminating the city from the dataset, substantially improves the correlation.

Bolwerk November 30, 2011 - 6:19 pm

That rather supports my point. My interpretation is the NY metro area has an equilibrium level of congestion that has to account for things like higher automobile costs, fuel costs, tolls, parking costs, and perceived travel time. Availability of a huge transit system may have an amplified affect on top of that, but how much does one additional line reduce congestion? I’d guess the effect would be close to zero.

I’d be curious to see what research there is on bottlenecks in one place affecting congestion levels in another. For instance, could congestion be worse at, say, Jones Beach if congestion in Manhattan didn’t make it a bitch for Joisey types to get there?

John-2 November 30, 2011 - 1:52 pm

The tunnel plan — which would have involved a route below the 2/3/4/5/B/D/N/Q/R and LIRR tracks at Flatbush & Atlantic while at the same time permitting commercial vehicles ramp access to and from Flatbush Avenue in order to access the Manhattan Bridge (while at the same time funneling all the truck traffic onto Flatbush through Downtown Brooklyn) — pretty much would have used up all the city’s mass transit money through somewhere in the middle of the 23rd Century. It also would have likely blocked any future attempt to extend the LIRR from it’s Brooklyn terminal into Lower Manhattan, since the LIRR tracks would now have the subway lines and the vehicular tunnel and access ramps in its way (or you’d need to create a new deep cavern station at Flatbush & Atlantic to get under all those other tunnels, similar to the new LIRR East Side Access at Grand Central).

Good riddance to an ill-conceived plan. Better to have what $$$ there are available for more urgently needed mass transit projects (though I do agree if they can cover the BQE from the Batter Tunnel to Atlantic Avenue for a not-exorbitant cost, that is an option worth exploring).

Clarke November 30, 2011 - 4:10 pm

Additionally, a project to cover the A7 autobahn in Hamburg was announced today: http://www.treehugger.com/urba.....-park.html

“The project–mostly financed by the federal government–will cost around a billion dollars by the time it’s completed.”

That’s a rough estimate for a 4km (2.5mi) stretch of trenched motorway getting a 10ft thick cover with a width of up to 100ft.

In New York, covering 1mi of BQE would require $10b and wouldn’t get off the ground because of NIMBYs. Oh well, long live the car…

epc November 30, 2011 - 1:53 pm

I was at the last public meeting (that I know of) about this in April and the tunnel option, while it’s getting a lot of play now, really was never on the table. What they’re shelving now is even the minimal remedial work needed to bring the cantilever up to US DOT standards and repair the cantilever & viaduct.

Recently NYS DOT modified traffic flow on Furman (making it two way from one way SB) so that NB traffic could be diverted while repairs are made to the slope the BQE ascends from the trench up to the cantilever, due to damage allegedly from Hurricane Irene over the summer.

Thanks to the insane tolling practice on the Verrazano, the northbound BQE is a neverending line of trucks during the day, precisely the wrong kind of traffic to be sending along the cantilever. It seems every few weeks an inattentive or illiterate trucker misreads the signs and either runs headlong into the 12’6″ innermost cantilever lane, or (more often) changes lanes at the last minute causing a usually minor accident.

We already have the pleasant experience of impatient commuters and truckers diverting through Brooklyn Heights in the morning with the cantilever still in place. The notion that the traffic will simply disappear should the BQE be closed is regrettably naïve.

capt subway November 30, 2011 - 1:57 pm

Yes I kind of like Douglas John Brown’s idea of just letting it run the course of its useful life and then being removed. In the meantime “greenify” it as much as possible. Covering over the Hicks St cut with some sort of park/playground space is a start.

The tunnel idea however is truly horrible – aside from the tens of billions it would probably cost to construct. How would the existing connections to the Bk Br & Man Br be replicated? By condemning acres of valuable real estate to build new interchanges? And more valuable land condemned to build numerous ventilation chambers? Ugh!

The money (assuming it was, or ever will be there) that might be spent on the BQE deep tunnel would be better spent on the long proposed Cross Harbor Freight Railway tunnel.

epc November 30, 2011 - 5:11 pm

The tunnel option discussed in April would not have had any connections to either bridge, nor any exits in downtown Brooklyn, was basically a bypass from approximately where the Gowanus/Prospect merge occurs to somewhere vaguely around the Navy Yard. It wasn’t a real proposal, basically second to last of a series of options (there were a couple of other tunnel options that involved a tunnel running under the East River from somewhere in Greenpoint to somewhere south of Red Hook, and another involving condemning most of DUMBO to divert traffic into a tunnel under the river from the DUMBO area to Red Hook).

Dave 'Paco' Abraham November 30, 2011 - 2:10 pm

The greening and traffic calming of Hicks street is an entirely separate idea, project, and agency. It too lacks $$ but needs just several million, not tens of billions. Loads of info and details on it are here… http://www.nycedc.com/NewsPubl.....ement.aspx And yes, I too was at meetings, and as EPC said, the tunnel idea was just an idea, not one that had advanced much at all. However, letting the BQE fall apart on its own is not just naive or illogical, it’s a recipe for serious danger and complete gridlock. Closing LA’s 405 worked just fine, for a weekend. Finding room for 100,000+ vehicles for months on end won’t easily be absorbed elsewhere, and those people won’t immediately, or easily shift to equally scarce mass transit.

I do however hope this stirs electeds to finally get vocal and say TOLL THE EAST RIVER BRIDGES, and return the Verrazano to TWO WAY TOLLING.

capt subway November 30, 2011 - 2:20 pm

Agree 100% with the tolls.

As to the BQE: for sure other means of moving freight (not private single occupancy automobiles) needs to be found before letting it crumble entirely. That’s where the Cross Harbor Freight Rail tunnel comes in. In the interim just keep it patched up as best as can be.

Larry Littlefield November 30, 2011 - 2:42 pm

You were right the first time. All this shows is that the road system is going to deteriorate with the transit system, and for the same reasons.

“Blaming the national economic downturn.”

New York State created a dedicated highway trust fund, just like the MTA has dedicated revenues, around 1990. And immediately started diverting the money, “vlaming the national economic downturn” of the early 1990s. And never stopped. Instead, money was borrowed, using future “trust fund” revenues as a repayment income stream.

Now much of the highway trust fund, like much of the MTA dedicated revenues, goes to past debts, not current of future repairs. And as for the MTA, that’s what most of the highway trust fund was for — ongoing maintenance and repair, not new infrastructure.

Disaster, thanks to Generation Greed, and Pataki/Silver/Bruno etc.

JohnS November 30, 2011 - 4:24 pm

If it makes anyone feel any better, that’s not just a New York problem. The state of Washington faces similar constraints, wherein much of our highway dollars go to pay bonds issued for previous projects, limiting our ability to maintain what we have, much less expand anything.

Larry Littlefield November 30, 2011 - 6:11 pm

Well I guess that’s New York’s best hope.

When a generation pillaged NYC and moved out, leaving it in ruins in the 1970s, there wasn’t much sympathy from the rest of the country, and there were lots of places to move to.

Perhaps this time Generation Greed has wrecked the whole country. They’ve definately done the whole of New York State.

Tsuyoshi November 30, 2011 - 3:06 pm

Wow, I had no idea they were planning on building a tunnel there. What a stupendously bad idea.

It seems to me the optimal policy would be to tear down the Brooklyn-Queens and Gowanus, and implement a congestion charge over northwest Brooklyn. But this sort of policy isn’t even happening in Manhattan yet, so…

Frank McArdle November 30, 2011 - 4:50 pm

The tunnel proposal would be still useful for trucks and goods movement. The question is whether or not there would be enough traffic to pay the tolls for constructing it. The trucks now come on the BQE because the region has created so much of its distribution and warehousing infrastructure in north Jersey. The trucks are only going to go away when people stop consuming what they carry, which is not anytime soon. The Cross Harbor Tunnel would be a great addition to the regional goods movement infrastructure, but the recreation of the warehousing and distribution infrastructure will have to be part of its development program. Absent that infrastructure, its uses for inbound goods movement will be very limited.

The north Brooklyn goods movement investments should not be seen as competing with mass transit investments. Rather the region should be aggressively making the goods movement investments to lower the cost of moving goods and keeping the region competitive.

BrooklynBus December 1, 2011 - 12:03 am

What bothers me most is how the City lied to us. In the 1990s, the BQE was falling apart. The idea was floated to tear down the Third Avenue segment and replacing it with a tunnel along the shore. While more expensive than rebuilding the elevated roadway, it would have had the advantage of revitalizing a neighborhood destroyed by Robert Moses. DOT said they would study the tunnel vs. rebuilding the elevated roadway, but since emergency repairs were needed, they would continue with them until a decision would be made regarding the tunnel or rebuilding the elevated highway,

So instead of these so-called emergency repairs, they start rebuilding the highway one lane at a time without ever formally eliminating the tunnel option. As I watched these so called repairs, these last 10 or 20 years, I kept saying to myself these are not emergency repairs, they are just quietly rebuilding the highway without telling anyone. Then last year, they throw out the pie in the sky idea of tunneling under Downtown Brooklyn. Theoretically a good idea, but no way a practical one, given the cost, and other transportaion needs that deserve a higher priority. Now everyone has forgotten about the original tunnel idea to replace the Third Avenue El segment which had much more merit.

So this decision, that the BQE is no longer in critical condition and no longer needs to be rebuilt, has nothing to do with the economy. It was actually made the day the started secretly rebuilding the BQE calling it emergency repairs, and abandoning the tunnel idea they were supposed to be studying. A road doesn’t go from being in a deplorable state, to not needing repair if only emergency repairs were made. If they had no intentions of considering a tunnel, they just should have come out and stated that and should have announced they were going to rebuild the elevated structure. Why can’t government be honest?

Larry Littlefield December 1, 2011 - 7:10 am

You’re right, they rebuilt the Gowanus without telling anyone, because they knew they’d never be able to afford any alternatives that anyone would agree to. That’s my understanding of what happened too, although I don’t have direct knowledge of this.

So it’s “good,” to the extent that it’s condition can be described as good, for another 50 years as far as the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel.

And the section of the BQE in the trench does not have structural issues. So the road is good to Atlantic Avenue.

And the BQE has been completely rebuilt from Downtown Brooklyn to the Grand Central, except for the Kosciousko Bridge.

But they DIDN’T to anything for the section under Brooklyn Heights. And THAT is the section that could end up like the West Side Highway.

Ed December 1, 2011 - 1:32 am

I hate to trample on the points made by Brooklyn Bus, which deserve a response from someone more knowledgeable than I am. This is a completely separate, but less important question.

Does the idea of diverting BQE traffic away from the waterfront have merit without the tunnel? I’ve noticed that even with the hypergentrification of the last decade, Park Slope still doesn’t quite reach Third Avenue, and Flatbush Avenue is still a mixed bag.

Could Third Avenue and Flatbush Avenue be turned into truck routes, and/or West Street style boulevards? This would include timing the lights so vehicles don’t see many lights, as was done with Second Avenue, installing overhead pedestrian crossings, and perhaps widening the boulevards. Granted, the whole thing will be a mess when it gets to Atlantic Yards and more money may have to be spent to route traffic away from the development.

Nonetheless, this would be alot cheaper and easier to implement than a tunnel but does more or less the same thing. Traffic from the Belt would still be routed to the Manhattan Bridge, and access to the Brooklyn Bridge from Flatbush could be constructed. It wouldn’t connect to the Battery Tunnel, but two or three crossing is not bad. I’d like to see the Battery Tunnel converted to a subway tunnel at some future date, and if this was implemented maybe the same could be done to the Hicks Street trench.

epc December 1, 2011 - 2:00 am

Flatbush is pretty much a parking lot during the day already, even without Atlantic Yards.
Third is approximately six lanes wide (~70 feet) up until Bergen or Wyckoff where it narrows to maybe 3-4 lanes (and does a bit of a jog to the east).

Once you divert traffic up 3rd, there’s really no place for it to go to get to the BQE. The alignment of the roads from Atlantic north are directed towards the bridges. There’s also several superblocks created from urban renewal projects of yesteryear which block many potential approaches to the BQE (would also be the case for any mythical tunnels around the Tillary St exit/bend in the BQE).

4th Avenue would be a better option, looking strictly at the existing roadway and ignoring zoning, residents (it’s gentrifying, where 3rd is still primarily industrial). But 4th hits the same problem at Atlantic as 3rd.

Matthias December 1, 2011 - 10:06 am

A boulevard is a better idea, but not pedestrian overpasses. Keep everything at grade and include greenery and recreational space.

Eric F. December 1, 2011 - 12:10 pm

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked by the sentiment expressed here, but it’s really hard for me to understand how burying through traffic in a tunnel would be anything other than an unalloyed home run for Brooklyn. The notion that cars are so bad that we must focus our hatred on the, even when they are out of sight and running in a tunnel is just rank fanatacism. Brooklyn is hardly suffused with highways, and this would have been a phenomenal addition to the regional network.

I’m also a bit at a loss as to how this somehow ties in with transit funding. I don’t see the revenue sources or budgets for something like this as having anything to do with the MTA. You may as well decry the serial double digit increases in state education and healthcare spending as taking away funds from the MTA. That’s where the real money is gooing anyway.

Bolwerk December 1, 2011 - 2:30 pm

Yeah, the “hate cars” thing again. Everyone who wants cars to be an efficient mode of transportation hates them. You can only love cars if you love congestion and copious subsidies for drivers. Right.

Your projection of your own “rank fanaticism” is, as usual, causing you to miss the point. The tunnel is expensive and the money, which must come from largely the city or state (the feds aren’t buying into this), could be spent on more worthy local transportation projects; I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about that. Beyond that, even if it was a good idea, it’s probably a non-starter for the same NIMBY-related reasons (“peace and quiet,” amirite?) as the subway extension to LGA you oppose. And the jury is still out on whether things like the BQE are even a net benefit for drivers, so people who want to see it torn down – and I’m not sure I fall into that camp – might even be doing drivers are favor.

You may as well decry the serial double digit increases in state education and healthcare spending as taking away funds from the MTA. That’s where the real money is gooing anyway.

Actually, you’re probably spot on there. It’s all about opportunity cost. Waste in one areas means resources aren’t available in another, and that’s true of just about all government functions. Shaving 5% off the NYC budget would easily cover even the overpriced SAS in two or three years of cash payments.

Eric F. December 1, 2011 - 3:31 pm

Actually, fwiw., I don’t oppose a subway extension to LGA. If I could snap my fingers, I’d create just such an extension, and bury the existing line through Astoria while I was at it.

If that highway tunnel were built, it should be toll financed to the extent possible. It would likely slough off enough traffic, that the existing BQE alignment could be narrowed or at least have a lane dedicated 24/7 to buses.

Bolwerk December 1, 2011 - 3:57 pm

I’d probably be fine with that, if it could actually support itself. I’m not sure how feasible that is, even if you could get it past the NIMBY opposition.

But isn’t the point of the alignment through the tunnel to get rid of the route through swanky downtown Brooklyn?

Eric F. December 1, 2011 - 4:13 pm

I think the point of the tunnel is to augment the Bklyn Heights alignment by getting through traffic out of there. I was actually shocked that such a useful project was even being considered, and not surprised that it’s been jettisoned.

The toll supporting would never finance the full cost, but I think tolls could effectively easily fund operations and cover some capital costs. I agree the NIMBYs would never let it happen. Personally, I’d package it with burying the Gowanus and making life in Brooklyn all around much nicer.

UESider December 2, 2011 - 6:08 pm

The Feds learned their lesson paying for the Big Dig and it was a lesson learned the hard way. So, unless you like paying major corporations (like Haliburton) walking off with billions of your tax dollars, go with the feds on this one. A publicly funded tunnel is a bad idea.

Frankly, the ostrich approach sounds like the best idea. Keep our heads buried in the sand and when the beams collapse, all we can do is shrug our shoulders and rope off the highway. It’ll take a while, but its a surefire way to stop traffic completely and for a long time.

Just keep your fingers crossed and NIMBY-dukes up and hope we can stop anyone rebuilding it and we’ll finally have the peace and quiet everyone’s talking about… if only we could get rid of the helicopters….

Rick Altabef December 7, 2011 - 4:16 pm

How about just tunneling it under Park Ane, tunneling it under north Williamsburg-Greenpoint, and tunneling it under 2nd Av in Sunset Park down to 65th St. This brings back the waterfront while. Avoid huge eminent domain costs and preserving access to th bridges.

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