Gotham Gazette

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What New York City and State Should Be Doing About the BQE

The BQE (photo: NYC Department of Transportation)

The key question about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) right now isn’t two versus three lanes for the Brooklyn Heights cantilever. It is whether New York City should proceed with its piecemeal Brooklyn Heights project prior to development of a wider corridor plan.

If Mayor Adams and the city’s Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) have their way, downtown Brooklyn and adjacent areas will be forever stuck with a moderately updated version of the BQE as we know it. And their plan comes with an absurd, blighting set of elevated highway ramps NYC DOT has proposed building in DUMBO to make driving through Brooklyn’s densest district even easier than it is today.

The city’s rush to rebuild the cantilever is bizarre and unnecessary when there is strong public and elected appetite for re-thinking urban highways generally, and the BQE in particular. It should be suspended while city and state leaders sort out a framework for taking a longer, harder, and more fundamental look at the BQE and the future of transportation in Brooklyn and Queens.  

I was frequently at odds with transportation decision-making during the de Blasio administration, but our past mayor was right when it came to the triple cantilever. Late in his term he called for shoring up the cantilever structures and reducing the rate of deterioration with traffic and weight restrictions, all in order to create breathing room to create a strong, future-oriented plan: “We’re now talking about having the time to do the really big, creative stuff”, he said.

Today the challenge is finding a way to get to the big, creative stuff while preventing Mayor Adams from unalterably locking us in to a transportation infrastructure that promotes urban car use. 

Rhetoric about the BQE this winter and spring began building in this direction. Elected leaders across the borough demanded that the city’s limited project be transformed into a city-state plan encompassing the entire length of the BQE. But now that demand needs to be sharpened. 

Just “getting the state involved” won’t get us what we need. The state Department of Transportation (NYS DOT) is little better equipped to undertake a thoughtful and creative BQE plan than the Adams Administration. Consider NYS DOT’s track record with highway removal. After decades of pressure from local groups and elected officials, in late last decade NYS DOT changed the little-used Sheridan Expressway from an interstate-style highway to a boulevard. But while pedestrians can now cross the roadway at three signalized intersections, the Sheridan right of way remains a 9- to 11-lane scar across the Bronx cityscape and retains suburban-style ramp connections to both the Bruckner and Cross-Bronx Expressways, all in a corridor with negligible traffic levels. Nothing creative and nothing that could be labeled urban design was applied at all to the Sheridan rebuild. The city played no role at all, even though it has ways to involve itself in state road projects within the five boroughs. 

Getting past the state and city agencies committed to keeping cars happy requires a new institution capable of weighing the problems, data, and potential of rethinking the BQE with ideas and applications more beneficial and appropriate than an interstate highway. This has in fact been a key recommendation in thoughtful looks at BQE issues over the past five years, but recently it has been buried under Mayor Adams’ charge at the triple cantilever and in fevered rhetoric about the legacy of Robert Moses.

The Arup/City Council study explicitly called for creation of “a new I-278 corridor governing body,” while the de Blasio expert panel and Regional Plan Association both urged a federal/state/city/stakeholder working group. It’s also the intent behind Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon’s bill to create a BQE public authority. 

All that may sound process-y, but we do in fact need to establish one conversation and one decision-making body capable of sorting out everything from today’s tunneling technology and the impact of congestion pricing to an analytic framework for assessing future travel demand broadly and without bias. We sorely lack that today. 

Successful highway transformation projects around the world have all framed key goals outside the realms of counting cars and trucks. Tear-down of the Cheonggyecheon Highway was framed as restoration of the cultural and natural heritage of downtown Seoul. Lane reduction on the Peripherique is being cast as an air quality project and opportunity to dramatically expand green space in the outer Paris region. Let’s learn from these and similar efforts, and engage their expertise. 

New York has done this successfully before. We have Hudson River Park and a pedestrian-permeable West Street today instead of a superhighway thanks to a multi-disciplinary task force established by Mayor Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo, and decisively including representatives of Borough President David Dinkins. We need something similar for the BQE, encompassing not only transportation agencies, but also city planners, urban design experts, elected officials, and civic stakeholders.

One of their charges should be to examine other cases of urban highway transformations, and they should be empowered to engage consultants with experience in modeling and estimating not just traffic growth, which is all American DOTs seem able to imagine, but how demand in the BQE travel market could be accommodated or managed differently, with better outcomes for the city and its neighborhoods. For example, perhaps the anticipated Interborough Express doesn’t need to sit at the back of a very long MTA project queue, but could instead be folded into a Brooklyn-Queens corridor program, and built with highway funds as a way to ease demand for BQE car trips. 

Once they’ve read this, I certainly don’t expect Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul to decide they agree and begin to act. Perhaps one way to elevate the issue and provoke action is for engaged elected officials to assemble their own expert group to further develop the framework for a corridor-wide approach, directly challenging the city’s piecemeal effort. Such an undertaking needs to be clear that Mayor Adams’ drive to impose a “solution” for the Brooklyn Heights cantilever will almost certainly foreclose other options and predispose any look at the corridor toward the status quo.

Unfortunately, piecemeal is how New York does most things. Public interest in the BQE is a chance to change that for transportation in the city’s most populous borough and beyond, if we seize the opportunity. 

Jon Orcutt is a transportation policy consultant, long-time transportation reform advocate, and was NYC DOT Policy Director from 2007 to 2014. On Twitter @jonorcutt.

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