What will happen to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway?
The city has ambitious plans to fix the falling-down roadway — so many plans that the BQE may collapse as everyone figures out what to do.
The BQE is a Robert Moses-era creation, and it is a success and a disaster, depending on how you look at it. The “success” is that it’s a link for 15,000 trucks a day, supporting industry in Brooklyn and Queens. New York has 70,000 factory jobs, and they can’t move goods on trains. The bridge also carries 135,000 cars each day, including those carrying Staten Islanders who have no good way to get to around on public transportation.
The “disaster” part is that it’s a nuisance for the people who live and work around it, even with the Brooklyn Promenade on top of its two levels as it nears Brooklyn Heights. And the drivers who depend on it hardly enjoy the experience. Designed before the feds mandated standards for highways, it has six narrow lanes (split on two levels) and no shoulders. In January, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo rescued a truck driver from a crash, it was on the BQE.
For whatever reason you hate the BQE, it could soon be a moot point, as the thing is falling apart. It will be “unsafe … within five years,” a city panel of experts warns. The BQE is a series of 1950s bridges, underpinned by aging steel buried within. It “lacks redundancy in its supporting structure.”
But the city — and the state, before Cuomo decided to make it the city’s problem in 2011 — has been trying to fix it for 14 years.
Any fix will annoy people, cost a lot of money, take a lot of time, not work as a permanent solution — or all four.
Consider what the de Blasio administration proposed two years ago: $3.6 billion to build a temporary six-lane highway to close down the BQE, take it apart and put it back together. Or, $4 billion to rebuild lane-by-lane, meaning chronic disruptions for years. The people who live around Brooklyn Heights didn’t like these ideas.
Because Brooklyn Heights has voting power in a close Democratic primary, what to build, or not, is an issue in the mayoral race.
A year ago, Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely contender, proposed his plan: shrink the BQE’s triple deck into a two-lane, one-level highway for trucks and buses only, and cap it with a “linear park” deep into Brooklyn. This would preserve New York’s industry, but on a constrained roadway; a truck crash would create back-ups. And it would create a problem for cars — one Stringer says he would solve with better buses.
Now, Council Speaker Corey Johnson has invited consultants to present more choices: a two-level “bypass tunnel,” at a cost of $11 billion, with a small surface road to replace the BQE through Brooklyn Heights. Or, a four-lane “capped highway,” with a park on top, for about $3.2 billion.
Between the extremes of a massively expensive “Big Dig” car tunnel or no cars at all, there is a core of reasonability in the middle. New York is highly unlikely to build a vehicle tunnel through Brooklyn, whose cost, in the real world, would likely be closer to $20 billion than $11 billion, sucking up money from things like better bus service. Nor is it likely to force all cars off.
What it should do is split the difference: a four-lane highway mostly for trucks and more room for green space. The city could then divert much of the car traffic on cheaper express buses from Staten Island, as well as better bus service — and maybe, someday, rail service, and even freight rail — within Queens and Brooklyn. Congestion pricing, too, will discourage drivers from using the BQE to get to a “free” bridge rather than using the tolled Brooklyn-Battery tunnel.
Building anything will be hard; think of all the subway lines, sewers and electrical infrastructure that surround the existing BQE.
But first, we have to get through a mayoral election, and then, find the money. There is a chance the governor may want to get re-involved. Plus, eventual federal approval.
Meanwhile, hidden steel deteriorates. Back in 1973, absent a clear decision, a portion of the elevated highway on Manhattan’s West Side fell down, and the current West Side Highway, a boulevard with a park, was born. Doing nothing, too, is an option.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. Twitter: @NicoleGelinas
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