They Come to Bury the BQE, Not to Praise It

bqe.JPGThe Brooklyn Paper reports that there’s talk brewing about seizing an opportunity to bury the section of the BQE that runs underneath the Promenade, rather than simply repair it (right, the Atlantic Ave. overpass where the roadway rises near the site of the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park and the One Brooklyn condo development):

Some Brooklyn Heights residents now want to replace the part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that runs beneath the famed Promenade with a tunnel. "The beauty of a tunnel is it can [go] anywhere," said Democratic District Leader Jo Anne Simon at a Tuesday meeting with the state transportation officials. The current plan for repairing the busy highway calls for rebuilding the steel and concrete decks, but Simon sees "an opportunity" to fix a "cockamamie" design once and for all, noting that one such tunnel was built beneath the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. A Department of Transportation said the state would "look at a tunnel option if there was a strong consensus that [it] must be looked at."


Photo: Sarah Goodyear

  • Gizler

    Good idea in general, but that is the least intrusive section of the BQE. If you’re going to tunnel just part of it, that is not the place to start.

  • Gary Reilly

    Actually, the idea is to bury the tunnel all the way back to Bay Ridge . . . and eliminate the heinous elevated portions of the Gowanus Expressway. It runs through the neighborhoods like a bad scar.

    One problem in the mix is the toll plaza for the Battery Tunnel.

    I would love to see something positive come out of this . . . and tie in some sort of transit benefit as well, i.e. subway, BRT or light rail in Red Hook.

  • Years ago, there was a “Goodbye Gowannus” movement that was talking about converting the Gowannus Expressway to a surface-level boulevard with light rail in the center.

    Any chance of reviving that as a much more cost-effective alternative to burial? This might fit right in with congestion pricing, which should mean fewer cars taking this road into Manhattan.

  • Dan

    Does anyone really think that this could happen? The livable streets movement doesn’t have the political will in this town to fight the taxi and limo lobby for the right to use pedicabs. Who thinks that anyone is going to somehow convince southern Brooklynites to surrender their expressways for any length of time or under any circumstances.

  • P

    Dan- actually, that’s the brilliance of the plan.

    To refurbish or rebuild the elevated expressways there will be construction delays along the BQE for- what- decades?

    If a tunnel is built the elevated expressways will remain open until their are replaced.

    As for the portions that are below grade (Carroll Garden/ Red Hook)- these are sites that were identified by the Garvin Report as economically feasible for decking over to provide new housing and amenities.

  • I think there is some chance of removal and replacement with a boulevard if the process is so long that the expressway has to be closed for safety reasons before there is a decision about a replacement.

    This is how the West Side Highway was removed. It was closed in 1973 as unsafe. The politicians wanted to replace it with Westway, but environmentalists stopped them for 20 years. After NY did without it for 20 years, it became hard to argue that a replacement was needed. (See http://www.preservenet.com/freeways/FreewaysWestSide.html)

    Replacement with an underground expressway is possible only if the city spends a huge amount of money on this (as Boston did on the Big Dig). For example, they could take lots of money from congestion pricing and spend it on this underground freeway instead of on public transportation – which would be a great waste.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Actually this is one of the 800 pound gorillas that have been lurking for a long time in transporation planning. There are several different Gowanus/BQE scenarios of varying degrees of expense and intricacy.

    The Gowanus is falling down and will always be falling down. There are really two issues, which is the preferable plan and how to pay for it. Clearly the most expensive of the alternatives is entirely acheivable with some modest tolling on the resulting roadway. That will piss off the Staten Islanders and Jerseyans whose real estate benefitted so by ripping down our neighborhood and the neighborhoods between the tunnel and the Verrazano to build it years ago. Not a lot different than the other congestion pricing issues often addressed on this blog. Everyone wants a tunnel, no one wants to pay for it.

    The Gowanus viaduct is really a lot like the “free” east river bridges. It is “free” in theory only. The maintenance expenses are quite enormous and can only really be cut by tunneling the whole thing.

    For the near term (say the next ten years) the project will be in limbo regardless of the willingness to pay for it by tolling or whatever. There are so many big ticket transportation projects (Second Avenue and #7 Subways and East Side Access for the LIRR and the Tappan Zee rebuild) in line in front of it that they will suck up all the capital (bonds) and labor (big contractors and unions) in much the same way that the “Big Dig” became the black hole of money and labor in Boston.

    This is a case where the tables will be turned on the “outer borough” of Brooklyn. The Borough Prez, Markowitz has been one of the chief nails in the coffin of Manhattan congestion pricing. In funding a tunneling of the Gowanus/BQE now Brooklyn will be stepped on by the farther outer Borough of Staten Island.

    There are many great transportation projects, but almost no willingness to pay for any of them. This one is no different. Maybe we should start with the willingness to pay and move to the projects from there. Maybe the capital raised from congestion pricing in Manhattan should be used to fund tunneling the Gowanus/BQE.

    Creating a political/economic center of gravity that can make these worthy projects affordable is the real heavy lifting.

  • Reform

    “Creating a political/economic center of gravity that can make these worthy projects affordable is the real heavy lifting.”

    Well put Nicolo (Niccolo?)It is an open question whether the all important NY state legislature has the ability to make a hard decision about anything. Their track record on the biggest issues of the day — medicaid reform, school finance, pension reform — is not inspiring.

    But maybe the thing that makes the legislature so parochial and status quoist offers an opportunity for change. Since the legislature is effectively selected through a primary system that is dominated by municipal unions, clubhouses and very small numbers of volunteers, there might be a chance for a couple of rich guys with very deep pockets to create a viable reform movement. It just so happens that the mayor and governor are pretty well off.

    Short of that, if Bloomberg and big business spent $50 million on a well crafted marketing campaign supporting congestion pricing, you might see the public opinion needle move.

  • MD

    In addition to a “well crafted marketing campaign” we need to promise well-funded primary opponents for the legislators opposed to this. Only a tiny number of neighborhood residents show up to vote for a state legislature race on primary day, so the incumbents are always vulnerable to someone who can bring new voters (such as transit riders) to the polls. The last thing they want is to have to fight hard for what is widely viewed as a lifetime position. Let’s start finding candidates; I’m ready to host a fundraiser.

  • MD

    To clarify my previous comment: when I use the word “this” in the first sentence, I’m talking about the mayor’s recent proposal regarding congestion pricing. As the discussion shifted toward that issue (in Machiavelli’s comments), I forgot that it was originally about the BQE.

  • epc

    A tunnel would be nice but it can’t just go anywhere, there’s four subway lines buried at various depths in the mile from the Brooklyn Bridge to Atlantic Ave.

    I suppose if you totally remapped it, you could use some Navy Yard space for an entrance and run a tunnel down 3rd avenue, plus you make it a real pain in the ass to exit for either lower Manhattan bridge.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli
  • Gary Reilly

    Now that congestion pricing is seriously on the table, you could eliminate the Battery Tunnel toll plaza altogether. This has been a fly in the ointment for the ideal Gowanus Tunnel alignment . . . you had to bring the tunnel out of the ground, pay the toll, then dive back under. Less than optimal.

    Now, however, the toll plaza could be removed, and a contiguous tunnel dug connecting Bay Ridge to Battery Park, with exits along the way. Some Battery Tunnel toll revenue would be lost (e.g. Brooklyn to West Side Highway and leaving Manhattan) but for every trip that would trigger the congestion pricing, there is no loss of revenue.

    This is something we can make happen. This would be a radical remaking of South Brooklyn for the better.

  • Looking back at an old “Goodbye Gowannus” article by George Haikalis, I see that one of his recommendations is to convert two lanes of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel into a new subway tunnel, creating a new subway line that goes under lower Manhattan, through the tunnel, along Hamilton Ave in Brooklyn, and finally connects with the F train.

    I could imagine this as a continuation of the IRT Broadway line, which now stops abruptly at South Ferry and which could be extended into Brooklyn. I could also imagine an HOV/BRT lane on the Verazzano Bridge with the Fourth Ave. line in Brooklyn – in keeping with Bloomberg’s proposal to provide BRT connections from outlying areas to subways. With congestion pricing plus this shift to transit, it could be possible to replace the Gowannus with a surface street.

    This surface-streets-and-transit alternative would be a radical remaking of transportation from Brooklyn to Manhattan – not just burying the expressway but actually shifting some of the people on it from cars to transit.

    Since nothing will happen for 10 years, it seems clear to me that the city should study the costs and benefits of three alternatives:

    Rebuilt elevated structure: less expensive than undergrounding, but blights the neighborhood.

    Underground expressway: heals the immediate neighborhood, but is very expensive and does nothing to reduce auto use overall. May be hard to tunnel under Gowannus Canal (considering that the subway comes out of its tunnel and is elevated here).

    Surface streets and transit: heals the immediate neighborhood and also reduces auto use and greenhouse gas emissions, but may not have enough traffic capacity.

    In the age of global warming, we should be looking at this sort of visionary alternative as well as at the two business-as-usual alternatives.

    Seattle has a similar controversy over the Alaska Way Viaduct (an elevated freeway on its waterfront). Citizens groups have been calling for a surface-streets-and-transit alternative for years, while politicians have been insisting on replacing the freeway with either a new elevated freeway or an underground freeway. In a recent election, the voters rejected both the elevated and the underground freeway, and the politicians now realize that they have to take the surface-streets-and-transit alternative seriously.

    It happened only because a group of citizens was willing to put forward this alternative at a time when all the “practical” politicians were saying it was impossible.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree, Charles. On page 7 of the RPA study that Nicolo linked to, the authors argue against alternatives that don’t “provide current interstate capacity levels.”

    They state that at the time of the study, the Gowanus carried over 100,000 vehicles a day, including 10,000 trucks, and that “only a small portion of trips begin and end near existing transit networks or near any likely
    new elements of a transit network.” They also cite a study estimating that the cross-harbor rail freight tunnel could remove only 600-1000 trucks from the entire east-of-Hudson network.

    This is better lip service than rail alternatives usually get, but still lip service. I’d like to know just how much rail would have to be built or dug to compensate for just tearing down the Gowanus. It’s hard to imagine that you’d have to construct ten rail freight tunnels, but if you did, how much would that cost, and how would the cost compare with the cost of rebuilding the highway (and the continuing blight that it creates, tunnel or no tunnel)? How many new subway lines would it take to transport all the people who currently drive on the Gowanus, two? five? Could any transit planners give a ballpark estimate?

  • They also just assume, with no analysis, that surface streets would be inadequate to carry the remaining traffic:

    “Any solution that did not provide current interstate capacity levels would leave thousands of trucks and tens of thousands of cars daily with no option except to pick their way through local streets.”

    This is name calling rather than analysis. You might as well say that Ocean Parkway leaves tens of thousands of cars “to pick their way through local streets,” so we need a freeway there. We should have built all of Robert Moses’s cross-Manhattan expressways, rather than leaving all those cars “to pick their way through local streets.” In reality, boulevards can carry traffic efficiently, though they don’t have as much capacity as expressways.

    In addition, most of their examples of tunneling are not very convincing:

    “Paris now has built or is building over 100 kilometers of high speed limited access underground roads that speed traffic under Paris.”

    That may have been true when this was written, but now Paris is planning to remove the Pompidou expressway as part of a plan to reduce automobile use dramatically (not just to hide the autos underground).

    “Boston is building over 50 lane miles of new
    underground road, including going directly under the current right-of-way of Interstate 93, which the project is enabling to be torn down. Underground roads are giving Boston a radically improved transportation system.”

    We all know what a good model Boston’s big dig is for us to follow. Are we really creating a “radically improved transportation system” if we maintain current levels of auto-dependency?

  • Ian Mitchell

    Or just go for all-electronic toll collection, as they do in Miami now.

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