Downtown Brooklyn Already Bracing for BQE Reconstruction

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Sometime around 2019, the state DOT will begin reconstructing the segment of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway that runs through downtown Brooklyn. There are years and years of review before a shovel goes in the ground, but when construction starts, local streets already jammed with trucks and car commuters heading for free East River bridges will see even more spillover traffic. And the project itself, which will run from Hamilton Avenue to Sands Street, will have important consequences for bus transit, access to the waterfront and Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the quality of life in nearby neighborhoods.

At a meeting last night of the "stakeholder advisory council" for the project, the DOT and its consultants met with representatives of local civic groups and elected officials to discuss preliminaries. To give you a sense of just how early on the process is, the purpose of the meeting was to refine criteria the DOT will use to evaluate its options, and it won’t even be the last meeting about criteria.

What was interesting to see was how transportation engineers approach the problem of reconstructing a highway jammed through some of the most densely settled urban neighborhoods in the nation — a reminder of automobile infrastructure’s voracious appetite for space.

In engineer-speak, the BQE is "non-standard." As James Brown, a consultant with the firm HDR, put it, the engineers are "interested in standard features. Ten feet is not the standard width of a lane; interstates have 12-foot lanes." From the engineers’ perspective, the ramps and acceleration lanes are too short, he said, and the shoulders too narrow. So, in addition to keeping the BQE from disintegrating, the project may widen and lengthen certain parts of the roadway. Much of the discussion last night centered around how to prioritize neighborhood quality of life and the public realm while addressing the genuinely hazardous roadway conditions in need of attention.

The project also presents some real opportunities. If, God forbid, we still have free East River bridges and one-way tolling on the Verrazano in 2019 — both significant contributors to the traffic crunch in downtown Brooklyn — this mammoth construction project and its spillover traffic could add some urgency to any push for pricing those crossings rationally. Kyle Wiswall of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who attended last night’s meeting, noted that the reconstructed highway segment could also incorporate a dedicated bus lane or HOV lane, extending some of the traffic management strategies in place on the Staten Island Expressway and the Gowanus.

At this stage of the process, DOT hasn’t come out with any designs to comment on, and it’s too early to say how the project will impinge on the neighborhoods around it. Wiswall said it would be difficult to imagine the state DOT opting to pursue a de facto expansion project — as the agency almost did with the Major Deegan last fall — in such a tight space. But he added that advocates should keep an eye out for mission creep. "We have to make sure the scope doesn’t ramp up so the shoulders become a travel lane and then you get a bigger, noisier highway and you lose those safety gains," he said. "It’s our job to make sure they stay focused on that and it doesn’t turn into a capacity project."

  • I wouldn’t mind wider lanes and a nice shoulder as long as that means LESS LANES.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Why can’t they bury the trench? Let me guess, money? The reclaimed real estate would be very valuable and for a little toll on the highway itself anything could be affordable. Why stop at tolling the bridges? Toll the highway too.

  • Well, the BQE will never have additional lanes in this segment, Glenn, because it’s slipped beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and there’s literally no more room to widen the sucker without smashing into the bridge.

    I look forward to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge Park bike path, so’s I can quit using Furman street, and risk being killed by the flood of detouring drivers who think they’re still on the BQE.

  • Niccolo, you seem a bit confused over the priorities of American tax payers. Raising tax money to improve the public realm is a waste of money, when you can just pay less taxes, and have enough left over to purchase numerous flat-screen televisions.

    Remember: People and cities suck. Cars, money, and flat-screen televisions are awesome.

  • i desperately hope we have tolls on the east river crossings and a two way verrazano toll way before 2019, but if not… this project has GOT to be the final straw. the BQE is one of the busiest highways in the country moving 123,000 every day. Rebuilding it will change traffic patterns not just in downtown brooklyn, but the whole borough and all of lower manhattan. livable street advocates… we gotta stay on top of this one for a long time.

  • Streetsman

    I predict that when the BQE is shut down for rehab, tens of thousands of trips previously made on that stretch by private automobile will find alternative means, completely contradicting all the presumptions that will be made in the EIS to justify expansion. I say rip the whole sunken/elevated thing out, replace it with a planted median boulevard like the West Side Highway, and run express BRT from Staten Island through the Battery Tunnel to make up for the capacity loss.

  • Jonathan D.

    @#6 I agree completely. I sometimes wonder about the tone of these articles. The current best information about these situations are that the trips on the BQE are induced and there are other ways to make them. City streets will not become clogged. Additionally, the capacity of any given highway, this one included, are not particularly high compared to something like the subway. If you can run a train every 5 minutes, and each train holds 1000 people full, that’s 12,000 people an hour. These cars all only have 1 person in them, and I’m struggling to imagine the math working out that 12,000 cars an hour run through downtown brooklyn on the BQE. At 2 lanes and 12 feet a car (which is pretty small, mind you), you’re looking at some 10 solid miles of traffic in an hour. Yikes.

  • Pardon unclickable URL, meant this: http://r.sine.com/peaktransit

  • The Nutty Trorb Guy

    Well if you are thinking about getting out of Brooklyn Heights, here is a reason to sell by 2018.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Well, a lot of this traffic is truck traffic and even with two way tolls on the VZ there are a lot of trucks that have to use this corridor to access their deliveries. And, this is really just a part of the greater Gowanus/BQE corridor. Bridge tolls are a huge factor but the 800 pound gorilla here is the Gowanus viaduct itself. Countless proposals for tunneling this corridor and reclaiming the surface space for city life abound, only the almighty dollar stands in the way. Toll it all, build a nice tunnel with a bus lane.

  • How about a little truth in advertising and show how all these wonderful roads beautify America. Zoom, zoom, zoom.

  • Streetsman

    The more I look at photos of the elevated West Side Highway before it collapsed in 1973, the more I feel it is a precursor to what should be done with the BQE

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Elevated_Highway

    When roads like this are closed, often you learn that you can live entirely without them after all. Is there anyone who thinks the West Side Highway isn’t better today than it was when it was elevated? I’d bet you anyone living under an elevated portion or over a sunken part of the BQE would be thrilled to convert it to a boulevard like the West Side Highway. At elevated sections you’d get your light back and at sunken sections you’d get your street grid back.

  • na

    thank god i’ll be out of this dump of a city before then

  • I agree with Streetsman: “When roads like this are closed, often you learn that you can live entirely without them after all.”

    What that part of Brooklyn really needs to relieve congestion is a system of underground trains. Because they wouldn’t run on the surface, they could move more people faster. I know it sounds outlandish and expensive, but it’s the best longterm fix. It would need a brief, catchy name. How about “the subway”?

    I guess with the budget all out of whack, it would be hard to build something like this noq. But a guy can’t dream a bit, can’t he?

  • Word to trains. Walking up Schermerhorn in the Heights recently I heard a couple wonder at the subway grates east of Clinton street, and remark that that’s odd, since there’s no station there.

    Little did they know; what might have been. http://r.sine.com/secondsystem

  • anon

    Wait, isn’t there a way to pay for putting this underground? I mean, this is some of the most valuable real estate in the world we’re talking about here.

    1. The entity paying for the tunnel (the state, the city, whatever) has legal ownership of the land created by the tunnel’s construction, and can sell it (and the air rights)

    2. The entity paying for the tunnel gets a major percentage of the increased home value that is directly attributable to the creation of this tunnel. (Through some kind of profits windfall tax, which the state can accrue when these places are sold).

    This is an opportunity to be really creative. We can use the value of this land to pay for the project which improves all our lives. It’s a unique opportunity because, again, this isn’t a road through the backwoods. It’s some of the world’s most valuable real estate!

  • I agree that we should tear it down and replace it with a surface level boulevard and with better transit.

    After the West Side Highway collapsed, the traffic engineers spent twenty years saying it was essential to replace it to keep traffic flowing. But traffic kept flowing during those twenty years without the highway, and everyone finally realized that it wasn’t needed.

    The same is true here. Build a boulevard and adopt the proper pricing policy, and the highway won’t be needed.

    Note that in Seattle, there is currently a huge controversy about the Alaska Way Viaduct, which has reached the end of its life. The traffic engineers and the political establishment say it should be replaced with an underground freeway, and environmentalists say it should be replaced with a boulevard and transit. Environmentalists are winning: Sierra Club activist Mike McGinn was just elected mayor because of his work on this issue.

    Brooklyn can do the same. The controversy in Seattle began when a citizen’s group started advocating for no-freeway and doing photoshop envisioning of what it would be like. I hope to see the same on this issue.

  • AlexB

    It would be fantastic to see the BQE torn down between the Williamsburg Bridge and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Some of the elevated structure could be reused to build an elevated streetcar/light rail and the rest of the right of way could be re-used as an arterial roadway. The trenched portions can be two lanes of arterial roadway and one lane each direction for streetcar/light rail.

    I worry about how much traffic would be diverted onto the local streets in Downtown Brooklyn. The Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges would have to be tolled as much or more than the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel

  • Andrew

    Kaja:
    There is a former station at Court St. – now it’s the Transit Museum. That’s probably what you were seeing.

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