What If There Were Tolls on the BQE?

Workers redeck the Gowanus Expressway. Plans to overhaul the road completely were cancelled due to budget shortfalls. Photo: NYS DOT

The state Department of Transportation announced yesterday the cancellation of plans to rebuild 5.3 miles of the BQE and the Gowanus Expressway. It wasn’t a new round of freeway revolts that killed these projects but the state’s busted transportation budget.

“The economic downturn has affected all areas of government and Transportation is not an exception; recent projections show insufficient funds to meet our infrastructure needs,” reads the official notice of the projects’ demise in the Federal Register. “The cost of the alternatives being evaluated do not fall within NYSDOT’s funding constraints.”

This marks a decided change of tone from the state DOT, which until very recently was calling the repairs “critical needs” for public safety, as the New York Post reported today. Together, the two projects could have cost between $2.3 billion for rehab work alone and $35 billion for the most expensive tunnel alternatives, according to NYSDOT’s estimates.

At Streetsblog, we’re not going to shed tears about a major highway project being cancelled or delayed, especially not while transit is being stripped off the Tappan Zee Bridge and the MTA is being forced to put necessary repairs onto straphangers’ credit cards. But it’s interesting that in the absence of any political will to put a price on driving, even infrastructure projects designed to benefit motor vehicles, are falling by the wayside.

Not that New Yorkers won’t still be paying for the BQE. Even without the reconstruction projects, these are expensive roads. The ongoing redecking of just the Gowanus — meant only to be an interim solution — costs around $680 million, according to the state. Canceling the major rehab could end up costing much more in the end if expensive upkeep stretches on for decades, though it would let the state kick the can down the road during a time of fiscal duress.

The situation would be different if new tolls were on the table. Putting a price on the BQE would require federal approval, but Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has expressed a clear willingness to allow tolls on interstate highways where appropriate. Had tolls been on the table for the BQE and Gowanus, there would have been any number of different outcomes possible.

By reducing traffic, tolling the BQE and Gowanus would also reduce maintenance costs. If the tolls were set high enough, the lighter traffic load might even make engineers and politicians more comfortable with fewer lanes on the highways, cutting costs even more. A free road for drivers is an expensive road for taxpayers.

Tolls wouldn’t just cut costs, of course; they would also raise revenue. If the state wanted the toll to be a strict user fee, it could reinvest the revenue into the two highways. That might be enough for a cheaper tunnel option; a 1996 RPA report estimated the cost of a Gowanus tunnel at between $1.5 and $2.5 billion ($2.2 to $3.6 billion in 2011 dollars). That alternative, which would open up new land for development and knit neighborhoods back together, had widespread community support.

The toll revenue need not be used only for a highway project, especially if the tolls are already saving the highway system money. Investing some of the toll revenue in rail freight infrastructure could be a win-win, helping take heavy trucks off the busy expressways and cutting maintenance costs even further (it wouldn’t hurt to restore two-way tolling on the Verrazano, either). Bay Ridge commuters might prefer spending the money on the Triboro RX circumferential subway line rather than the Gowanus. Staten Islanders might prefer new light rail lines connecting them to New Jersey and the ferry.

Once tolls are part of the conversation, there are a lot of options for the BQE and Gowanus. Without them, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Once tolls are part of the conversation, there are a lot of options for the BQE and Gowanus. Without them, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.”

    I wouldn’t bet on keeping what we’ve got.  And not just on the BQE.

  • J

    Tolled highways are not only a smart idea (reduced traffic, reduced noise, improved mobility) but a political inevitability. Unless people suddenly support new taxes to support these roads (highly unlikely), the choice will be between road tolls and road collapse/removal. I imagine that very few people are going to vote for road removal over tolls. Who knows, though. Maybe with reduced traffic, highways will be able to provide new transit solutions (especially BRT) to under-served areas. Imagine BRT lines on all major NYC highways.

  • Anonymous

    You’d have to toll the bridges and work out some system whereby a driver who paid the toll on the BQE would not pay the toll on the bridge, but a person driving from, say, Flatbush Ave, would.  Otherwise you’d have tons of drivers avoiding the BQE and flooding local streets in order to avoid the toll.

  • Mike

    Can you even imagine how much more traffic tolls on the BQE would dump on surface streets in Downtown Brooklyn?  Totally impractical in this case.

  • car free nation

    I agree with Mike. We already have people avoiding traffic on the BQE to go down 4th avenue. That would become the norm.

  • Can you imagine how many fewer people would drive through Brooklyn if there wasn’t a free highway available? 

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    It’s incredible.  I moved to Brooklyn in 1991 and every since I lived in Carroll Gardens, all ever anyone talked about was how the BQE was in danger of collapse and needed to be rebuilt.  Now I live in Queens, but this news hit me like a punch to the gut.  Cuomo is just kicking the can on everything, showing zero leadership.

  • carma

    horrible idea.  local streets will be hammered.  its not as the bqe is the “ONLY” way to go.  thats why the local streets will be totally congested.  

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think people in rush hour traffic would opt to slug along for an hour or more in some kind of nightmare scenario on local roads all the way up the length of Brooklyn just to skip a toll of a few bucks. But I do think better than tolling it would be to knock it down and make it a boulevard like they did with the West Side Highway. In that scenario I predict two very serious consequences:

    1. More people using mass transit instead of driving

    2. Significant increases in quality of life, economic development, and property values along the entire stretch

  • Joe R.

    The only way this might work is if in combination with a toll we guarantee a speed limit or faster trip.  You get on the expressway, your EZ-Pass is scanned at the entrance.  When you get off it’s scanned again.  If your average speed between entering and exiting is less than the speed limit, you don’t get tolled.  You could combine this with a system which closes the entrances on portions where traffic is approaching critical mass in order to keep things freely flowing.  People have shown they’re willing to pay money in exchange for time.  Nobody though will pay money to get on a congested highway with indeterminate trip times if they have the alternative of free local streets.

  • J

    Wow. So many commenters here seem to subscribe to the idea that traffic is constant and people are completely irrationally devoted to driving their cars everywhere and expecting to do so for free.
     
    When a new roadway is built, planners talk about a triple convergence, which leads very quickly to traffic jams, even on new facilities. People change their route, change the time they travel, and change their travel mode in order to take advantage of time savings on the new facility. The opposite is true when capacity on road facilities is restricted, say by tolling or lane reduction. Some people will drive different routes (local streets), some will drive at different times, and some will switch modes away from driving. In NYC, we have much more transit options, so the 3rd case is way more prevalent than elsewhere. The process does not simply occur for drivers on the initial roadway but for local residents as well, who react to changes to traffic patterns as well. With more cars initially on side streets, local car trips would be similarly diverted to different routes, times, and modes. This is an iterative process which settles on an equilibrium after a few weeks.

    In terms of tolling the BQE, some increase in local traffic is to be expected at first, but the response to this should not be to oppose tolls, but to find ways to discourage those extra local auto trips (perhaps via Congestion pricing, traffic calming, or Park Smart parking rates). Perhaps tolling can be done in conjunction with transit improvements along the corridor (Bus lanes or BRT), so that drivers will switch modes to transit, instead of just switching routes to local streets. Opposing tolls out of a fear of traffic doesn’t really make sense, since we already have ridiculous traffic which has been slowly increasing for the past 50 years. Only rising gas prices and a severe economic downturn has slowed that growth, but you can expect that to jump back when the economy picks up again.

  • Driver

     Transit between Brooklyn and Queens is terrible.  I have done it on occasion (so I could drink and not drive) and it is prohibitively horrendous.  The G train is a cruel joke, and going through Manhattan is time consuming and often unpleasantly congested. Taking buses is equivalent to driving the local streets, but stopping every few blocks for the scores of other people boarding and exiting.  I don’t see transit as a realistic option over paying the toll or taking congested local routes for the majority of drivers.  It simply takes too long and is too inconvenient in many cases.
     Take a look at how much of the BQE traffic is comprised of trucks.  These trucks are not going to disappear.  Tolling the BQE will not make traffic go away, but it will generate significant revenue.  Thinking that transit is a viable option for the majority of people traveling between Brooklyn and Queens (and in many cases points further) is somewhat naive in my opinion. People for whom transit is a practical option likely already use transit.  No one sits in  BQE traffic because it is pleasant or speedy, but because it is in many cases the least miserable route.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Wow. So many commenters here seem to subscribe to the idea that traffic is constant and people are completely irrationally devoted to driving their cars everywhere and expecting to do so for free.”
     
    When I pass over the jam packed BQE on my bike each day, I see very few cars.  And lots of trucks.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    http://www.transalt.org/files/newsroom/magazine/012Spring/19advocacy.html 

    From 10 years ago.  I can’t imagine how many millions of $$$ have been spent on this and now State DOT pulls a Christie.

    Let’s hope something good comes out of it.  But for all my friends who have worked on this for well over 10 years, it’s a kick in the pantaloons.  

  • J

    @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus Fair point. I’m certainly not dogmatically in favor of tolls, but I do think drivers, trucks drivers included, make a complex series of decisions about which routes to use and when. I just don’t think it’s a very nuanced argument to say “no tolls because it would put more traffic on local streets”, because tolling doesn’t have to be such a blunt instrument. Maybe you don’t charge trucks very much. Maybe there are disincentives to using local streets. Of course poorly designed tolling can have horrible effects. A quick look at canal street will tell you that. However, there are other factors in play here. One thing I am certain about is that if the state doesn’t pony up money for fixes and we don’t do anything differently, that highway is going to continue to be a rotting traffic-clogged mess.

  • carma

    @SB_Driver:disqus You are right.  Train service between queens and brooklyn is non-existent.  I dont really consider the G any sort of real line.  it runs a 4 train car-set with an average of 10-20 minute headways.  it short stops at court square where one has to transfer and walk a ridiculous distance to get the e/m/7.  how is that for mass transit.

    forget about buses.  buses in queens/brooklyn are a crawl.  your best inter-borough bus is the q58, and takes nearly an hour to traverse to flushing.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The thing is, under the guise of “temporary repairs” the entire BQE/Gowanus has been rebuilt, and is probably good for another 50 years if they just repaint the metal on the Gowanus.

    Except for the Kozkiusko Bridge and the viaduct under Brooklyn Heights.  It is the latter piece that will face the danger of suddenly being closed, from Atlantic to Tillary.  The question is, then what?

  • SPO

    From a purely selfish perspective, I for one wish that we would be able to maintain and expand the BQE. I think what many of us don’t realize is that most of our goods are shipped to us by truck here in NYC, not by train, bus or bike. In addition, when we need to get from point A to point B quickly, even the most avid of bike users like myself resort to cars whether in the form of a zipcar/taxi or personal vehicle. Also, at least from my perspective, the more trucks that the highway can take away from my local streets, the better. While it’s a wonderful dream to think that getting rid of the BQE would give us the serenity we all desire in Brooklyn, the reality is that getting rid of a major thoroughfare would have huge negative impacts on the community we all seek to support. It would raise the insanely high cost of living even higher as shipping becomes more costly and the costs trickle down to the consumer. Additionally, there are times when we really need to get from point A to B (ie: if we need to get to a level 1 trauma center in Manhattan from Sunset Park after an accident) that necessitate fast travel through Brooklyn. Rather than tear it down, work with the community to cover/beautify it cosmetically while working with DOT to widen the lanes, improve on the Atlantic Av access ramps, make it very attractive for drivers to drive on (instead of local streets) and place a toll on it that we may siphon for other public use projects.

  • moocow

    “A free road for drivers is an expensive road for taxpayers.”

    We should say this a whole bunch more.

  • SPO, Lutheran Hospital is a level 1 trauma center located right in Sunset Park. No reason to drive the ambulance to Manhattan.

  • Glenn

    BTW, That Triboro Rx line looks awesome. How is it that I’ve never heard of it?

  • Anonymous

    Tolling the BQE is not a bad idea, but one of the main reasons it is so congested is that there are no viable transit options for many trips that start end with Brooklyn and Queens.  I’d love to see a plan where some of that revenue could be used to fund better transit for trips within the boroughs.

  • carma

    @J_12:disqus ,Short of a true subway.  i dont see any alternative for a good mass transit.  No, buses are not going to cut it.

    the only option would be to build a new subway line, but we know thats not going to happen.

    You can improve the “G” by extending to coney island on the south end running on the culver.  and on the north end, extending back to continental.  but as far as i know, the tph is close to max already on the queens blvd local.  improving the long headways also can give the stepchild of the nyct system some justice.

  • Driver

    ” Of course poorly designed tolling can have horrible effects. A quick look at canal street will tell you that.”
    The tolls on the NY/NJ crossings are all paid coming into NY.  There is no toll collection going into NJ.

  • Anonymous

    @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus Your point about trucks is a good one.  I know that there have been proposals to bring more goods into NYC by train.  Will tolls on the BQE divert some of those goods?  Or are these trucks “last mile” ones, carrying goods to the actual stores?

  • SPO

    Jonathan R, that’s just the point. Lutheran is a Level 1 trauma center in Brooklyn, yes. However, what if your child was taken to Bellevue in the city after a car accident? Wouldn’t you hop in a cab to get to Bellevue as fast as you can, even if you’re in Coney Island? The point was to illustrate that there are times when you simply need to get from point A to point B in Brooklyn quickly and the BQE hits so many major thoroughfares that it allows for that. We should make it a fast, yet expensive option for drivers to take when they absolutely need to. Since trucks need to get from point A to B quickly and there is no single local truck route that parallels the BQE for its entire length, truck companies will be willing to pay the tolls to get their goods delivered in a timely fashion. (Notice how many parking tickets they’re willing to pay as a cost of doing business). Fixing/widening the road, tolling the road and beautifying/covering it would go a long ways towards keeping those trucks off our streets and allowing viable transportation alternatives in the borough. As for a rail alternatives, if we can’t even afford the BQE fix, how can we even consider an expensive project like a new freight connection? Would we use imminent domain to take over land in Bay Ridge to expand on the Bay Ridge freight branch and re-construct a new train yard where SBR used to be? Especially in Brooklyn where the NIMBYs would make any project super expensive…

  • kevd

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus “Nobody though will pay money to get on a congested highway with indeterminate trip times if they have the alternative of free local streets.”
    If no one uses the congested, tolled highway, it won’t be congested…. and then the trips will be fast again.  You statement is channeling Yogi Bera.  “This highway is so crowded nobody goes there.”

  • Reggie

    What Fronko, Mike, Car Free Nation and carma said.  My analogy: many drivers on the BQE drive past the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the free Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, making their trips longer, but cheaper.  J has a point, to a degree, but seems to take a general concept blindly as an absolute.

    One place we could start is changing the toll on the Verranzano-Narrows Bridge, as Driver alludes.  One reason truck traffic is as heavy as it is on the eastbound BQE is operators go north and then across Manhattan to avoid tolls.  Change the toll structure, and they will head west across Staten Island.

    Larry Littlefield asks the big question.  The triple-cantilever has a limited engineered life.  It will take at least ten years to conduct the environmental review, design and construction of a the “fix” or the alternate.  Waiting until the structure is unsafe to do something isn’t an option.

  • Larry Littlefield

    HamTech87 — I wrote a long series of posts on freight movement over on Room Eight.  A considerable amount of truck traffic is last mile, or within the region (from warehouses in NJ and eastern PA to stores in NYC).  But the Gowanus/BQE is part of one of two ways in.

    Some of that can be diverted by rail, but with the government broke that is a pipedream.  (My series of posts was called “Railroad Pipedream.”). 

    The alternative is to ratio our dwinding and deteriorating infrastructure, as with repurposing streets for bike lanes instead of expanding mass transit.  In that case, the BQE/Gowanus would be made commercial traffic only, the way the parkways are non-commercial traffic only. 

    Bottom line — we still need it, even if you think private automobiles are, or should, go away.

  • Joe R.

    @kevdflb:disqus You actually made my point for me.  Just tolling the BQE will undoubtedly reduce congestion on it.  There’s no arguing that.  However, unless the toll is coupled with some guarantee of trip times, eventually some of those paying the toll will opt for free roads.  In fact, even if traffic is free-flowing most of the time, many people will avoid a tolled BQE just because of the chance they might pay a toll, but still end up stuck in traffic.  That’s just how people make decisions.  They’re only willing to pay for guaranteed trip times, not maybes.  The only other circumstance where people will reliably pay tolls is when there is no other option, such as to cross a bridge.

    I think it might make sense to couple some type of toll system and guaranteed trip times with making the BQE commercial traffic only.  Commercial traffic is much more time sensitive.  You’ll have large numbers of delivery trucks willing to pay a toll if they know it’ll get them from point A to point B in x amount of time.  This will have the side effect of making local streets safer by diverting a lot of truck traffic to highways.

  • Joe R.

    @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus I agree about the idea of repurposing streets.  In fact, I’ve said many times that with proper infrastructure human-powered transportation can mostly do what the subways do-namely get people from point A to point B in about the same amount of time.  If the grade-separated expressways ever reach the point where they’re structurally deficient for motor traffic, it might make sense to repurpose them for human-powered or very light motorized (i.e. think electric bicycles/velomobiles) transportation.  Or perhaps to leverage existing grade-separated rights-of-way by hanging bicycle roads off them.  This is far cheaper than building new subways, or even expanding bus routes.  By including very light motorized vehicles into the mix, we allow those who are too old/infirm to otherwise make use of bike routes to do so.
    @d8d46f16f380afef59ca318522397233:disqus I’m in 100% agreement that subways are the only good mass transit option in NYC.  Traffic here is too heavy and too variable to allow consistent, rapid trip times with any form of surface transit.  Moreover, subways are more immune to weather conditions.  They’re also far safer than any type of road transport.  The only problem is they cost money which the state/city just doesn’t have.  In an ideal world no part of NYC would be more than 1/2 mile from a subway station.  Unfortunately, I’m not seeing that happening any time soon.

  • Heights residents, and others, should look at thru traffic on neighborhood streets as its own problem to be mitigated. It is, after all, not good even with a fully operational and toll-free BQE. I used to ride Clinton Street as part of my trip to work but I switched to the traffic sewer of Adams; there were as many road raging commuters either way.

    Undertaking billions of dollars of freeway reconstruction at taxpayer expense has got to be the least efficient way on earth to affect traffic on local streets. It’s like trying to reduce knife fights by handing out free shotguns. As many local streets are already attractive to short cutting motorists, the question is how to make them less so, independent of a BQE.

    I believe the answer is to make them slower, and in the worst cases, to make them *not* thru streets at all. Cut some of them off. Other cities do this as a matter of course, to improve the lives of their residents. It costs a lot less than a billion dollars. Whether or not we apply widely the technique here is not a question of money but priorities, and the relative influence of the people who stand to lose or gain.

    Either way, the BQE must be tolled if its horridly expensive structures are to be maintained. The quality of paid transit among outer boroughs is neither here nor there, as for many of us who live in its proximity the BQE is not a practical alternative in the first place. We take the F through Manhattan, etc. If that soaring freeway is a convenience for you, that’s great, but you’re likely going to have to start paying for it too.

  • Heights residents, and others, should look at thru traffic on neighborhood streets as its own problem to be mitigated. It is, after all, not good even with a fully operational and toll-free BQE. I used to ride Clinton Street as part of my trip to work but I switched to the traffic sewer of Adams; there were as many road raging commuters either way.

    Undertaking billions of dollars of freeway reconstruction at taxpayer expense has got to be the least efficient way on earth to affect traffic on local streets. It’s like trying to reduce knife fights by handing out free shotguns. As many local streets are already attractive to short cutting motorists, the question is how to make them less so, independent of a BQE.

    I believe the answer is to make them slower, and in the worst cases, to make them *not* thru streets at all. Cut some of them off. Other cities do this as a matter of course, to improve the lives of their residents. It costs a lot less than a billion dollars. Whether or not we apply widely the technique here is not a question of money but priorities, and the relative influence of the people who stand to lose or gain.

    Either way, the BQE must be tolled if its horridly expensive structures are to be maintained. The quality of paid transit among outer boroughs is neither here nor there, as for many of us who live in its proximity the BQE is not a practical alternative in the first place. We take the F through Manhattan, etc. If that soaring freeway is a convenience for you, that’s great, but you’re likely going to have to start paying for it too.

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