De Blasio Commits $250M to Overhaul Major Streets, But How Far Will It Go?

Today's transportation committee budget hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller
Today’s transportation committee budget hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

Before a City Council transportation committee budget hearing this morning, the de Blasio administration announced its “Great Streets” initiative, which includes $250 million in capital funds to improve safety on Queens Boulevard, the Grand Concourse, Atlantic Avenue, and Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn.

From 2009 to 2013, 34 pedestrians were killed and 215 seriously injured on these four arterial streets. Significant expansions of space for walking and biking on these streets will show that the de Blasio administration is willing to take on the toughest street design challenges.

Still unclear, however, is DOT’s budgetary commitment to less expensive but still effective treatments like painted sidewalk extensions and parking-protected bike lanes, which can quickly extend safer designs to more neighborhoods and reduce traffic deaths and injuries on a more aggressive timetable.

The $250 million in capital funding will be spent over several years. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said the bulk of the $100 million budgeted for Queens Boulevard, for example, would be spent in fiscal year 2018. The price is high because the streets will be reconstructed with new curbs and concrete.

DOT is also looking at bus lanes and protected bike lanes for these streets, but said final decisions will come after a community consultation process. Capital projects already in the pipeline for Fourth Avenue, however, would cast in concrete a design without protected bike infrastructure.

“This is going to be a very big initiative for us,” Trottenberg said. “We’re prepared to think as big as money and community support and the practicality of implementing will allow.”

DOT has begun hosting meetings along Queens Boulevard, and has launched a similar process for Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn, which is not part of the Great Streets program.

“What we’re going to see in the coming months is how aggressive the DOT is going to be with these new treatments,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “We advocates have to remain vigilant to make sure that this money is going to be spent in a way that is going to save the maximum number of lives.”

DOT says it will fast-track the reconstruction of these four arterials through close coordination with the Department of Design and Construction and utility companies. Trottenberg said DOT and DDC have already trimmed project delivery time elsewhere by speeding up schedules in the Bronx and Staten Island, and hopes to cast concrete for the Great Streets program by 2017.

The agency will begin to implement short-term changes on these four streets as soon as this year, adding curb extensions, changing signal timing, and using paint and flexible posts to change street geometry.

On Pike and Allen Streets, DOT didn't wait for a multi-million dollar capital project before implementing street safety upgrades. Photos: Google Maps
On Pike and Allen Streets, DOT didn’t wait for a multi-million dollar capital project before implementing street safety upgrades, which were cast in concrete later. Photos: Google Maps

These types of changes cost far less per mile than full street reconstruction and could prevent more crashes per dollar. But it’s not clear how much DOT is ramping up its commitment to these types of quicker improvements.

So far, as part of its Vision Zero program, DOT has committed to 50 street safety projects each year — ranging from a single intersection to full corridors. TA is asking DOT to double this output, which it estimates would cost an additional $50 million to $80 million annually.

“In our expense budget, we have additional Vision Zero funds that can go for a lot of these types of things,” Trottenberg said. While these projects don’t involve major capital dollars, they do require manpower if DOT staff negotiate with community boards. On some projects, DOT ends up returning to the same board several times, and the agency often gets rebuffed for absurd reasons.

“We haven’t seen state-of-the-art safety fixes applied yet, and I think part of that has to do with the deference that the DOT is still giving to naysayers on local community boards. We need to take these safety fixes out of the realm of negotiation,” White said. “They are simply part of modern street design, and they shouldn’t be negotiated or watered down.”

The cost of community outreach came up multiple times during today’s hearing, including after Public Advocate Letitia James pushed DOT to make all bike lanes protected bike lanes.

In response, Trottenberg said that these types of designs require lots of consultation with merchants and community boards, and later reiterated DOT’s commitment to adding 50 miles of bike lanes each year, including five miles of protected bike lanes annually. “That takes a lot of work,” Trottenberg said. “I don’t want people to think that’s a small number.”

“I know,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “Community boards are tough.”

Other highlights from today’s hearing:

  • The budget includes $84 million in capital funding for Select Bus Service, which Trottenberg said would first be spent on Utica Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. DOT has applied for a $3 million Federal Transit Administration grant for final design work on Woodhaven SBS, and anticipates hearing a decision from the feds in August.
  • Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Jumaane Williams were decidely Select Bus Service skeptics. Miller said Flushing-Jamaica SBS doesn’t serve the community’s needs and asked DOT if funds slated for the project could instead go to something else, while Williams said he’s received complaints that bus lanes are causing traffic back-ups on Rogers Avenue and aren’t worth the reduced travel times for bus riders. “We haven’t really had a lot of calls to get rid of them,” Trottenberg said of bus lanes. “Overall, they’ve been pretty successful for bus riders.”
  • Council Member Elizabeth Crowley said she was “bothered” to see a bus driver arrested for violating the Right-of-Way Law after running over a teenager in a crosswalk, and Council Member Mark Weprin defended the law while urging more sensitive enforcement. Later, Reynoso vigorously opposed a bill from Miller to exempt bus drivers from the law. “The pedestrian was at no fault in what happened here,” he said. “I think the Right-of-Way Law is fine as it is.”
  • Trottenberg said that Cemusa, which has the city’s street furniture contract, has provided 50 bus shelter ads and three newsstand advertisements for Vision Zero. Rodriguez noted that the city needs to engage in a broad education campaign on par with smoking cessation efforts.
  • BBnet3000

    There is literally no good biking route from southwestern Brooklyn to the north. Locking in the current paint and plastic bollards design of 4th Avenue, which remains an unsafe Vision Zero “priority corridor”, is a huge mistake for walking and biking in this city.

    Not that the De Blasio 6% cycling “goal” was ever real to begin with, but we aren’t even going to hit HALF of that by the end of his second term. #ZeroAmbition

  • Charles

    Fifty-one percent of residents in Queens CD 12, which covers much of Daneek Miller’s district, get to work using transit. Only 35 percent drive.

    In Brooklyn CD 17, which is basically Jumaane Williams’s district, the numbers are even starker: 64 percent take public transit and 24 percent drive.

  • Richard Garey

    I am excited to hear that we will soon be getting additional safety improvements along the Grand Concourse. Any little bit helps. It is important for the DOT to realize that the Grand Concourse was never designed to function as an aerterial highway. It was a “speedway” in the sense that a horse and buggy traveled at approx 10 mph. The fact that it has manifested itself into a congested arterial highway today has had negative consequences on health, safety and quality of life in the Bronx.

  • Joe R.

    The irony here is despite the much higher speeds when vehicles are in motion, average travel speeds now probably are no better, perhaps worse, than in the horse and buggy days.

  • AnoNYC

    There’s so much that could be done with the Grand Concourse. Unlike Queens Blvd, virtually the entirity of the development along the GC north of E 144th Street pedestrian oriented. I would like to see significantly more space dedicated to pedestrians. How about a mid-block plaza similar to the old Park Avenue south of East 96th Street? Protected bus only and bicycle lanes included.

  • AnoNYC

    It’s important to take note that these are household numbers too. That further reduces the potential number of drivers.

  • Ashantis_Sideburns

    I’m just going to leave this right here…hopefully the right person sees it and does what’s right to the Grand Concourse….

  • ahwr

    What was an average travel speed by horse and buggy?

  • ahwr

    Bus crossovers, dooring, and double parked cars are bad. A car exiting the main road at 40 mph and ramming me from behind is bad too. You can get rid of bus cross overs, dooring, and double parked cars with a protected bike lane on the right side too.

  • J

    “That takes a lot of work,” Trottenberg said. “I don’t want people to think that’s a small number.”

    5 miles of protected lanes is a MINISCULE number when you look at what other cities are doing. Seattle, which has 1/13th the population of NYC, is building 7.1 miles of protected bike lanes in 2015 AND they’re building 12.1 miles of bike boulevards in 2015 AND they have a plan linking all of these projects into a low-stress network. Proportional to population, Seattle will be building approximately 50 times the amount of low-stress lane-miles as NYC.

    NYC has no plans for a low-stress network. Each project is a one-off, and not part of a larger vision. NYC never mentions low-stress networks and does not even consider bike boulevards in it’s toolkit for improving streets.

    We are setting in concrete mediocre street designs, in a piecemeal manner, based on the whims of unelected and unaccountable community board members. We have no vision for any sort of low-stress network for biking.

    Poor planning process + poor implementation process = guaranteed mediocrity. Put simply, we are getting blown away by other cities.

  • J

    seriously. #ZeroAmbition it is. In 7 years, NYC will be a slightly better place to bike than it is today, while Seattle and Vancouver (and Indianapolis!) will be cycling meccas.

  • Tyler

    Well, let’s see… $4 million + a 4-month closure resulted in my subways station being just *slightly* less falling apart than it was before. Can the DOT do better than the MTA in wasteful spending? I can imagine $250 million could disappear within 10 city blocks.

  • Ashantis_Sideburns

    I’m assuming that you cycle the concourse. Presently, the safest way to go from 161 to at least 183rd is on the left side of the road. The pot holes, double parked cars, express buses (going 50mph) are much more dangerous than looking over your shoulders for a car that may be coming from the middle lanes…at which point I normally slow down and let them go. I cycle the concourse 5 times a week and have had zero issues doing this. The bike lane is too much of an obstacle course.

  • Guest

    What about just swapping the parked cars with the bicycle lane? A buffer would prevent “dooring” and the buses could use bulb outs.

    Honestly, I think the street needs to be reconfigured completely though. Remove two moving lanes, only needs two each way here. Narrow them too. Centrally running, protected bus lanes would work well. More pedestrian space is needed as well, much more. Not sure if I would just stretch the sidewalk out or expand a median. Parking protected bicycle lanes.

  • AnoNYC

    What about just swapping the parked cars with the bicycle lane? A buffer would prevent “dooring” and the buses could use bulb outs.

    Honestly, I think the street needs to be reconfigured completely though. Remove two moving lanes, only needs two each way here. Narrow them too. Centrally running, protected bus lanes would work well. More pedestrian space is needed as well, much more. Parking protected bicycle lanes.

    THIS for Grand Concourse!

    http://greatergreater.com/images/201410/betterbrt.jpg

    Notice BRT and familiar parking protected bicycle lane configuration. Also notice pedestrian space, moving lane reduction (2 lanes instead of 3) and narrowing. Median should be beautified throughout too like Broadway in Manhattan. This is the Grand Concourse after all.

  • Ashantis_Sideburns

    This is quite an amazing diagram of what the concourse could be…i’d totally be for this!

  • AnoNYC

    The room is there, we just need to fight for it.

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