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Is the City Running Out of Time to Avoid a BQE Catastrophe? Some Think So, But DOT Says Its Plan Will Work

The city Department of Transportation warned in 2018 that unless drastic measures were taken, the three-tiered structure would become irreparably damaged by 2026 as a result of the roughly 153,000 gas-guzzling vehicles.

8:10 AM EDT on June 2, 2023

Is this going to fall down before the city fixes it? Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Mayor Adams is running out of time to repair the crumbling triple-cantilevered section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway under tony Brooklyn Heights, setting up the potential for “catastrophic” damage if the city doesn’t move quickly enough to address its deterioration, pols and experts warned.

"I think they’re somewhat shortsighted in that regard, and haven't planned adequately to do what they need to do in order to get the ball rolling and to keep the cantilever from collapsing, [which] would be catastrophic in so very many ways," Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon (D-Brooklyn Heights) said after attending a May 20 symposium about the BQE hosted by Institute for Public Architecture.

The city Department of Transportation warned in 2018 that unless drastic measures were taken, the three-tiered structure would become irreparably damaged by 2026 as a result of the roughly 153,000 gas-guzzling vehicles — including about 14,000 multi-ton trucks — that traverse the Robert Moses-era highway each day.

The city has taken steps to reduce the stress on the structure. In 2021, former Mayor Bill de Blasio cut the number of travel lanes from three to two in each direction. That move came after an earlier expert panel formed by de Blasio warned that DOT's 2026 timeline for the end of the structure's usable life was overly optimistic.

"This data is alarming; it suggests that the presence of many overweight trucks — a function of limited monitoring and enforcement — coupled with deterioration of the cantilever could cause sections of the road to become unsafe and unable to carry existing levels of traffic within five years," the panel's 2020 report said.

So what happened?

The de Blasio administration was much criticized for kicking the can down the road, eventually coming out with a plan to preserve the triple cantilever for 20 years, leaving a future mayor to dream up a solution for a permanent fix.

The incoming Adams administration did not implement some of the basic work sought by de Blasio's team to secure the structure, including waterproofing the roadway, banishing overweight trucks through enforcement and automated sensors, and making interim repairs. Eventually, the new mayor charted a new course, saying he intended to expedite repairs rather than putting them off. Community outreach began last year and is continuing.

Now, in 2023, the Adams administration is nowhere near ready to break ground on its life-saving fix. DOT has yet to even decide on a plan — including whether the highway will be repaired or completely replaced, though the city has signaled that it's leaning towards a full six-lane rebuild that would likely expand the highway's geographic footprint.

“Even if there were a consensus plan for how to proceed today — and we aren't even close — there is no way the DOT could get that plan approved, designed, budgeted and built before the cantilever section of the highway becomes unsafe,” ex-DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman said during the May 20 symposium. "Our expert panel concluded that the 2026 number was an unduly optimistic estimate, and that the real danger would come sooner. We're now halfway through 2023 and there is no plan. They aren't even close."

The city has ignored other ideas suggested by the panel to mitigate congestion on nearby local streets and prevent further deterioration of the cantilever structure — despite what former city Traffic Commissioner Sam "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz called an "urgency" to avoid the "more likely scenario" of a gaping hold in the roadbed.

"It’s very clear from just looking up from various levels of the triple-cantilever that the structure has been weakened," Schwartz told Streetsblog. "A hole through the deck, which has a high probability within the next few years — that in itself could be catastrophic. I would say it's incumbent upon the city to move as quickly as possible in getting these repairs going."

For the record, all this doomsaying is nonsense, said DOT spokesman Vin Barone.

"The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway remains safe and any report that suggests otherwise is untrue and doing a disservice to New Yorkers," said Barone. "We will not wait decades and needlessly spend hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars keeping this outdated structure as it is today — the Adams administration is seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access the federal funding necessary to reimagine and rebuild the BQE. The interim repairs DOT is starting this year to the triple-cantilever will extend the structure’s operating life and allow us to do that."

The Department of Transportation also said that it is constantly monitoring the structure, both through instruments and regular in-person inspections, to identify problems before they occur.

The agency also mentioned that it intends to implement an automated truck weight enforcement program, but therein lies a story: the city, starting under de Blasio, was supposed to install this so-called "weigh-in-motion" technology to automatically ticket the drivers of overweight trucks. The legislation passed in Albany in 2021, but an error in the bill language required the legislation to be reintroduced this year, according to Council Member Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn Heights).

"I'm disappointed that DOT has been significantly delayed in implementing the weigh-in-motion system to automate enforcement against dangerous, illegal, overweight trucks," said Restler. "When 2023 rolls around, DOT informs us that they were unable to comply with the law that they were instrumental in drafting."

Because of that hold-up, trucks as heavy as 180,000 pounds continue to cross the span, according to Gutman. The cantilever's weight limit is 80,000 pounds — up from its original 72,000 limit; "roughly a quarter" of trucks on the route exceed that, said Gutman, who served as de Blasio's last Transportation commissioner, but was not retained by incoming Mayor Adams, who appointed former Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez to the top job.

And he and Simon both expressed disbelief that the Adams administration decided not to move forward with de Blasio's 2021 plan to waterproof the roadway.

“If we waterproof the joints, we will make them last longer. We need them to last long enough to do a thorough analysis, do the engineering, etcetera," Simon said.

"What I’ve heard is they think they don't have to because it’s X amount of dollars to do, they think they can keep the roadway safe enough, long enough ... I don't think that they can."

A spokesperson for the DOT said waterproofing is “not necessary under DOT’s new expedited approach.” The agency simply does not agree that waterproofing could preserve the triple-cantilever for the 20 years that de Blasio sought. A full preservation would have cost $500 million, the agency argues. And the city would still have to fix the BQE after those two decades.

Left unsaid, of course, is that even a repaired Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is still its own problem for the neighborhood, the borough, the city and the world, given that it carries 150,000 cars and 14,000 trucks every day. Former Comptroller Scott Stringer once lofted a plan to turn the BQE triple cantilever into a truck-only route, which would have reduced many car trips. Other activists have called for the roadway to simply be torn down or dramatically narrowed, but that is not going to happen.

Graphic: DOT
Graphic: DOT

The timeline

Expedited is in the eye of the beholder ... and in the bones of the crumbling BQE.

The long-term fix on the triple-cantilever is not expected to start until at least 2027, according to DOT's current expedited timeline. The city has been conducting outreach since September 2022 with stakeholders and community members along the entire corridor. That effort continues on Thursday, June 15, with another session that will specifically address Atlantic Avenue.

The agency said it is “actively finalizing details” of the prep work on the most-dilapidated sections of the roadway this year — work that was supposed to start in March.

Simon pushed back on the agency's current positive narrative and said de Blasio's plan had merit. She said the city's focus has shifted away from ensuring that the BQE won't come crashing down, and towards reconstructing a six-lane highway beneath what she derided as the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon."

"They [are saying] that the prior administration’s approach was to take 20 years to make a decision, which is a significant mischaracterization. The prior administration was in fact extremely responsible," Simon said. “The Adams administration [is] looking to basically reconstruct the roadway as is. Spending an awful lot of money to put in the same thing that’s just as polluting and climate insensitive."

Restler also believes that more delays are likely because of the "highly litigious community" in Brooklyn Heights.

“I think the Adams administration’s timelines are extremely ambitious for the triple-cantilever," Restler said. "They’ve already announced delays. I would be more than a little surprised if they were able to identify a viable plan in a highly litigious community to get this project done by the timeline they set."

Simon said she agreed: "In an area like this, where there’s so much controversy, you have to expect someone is going to sue you; you have to build in time to be sued."

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