In early 2020, the biggest infrastructure debate in NYC was over what should be done about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). Built more than 60 years ago to handle 47,000 vehicles a day, the BQE now carries more than 153,000, many of them illegally overweight trucks. The unrelenting crush of traffic – more than the FDR, Tappan Zee, and Cross Bronx Expressway – has dangerously degraded the 1.5-mile stretch from the Verrazzano to Brooklyn Heights.
One proposal suggested building a temporary elevated highway above Furman Street. Another recommended burying the roadway and planting trees on top – a “BQP” – that would add ten acres of green space next to Brooklyn Bridge Park and create a massive, verdant amphitheater across from Lower Manhattan. Comptroller Scott Stringer submitted a plan to keep a single trucks-only bottom section of the cantilever and cover the rest, resulting in a two-mile “linear park.” The City Council commissioned a report from Arup that included an $11-billion bypass tunnel from the Gowanus Expressway to Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.
Some asked: What if we just tore the BQE down? An expert panel commissioned by the mayor concluded that idea was “unrealistic.” It also rejected scenarios to create a temporary highway on the Promenade or the park, effectively killing a Department of Transportation (DOT) proposal intensely opposed by the residents of Brooklyn Heights, who were furious at the thought of losing Promenade access for at least three years. Instead, the panel recommended that the DOT immediately remove two of the highway’s six lanes, one in each direction; aggressively fine illegal trucks; and start work on shoring up the structure. This, it argued, would address the most urgent concern: that the 1.5 mile-stretch in Brooklyn would be “unsafe and incapable of carrying current traffic within five years.”
That was in January 2020. Then the pandemic hit. Fifteen months after the panel issued its warning – and a quarter of the way into its dire five-year projection – the BQE is still a jammed, deteriorating six-lane highway, and officials are not much closer to coming up with a real plan to resolve the situation.
A spokesperson for the DOT said the agency has either completed or started on all of the BQE’s immediately necessary repairs, though the fixes to two especially damaged 50-foot-long spans of the cantilevered decks are still in the design phase. Carlo Scissura, the head of the New York Building Congress and the panel’s chair, noted that these adjustments should buy the city several years once completed. After which we’ll be right back to where we are now.
Traffic is currently at or at least near at pre-pandemic levels, which means the congestion, air pollution and environmental and public-health repercussions are substantial. Emissions from vehicles, which are the largest source of air pollution in New York City, essentially haven’t fallen since 2005.
While all six lanes remain open, illegal-truck enforcement has been spotty. Nearly 1,650 overweight trucks travel on the BQE every day on the Queens-bound side alone – but it’s difficult to write those tickets, explains State Senator Brian Kavanagh. “The officer has to observe it, and the only way to write the violation at this point is to get the truck off the road and get it on a scale,” he says. “It’s not something you want to be doing routinely.”
Kavanagh and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon have sponsored a bill to create a first-in-the-nation truck weight-enforcement system that measures the weight of a vehicle at normal speed and issues fines electronically. They’ve also introduced legislation to create a multiagency governing authority for the BQE.
The crumbly BQE is providing its own deadline, but in a very different way, so is government. As the Biden administration tees up an infrastructure plan, state and city officials have a window of opportunity in which to secure funding for whatever happens. A worst-case scenario would have billions of dollars flowing into the region, and the city and state are not prepared to spend the money on projects that are ready to go.