In early 2020, the biggest infrastructure debate in our car-addled city was over what should be done about the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. 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, including the famed triple-cantilever section capped by the Brooklyn Promenade.
The enormity of the problem has attracted some eye-popping proposals. Sure, you could just fix the BQE and build a temporary elevated highway above Furman Street, as one firm advised, but why not think bigger? Bjarke Ingels Group suggested 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. Others (including one by Justin Davidson) shoved the Overton window a bit further: What if we just tore the BQE down?
An expert panel commissioned by the mayor concluded that the idea was “unrealistic.” It also rejected any scenarios that would create a temporary highway on the Promenade or the park, effectively killing a Department of Transportation 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 for good.
A spokesperson for the DOT said that 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.
A variety of factors have converged to make the repairs especially critical. The Trump administration delayed New York City’s congestion-pricing plan for no good reason. People have stayed off the subway owing to pandemic-related fear of public transit. “What we’re seeing is that traffic has come up to near or at pre-pandemic levels,” said Kate Slevin, senior vice-president of state programs and advocacy for the Regional Plan Association. “That means the congestion on the BQE is getting just as extreme as it was before the pandemic. Obviously, the air pollution and environmental and public-health repercussions of that level of traffic are substantial.” Emissions from vehicles, which are the largest source of air pollution in New York City, essentially haven’t fallen since 2005.
And while all six lanes remain open, illegal-truck enforcement has been spotty. The NYPD says that since its “BQE truck enforcement task force” was created in early 2020, it has written 6,000 citations, 874 of them for weight violations. However, this represents a mere fraction of the nearly 1,650 overweight trucks traveling on the BQE every day on the Queens-bound side alone, as noted by the panel. That is mostly because it’s so hard to write those tickets, explains State Senator Brian Kavanagh, whose district encompasses portions of the BQE. “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 that would create a first-in-the-nation truck weight-enforcement system that measures the weight of a vehicle at normal speed and issues fines electronically, like a red-light camera. They’ve also introduced legislation to create a kind of multiagency governing authority for the BQE, like the Gateway Development Corporation charged with repairing the Hudson River train tunnels, that will be crucial to working in an area that is chock-full of subways, power and communications lines, and water and gas mains.
Removing the highway altogether could avoid this municipal and literal rat pit, and there are signs that the federal DOT may be receptive. Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently acknowledged that there “is racism physically built into highways,” and stopped a huge Texas highway project on civil-rights grounds. Buttigieg’s deputy, former city DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, is known to hate the BQE and is acutely aware of its shortcomings. “There’s a horrible legacy there that we should contend with and try and address as we put money into the future of transportation,” said Slevin of the RPA. “For something like the BQE, you’ve got to be bold.”
Michael Lydon, a principal at Street Plans, an urban-planning firm based in New York and Miami, said that eliminating the BQE has some convincing precedents. “You get the traffic that you allow for. If you have less space for traffic, you get less traffic,” he explained, invoking the law of induced demand. Huge highways in Seoul, San Francisco, and New York all came down without any measurable effect on gridlock. After Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct was torn down in 2019, the 90,000 vehicles that used it every day “just disappeared.” Eventually, the same amount of drivers just filled up a $3.2-billion replacement tunnel — revealing the pitfalls of plans to replace the BQE with other roadways or tunnels. The cheapest, simplest solution here may also be the most environmentally sound.
The DOT, which is currently run by Hank Gutman, a de Blasio loyalist and Brooklyn Heights resident who was also a member of the BQE panel, said that the public can expect an announcement on the highway later this month. The agency said that the update will be about “specific short- and mid-term actions,” suggesting that it might finally close lanes to traffic — something its own experts told it to do over a year ago. But the bigger, bolder ideas seem to be off the table for now.
The crumbly BQE is providing its own deadline, but in a very different way, so is government. As the Biden administration tees up a $2-trillion infrastructure plan, state and city officials have a window of opportunity in which to secure funding for whatever replaces the highway. “A worst-case scenario is where we have billions of dollars potentially flowing into our region and our city and state are not prepared to spend that money on projects that are ready to go,” Slevin said.
“It’s going to be one of the largest projects in the city’s capital program for years to come. It’s going to have to get a lot of attention from the next [mayoral] administration, whether they like it or not.”