The most reassuring thing Sam Schwartz, the city’s former traffic commissioner and once chief engineer of the Department of Transportation, can say about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is that it isn’t going to collapse in the way you think it might. “So the image people have of the highway falling to the ground is very unlikely,” he tells me. But the most distressed stretch — the triple cantilever that runs from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue — is crumbling, which raises all kinds of other unhappy scenarios. A report by a panel of experts under Bill de Blasio found that overweight trucks and the cantilever’s deterioration could make that section of the BQE “unsafe and unable to carry existing levels of traffic within five years.” That was three years ago.
Before leaving office, de Blasio reduced the number of lanes from three to two after a repair plan that would create a temporary highway on the Brooklyn Promenade was rejected by local residents and his own expert panel. In the absence of any major overhaul, the former mayor called the lane reduction a way to “buy time” so the next administration could come up with a long-term plan. For its part, the Adams administration expects to start construction in 2027 but has yet to land on any actual plan to shore up the structure for the long haul. (The mayor even proposed adding another lane back to the highway.) Even a simple proposal to automatically ticket overweight trucks on the BQE, which is supposed to go into place this year, has taken years to get off the ground. In the meantime, the DOT says it is closely monitoring the triple cantilever and is finally prepping for interim repairs to extend the highway’s immediate life. (Those who believe its deterioration is an opportunity to get rid of it entirely do not appear to have an audience with the mayor.) To better understand the situation, I chatted with Schwartz, who put together a traffic-engineering assessment for the 2020 panel, about the BQE’s structural situation and how stressed we should actually be about, if not total collapse, falling cement.
So is the BQE really in imminent danger of collapse?
The most likely scenario is that some concrete falls — which is called “spalling” — because the structure has been salted a great deal and the reinforcing bars within the concrete have corroded. The most likely scenario that could cause a serious problem is a hole through the deck: in other words, a pothole that goes all the way through and a truck hits that and could lose control.
That doesn’t sound great either. Is the falling concrete dangerous for stuff below?
Yes. On June 1, 1989, when I was chief engineer, the underside of the FDR at 20th Street collapsed and a 500-pound chunk of concrete fell and crushed and killed a Brooklyn dentist, Benjamin Bernstein. I remember it well. If you travel around New York City, underneath structures you’ll notice lots of boards that are shielding you from spalling concrete. But here there’s not enough room to do that; the trucks would hit it. So you see some net meshing the city has put up in lieu of that. Hopefully, that holds.
But it won’t hold forever.
Could a whole car fall through?
The likelihood is that a car won’t go through, but a truck could lose control.
Is the West Side Highway collapse a good parallel?
Probably not, other than the fact that both suffered from neglect. But the nature of this structure is not quite the same, being a cantilevered structure. It’s the crumbling of the concrete deck that I’d be most concerned about as opposed to the whole thing falling to the ground.
What is the city doing right now to alleviate the situation?
The last DOT commissioner, Hank Gutman, did reduce the load on the BQE by cutting it down from three lanes to two, which probably bought the city some time. But the city has to move with dispatch because the structure is showing many signs of distress, from the spalling concrete to what looks like some sizable potholes that might have already gone through and been covered up. So my understanding is the city is attending to two or three of the most concerning areas.
A lot of plans have been on the table over the years — which do you think is the best being put forward right now?
There’s no shortage of plans. The question is, Can they be built without disrupting the community to such an extent? Brooklyn doesn’t have any other truck-route expressways that go through it, so this is the only route from the western United States via the Verrazzano Bridge. You can’t send trucks through Manhattan because the highways there don’t allow them. So can you build something without disrupting the community to such an extent that the community can’t function anymore and it just becomes a roadway for trucks? Most plans I’ve seen are wonderful if you could snap your fingers and make them happen. I would support just about any of them, but they can’t be done that way. The concept of a tunnel, while that sounds attractive, still you have to connect the traffic with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, and if you’re in a tunnel, that makes that almost impossible. And tunneling also takes way too long.
A big fight has been over the number of lanes.
To me, they need to make a decision, and the decision ought to be two lanes in each direction. Two good lanes will come very close to the capacity of the three lousy lanes you had before. The city hasn’t made that decision yet, and I think they should — it has already reduced crashes on the BQE. And congestion pricing will take between 7 and 10 percent of the traffic off the triple cantilever. Remember, I’m only talking about the triple-cantilever section.
Why haven’t we even chosen a plan yet?
The state decided the structure was in dire need of replacement years and years back, and after two years of working with the community, it gave up. The city started this process back up in 2015 or so and could not come to a decision. They proposed putting a highway at the level of the promenade for six years, which was a nonstarter. It actually was a pretty ingenious plan but one that did not take into account the community at all. As I said, there are lots of good proposals out there, but can any of them be built without major long-term disruptions to the community or Brooklyn Bridge Park and within a reasonable cost? That’s the question that should be asked.
So you think the city just needs to pick a plan and sort of go with it.
Absolutely. Not everybody’s gonna be happy there.
With climate change and trying to reduce our reliance on cars overall, why don’t you think we should just get rid of the BQE altogether?
The problem is we still rely way too much on trucks, and we’re gonna be relying on trucks certainly for the next 30 years. I’m recommending fewer lanes and not encouraging car traffic. Congestion pricing will work, but I don’t see a way of taking this expressway out at this time. Narrowing it to two lanes in each direction is a very modest expressway; it’s not what they do in Texas — the Katy Freeway there is now up to 26 lanes and it’s still congested.
One problem people are saying is that we now order way more packages and have seen an increase in delivery trucks since the pandemic. I saw they’re finally getting closer to implementing technology to catch overweight trucks that drive over the BQE. How much will this actually help?
I haven’t seen the statistics on how many overweight trucks use it, but it’s the axle weight that really counts the most and it’s an exponential curve in terms of damage. A car does very, very incremental damage, a truck does more damage, and a very heavy truck does a lot more damage. So it makes sense what the city is doing to monitor that.
I’m just a layperson, but this seems like it’s only buying us a little bit of time.
Yeah, I guess the best analogy is like there’s a cancer within the roadway, and even if you had no vehicles on top of it, the fact is that the salt and the dirt and the water have attacked the reinforcing bars. That’s gonna continue. Even if it had no vehicles on it, the structure is in danger.
So the BQE is literally crumbling, and after all these years we still have no concrete plan. How did we get into this position?
You know, about 25 years ago I wrote a facetious op-ed in the Daily News that said we have to elect two mayors, one for the present and one for the future. We make decisions that are consistent with the term and office of any elected officials, and this will take more than eight years. Adams has six years left — just to get the environmental analysis done is gonna take a couple of years and then to go into design and build this whole structure, it will be well into 2030 before we see a new structure. And it’s not something you could have a ribbon cutting for.
If it’s going to take until at least 2030, do you think the inevitable — a big accident or something — will happen?
I do think, before they have a chance to rebuild this, an engineer will go out there and say you’ve gotta close the right lane or the left lane or you have to ban trucks.
Is it frustrating watching all of this happen in such slow motion?
You know, I’ve been working on congestion pricing for over 50 years. It makes me try to stay in shape so I’ll be around to see many of my projects implemented.