When it comes to the crumbling, congested pollution ribbon that is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, New Yorkers have told the Department of Transportation that they want a "visionary, forward-thinking project for generations to come." Yet according to the DOT presentations made at a community meeting to discuss the BQE's fate on Tuesday night, that vision almost certainly includes six lanes of vehicular traffic.
You might recall that in April of 2021, former Mayor Bill de Blasio reduced the BQE's traffic lanes from three to two in each direction across the half-mile stretch from Atlantic Avenue to the Brooklyn Bridge. This move was not only a crucial (if tiny) step in weaning New Yorkers off of highways, but was physically necessary: In 2020, a group of engineers and experts told him to do this to prevent the BQE from falling down. (The road is old and there are many illegally heavy trucks). And so in his lame duck year, de Blasio mustered the courage to shut down the lanes and punt the larger question of the future of the highway to his successor.
But those lane closures have reportedly caused traffic to back up into the Brooklyn neighborhoods along that stretch of highway, and so the Eric Adams administration is looking to restore those two lanes of road.
It's not clear when this lane restoration will happen—next month? Before congestion pricing takes place? A DOT rep wouldn't say. According to an array of slides presented at Tuesday night's "visioning session" in Brooklyn Heights, all of the new scenarios involve new forms of public space, but also, a six-lane highway. As one source put it to Streetsblog, "That means they’re talking about a highway-widening project, which in this day and age, is insane."
Asked to explain the abundance of six-lane highway renderings in the DOT's plans, Tanvi Pandya, the executive director of the DOT's BQE project department, said, "We need two lanes, minimum. If you have a breakdown, you need to be able to pull off somewhere. That results in the three-lane width of the roadway that we need to account for." A New York Times story has the administration stating that they need six lanes to lock in federal funding, and suggesting that the lane could be used for HOVs, or buses, or trucks.
Kate Slevin, the senior vice president of state programs and advocacy for the Regional Plan Association, pointed out that whenever congestion pricing begins, it will likely reduce traffic on the BQE since many drivers bypass the Hugh Carey Tunnel to use the free Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. "Given this, it would be premature to go back to the six lanes before the implementation of congestion pricing," Slevin told us.
Cindy McLaughlin, a member of the group Coalition for the BQE Transformation, said the highway needs a diet, not another lane.
"I think the whole premise of the project is fundamentally flawed," McLaughlin said. "We are actually retreading and hardening a Robert Moses-era highway and growing a Robert Moses highway without thinking about true sustainable design."
The purpose of Tuesday's meeting was to solicit more input from the community, but none of the groups we spoke to supported the premise of having the BQE be a six-lane highway for "generations to come."
"We seem to move in fits and starts, and now we seem to be moving backwards," said Chris Bastian, a retired transportation planner for the MTA. "We've reduced traffic down to two lanes, and now they want to reverse that. It's planning knowledge that if you add more traffic lanes, you don't reduce congestion, you add more traffic. We want DOT to be much more creative in coming up with the ultimate solution." (The BQE was built to handle 47,000 vehicles a day. It now sees more than 153,000.)
One creative solution that has been embraced by San Francisco, Seattle, and Syracuse: tearing down the BQE altogether. This idea has been advocated by none other than Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the Building Trades Association and noted friend of Mayor Adams.
Tearing down the BQE was not on Tuesday night's menu of options.
Mayor Adams, who in 2019 wrote an op-ed pushing for the BQE to turn into a "green dream” capped with a massive linear park, wants to start construction on the new highway plan within the next five years, with the decision on the big picture plan coming sometime mid- to late next year (with more public meetings scheduled in the weeks and months to come). The construction timeline stretches deep into 2032, just a few years before sea levels are projected to rise by one foot.