Mayor Eric Adams has decided to nix former Mayor Bill De Blasio’s plans to fix up parts of the aging Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), specifically a 1.5 mile, triple layered section of the highway underneath the iconic promenade located in downtown Brooklyn. Instead Adams is opting to seek out more long-term solutions and repair the entire corridor.
“Our moment is right now. I will not wait decades and needlessly spend hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars when we can and must start rebuilding this vital transportation artery today,” said Adams in a statement.
The entire six lane highway is approximately 35 miles long, built in 1944 by city planning juggernaut Robert Moses. Moses has become infamous for designing urban highways that catered to the upper, middle class while bifurcating and decimating poorer Black and Brown neighborhoods in the 1940s and ’50s. His roads were not only racially impactful, they were harmful to the environment as well.
The only reason the triple cantilever section of the BQE, from Sands Street to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights, was built was because it would run through an affluent neighborhood. The community and electeds fought back. Other low income communities without adequate representation in city government in Red Hook, Williamsburg, and Bushwick were not that lucky.
Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D, District 33) currently represents the Brooklyn Heights area where the triple cantilever is located. “I think one piece of highway fits into a broader interstate highway,” said Restler. “The reality here is that the BQE has divided, polluted, and all together ravaged neighborhoods for the better part of 70 years. And there are many communities that have been negatively impacted by the BQE. Each neighborhood should undergo planning and visioning to think through what a future could and should look like.”
Restler said that the city must do better than simply restoring the “Robert Moses-era relic” and innovatively build a sustainable and environmentally friendly highway. He added that the “degree of urgency” in Brooklyn Heights is a little more pressing, however, because the cantilever is literally “crumbling before our eyes.” Restler said he is laser-focused on making sure that the mayor and city DOT prioritize the community’s safety with urgent repairs.
The triple cantilever hasn’t had major repairs from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) since its construction, and the city’s DOT figures said that trucks may need to be banned by 2026 based on the deterioration rate if something isn’t done. In 2021, de Blasio put out a plan to preserve the triple cantilever section for another two decades. The plan included doing small repairs and maintenance, stopping water infiltration to slow down corrosion, and shifting the lanes from three to two to cut down on traffic.
“Our bold, corridor-wide approach will more quickly deliver the safe, modern, resilient structure we need, while confronting the racism built into our infrastructure by reconnecting communities divided by this highway,” continued Adams. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access the federal funding necessary to reimagine and rebuild the BQE that a post-pandemic economy and city demand, and we are seizing it.”
The Regional Plan Association (RPA) organization first recommended the construction of the BQE in the 1920s and ’30s. Nowadays they’ve switched gears as an advocacy group for reducing car dependency. RPA also made some of the major recommendations in the ‘Reimagining the BQE’ report that were adopted into de Blasio’s rehab plans for the triple cantilever.
RPA Executive Vice President Kate Slevin said that there are compelling reasons to address the whole highway instead of one section. She advocated that congestion pricing, approved by former Gov. Cuomo and the state, should be designed to reduce traffic on the BQE.
“A percentage of the cars and trucks using that portion of the BQE are actually diverging past the tolled Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to avoid the toll,” said Slevin. “Once you put congestion pricing in place there will be less traffic on the BQE and that, along with other reduction strategies, should be pretty doable to not have a big impact on traffic.”
Slevin said that there are plenty of alternatives to permanently solve the issue with the BQE cantilever. Some people have proposed putting the highway in a tunnel with a park on top or decking it over with land over the highway to make more parks and walkways, said Slevin.
The more extreme solutions would be to remove the highway altogether, like upstate in Rochester, where the Inner Loop East Transformation Project converted a major highway into a boulevard with sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Or, in Seattle, Washington, where the Alaskan Way Viaduct was buried underground to open up waterfront space for parks and housing, said the RPA.
Ultimately, said Slevin, it’s up to state funding and approval as to what happens to the BQE since it’s technically a state road. She said with public outreach, environmental impact studies, lining up federal funding, and then actual construction, “At the end of the day you need both the mayor and the governor to endorse the plan.”
Considering Adams announced this week that he would be endorsing Gov. Kathy Hochul for reelection, further collaboration on BQE plans shouldn’t be too hard in the coming years.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w