NYSDOT is so misunderstood. When they say “here’s our Standard alternative for the highway” and show a map of a highway plowing through a dense brownstone neighborhood of Brooklyn, they can’t understand why people get upset!
That was the scenario at the May 26 stakeholders’ meeting for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Downtown Brooklyn EIS – a project that aims to fix and upgrade the crumbling BQE through Downtown Brooklyn, from Atlantic Avenue to Sands Street, including the “Triple Cantilever” in Brooklyn Heights.
In presenting three very preliminary alternatives for the project, the State DOT presented the “Standard” alternative, a concept design that shows the highway alignment if all of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ safety and operational standards (for curve radius, lane width, etc.) were applied. Because these standards are largely one-size-fits-all, many are simply inapplicable to an area as built-out as NYC. That said, the Standard alternative provides a useful model by which to measure other (more realistic) alternatives.
Unfortunately, the name “Standard” came off to many members of the public as an adjective, as in “this is the standard way we do things.” Did we mention that the alternative blasts through five blocks of the Brooklyn Heights historic district?
To be clear, the State DOT doesn’t plan to make half the neighborhood homeless, and its efforts to include all relevant stakeholders in the design and review process ought to be commended. But the agency isn’t helping its cause by scaring the living daylights out of everyone in the room.
In response to a TSTC letter gently critiquing their presentation, the project manager admitted, “We discussed various ways to present this information to the [stakeholders committee] and in retrospect probably could have been clearer in what we were trying to convey.” He went on to explain that they chose to err on the side of more disclosure rather than risk appearing to do the planning “behind closed doors.”
The Best Approach May Be The Least Studied
Unfortunately, the problems with the BQE project go beyond the State DOT’s communications. While design is its nascent stage, each of the three design concepts presented appear fatally flawed.
- As described above, the “Standard” alternative’s impacts are so extensive that it is essentially precluded from consideration.
- A “Tunnel” option, a proposal to dig a tunnel under downtown Brooklyn for through traffic, will likely fail on two grounds, the first being its likely excessive cost, the second that it essentially results in two highways: the tunneled-through BQE and a “collector/distributor” road kept on the existing right of way.
- An “Improved Existing Corridor” design involves extensive expansion of the road on its current right-of-way, encroachment on parks, and impacts to the Brooklyn Heights promenade. It also appears to create room for ill-advised future traffic lanes.
Because of the area’s extreme density, the best answer to many operational and safety questions may be in alternatives that do not rely on extensive build-outs. The project team said they would study several options that could hold the key to balancing the needs of the community with the operational needs on the road, such as roadway pricing strategies and user fees, transit improvements, demand reduction strategies and freight management. Currently, these strategies are not a component of the design concepts (that is, it appears that the road alignment alternatives and these “system and demand management” options are being studied in isolation from one another). It is still extremely early in the design process, so this omission will hopefully be corrected later on.