Why Is the Right Answer for the L Train the Wrong Answer for the BQE?

New York City and city residents are going to pay a high price for the 14-month L-train (Canarsie line tunnel) shutdown.  With limited and already crowded alternatives, commuting will become hellish for hundreds of thousand of people, including those on other subway lines that will be impacted indirectly.  Some will move to other neighborhoods, driving up rents and creating housing shortages there.  Others might give up and leave the city altogether, at a moment when the availability of workers, particularly young educated or otherwise talented workers, has become the critical economic development asset.  Businesses and tax revenues will follow.

Faced with this reality, there were plenty of really bad ideas considered before the 14-month shutdown was approved.  Some wanted to rehab one track at a time to continue to provide very limited service, increasing the cost and time required for the project far in excess of any benefit provided.  Others demanded a new tunnel be built instead, at a cost of $billions, to temporarily maintain service while the existing tunnels were rebuilt.  But most subway riders have a limited sense of entitlement and a realistic sense of what the city and state can afford, given other priorities that are also demanding more and more money in exchange for decreased public services, and have accepted the L train shutdown, bad as it will be.

Then there is the replacement of the BQE viaduct under Brooklyn Heights, another necessary but disruptive project.  The plan for this seems to have been developed on a different planet.  Planet placard.


The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) is backing a plan that would temporarily replace the famous Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a six-lane highway during the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street.

DOT says the plan, in which 153,000 vehicles a day would rumble past the back doors of some of the most valuable real estate in Brooklyn, would allow the rehab of the decrepit 1.5 mile stretch of roadway to be completed in six years, as opposed to eight or more years using the typical incremental, lane-by-lane repair approach.

Six years?  Eight years?  A temporary highway that has just as many lanes as the current highway, built at huge cost and later removed so traffic will not in any way be disrupted (but the neighborhood certainly would be)?

The use of eminent domain is not yet being considered at the moment, Collyer said. But he did not rule out that some Columbia Heights residents may have to temporarily move out of their apartments.

So why the difference?  Perhaps drivers have a different level of entitlement.

Absent some people mattering more than others, the right answer for the L train is also the right answer for the BQE.  Do it as fast and as cheap as possible, during the next recession/construction downturn when workers are available and the construction unions and contractors might be willing to offer a better deal.  Or at least stay on the job and finish on time, rather than running off to private jobs with developers who might not hire them next time if they are the ones screwed.

I see two options.

If it is possible to rebuild one level while the other remains in service, then the level still in service could be used as a one-lane road in each direction, with a center breakdown lane to keep things moving in the event of problem.  A road limited to trucks only.  The BQE is one of two major freight routes into the city.

Thousands of trucks from the BQE could be diverted onto the streets of Brooklyn if repairs on the ageing structure aren’t completed before it reaches its expiration date in 2026.

Other vehicles could go elsewhere.

Perhaps the project could be done in three years, rather than six or eight.   I’d bet it took Robert Moses less than three years to build the thing to begin with.  Haven’t there been any improvements in civil construction in the past seven decades?

If it isn’t possible to remove and replace one level at a time, then the right plan is the L-train plan.   And all-out effort to remove and replace in 14 months.   Yes that would be painful and disruptive, but at least it wouldn’t go on for the better part of a decade.

How about mitigation?

Instead of building a temporary highway in Brooklyn, perhaps the two additional lanes on the Staten Island Expressway could be extended all the way to the Goethals Bridge (probably for less money), and those from Staten Island and southwest Brooklyn who insist on driving to Manhattan and Queens could divert through New Jersey instead.

The BQE project could wait until the covered roadway reconstruction in Jersey City – and the Belt Parkway reconstruction in Brooklyn – are finally finished, opening up alterative (though roundabout) routes.

And, of course, more people could join with the serfs and take mass transit.  Even unionized public employees and politicians with placards reserving free parking for them on the street.

And some of those who now choose to use that stretch of the BQE to avoid paying the toll for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, heading for the free Brooklyn Bridge instead, could actually pay up for a while.  Even elected officials and Department of Transportation Administrators.

Some of could pay up for a while rather than take advantage of the one way tolls on the Verrazano and Holland Tunnel by going in one way and out the other.

The BQE is an essential freight route, and losing it for a period of time would hurt.  That period should be as brief as possible.

Otherwise, driving on the BQE is a luxury people choose because it is cheaper an easier than other driving alternatives, and provides a mode of transport separate from the serfs.   There is a limit to how much the serfs should have to pay to maintain that luxury.  As on the L train, do it fast, cheap and right, and get it over with.

(Update — the more I think about the trucks only idea, the more I like it.   Perhaps the road could be permanently built on one level, with two moving lanes and two breakdown lanes, saving on construction.  It could be a $500 fine for non-commercial vehicles to use the road.  With this stretch limited to trucks and vans, fewer other vehicles might use the entire corridor, making the whole thing better for freight movement.

With congestion pricing seemingly imminent, it will make less sense for other vehicles to go out of one’s way to the free bridges rather than the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel anyway.  With a more even split, the perpetual back up as most of those on four lanes of  the Gowanus try to squeeze onto two lanes of the BQE to avoid the tunnel would dissipate.  Those driving to Downtown Brooklyn would exit at Atlantic and Sands.  A one-level, one lane in each direction road for commercial vehicles only would be a freight improvement!)

2 thoughts on “Why Is the Right Answer for the L Train the Wrong Answer for the BQE?

  1. Richard Layman

    wrt my comment about the proposal about the Promenade, I didn’t mean to imply that I thought the proposal for making it over as a temporary highway is a good idea.

  2. Richard Layman

    I don’t know enough about traffic patterns in your city to be able to comment authoritatively. But some of the points you raise reminded me of how the field of “transportation demand management” was created by David Engwicht, an Australian activist who with his neighbors opposed the expansion of a highway. They realized that if they dealt with other ways of executing trips they could reduce motor vehicle traffic overall, thereby reducing the “need” for highway expansion (the book Engwicht wrote is called _Reclaiming our cities and towns: better living through less traffic_). E.g., when you suggested say limiting the BQE to trucks, and keeping one section open while repairing the other, I was thinking about how my sense about your Mayor etc. on these issues, vis a vis congestion in Manhattan, is that you should want to support trucks and service personnel rather than charging them more than automobile vehicles, as the latter likely have a multiplicity of alternatives and support fewer households than the activities conducted via the trucks and service vehicles. Similarly, while yes, the idea of temporarily destroying the promenade is terrible, it has been discovered that with all out programs for communicating about highway closures, you can reduce and shift traffic in helpful ways.

    WRT the L line, I suggested in a post last year or the year before that they should have considered bi-articulated buses.


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