Gridlocked: Brooklyn Heights BQE Redesign Is Stuck in Limbo

reprints


Talk about stop-and-go traffic. 

Less than a month ago, the Federal Highway Administration rejected New York City’s application for a grant that would have provided $800 million in funding to replace the decaying triple cantilever portion of the 11-mile Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, raising questions about how the city will finance and construct a proposed $5.5 billion replacement of the highway. The rejection — for which the federal agency has provided no reason publicly —  comes as communities along the BQE question why it continues to stand at all, casting shadows on streets and inflicting millions of tons of toxic exhaust on outer-borough neighborhoods. 

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The cantilever — planned and constructed under Robert Moses back in the 1940s and 1950s — overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park and includes two elevated road levels for cars. It is also attached to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a park that runs along the East River waterfront in front of some of the neighborhood’s most expensive homes. 

In January 2020, before the pandemic struck, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio commissioned a special panel and report on what to do about the triple cantilever and the larger issue of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which has been a blight on Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods and western Queens since it was constructed 80 years ago. Other proposals date back even further, with one in 2018 proposing a temporary highway through Brooklyn Heights while the cantilever was replaced. 

The de Blasio panel’s report found that the entire BQE had significantly deteriorated, and that the triple cantilever would need to be repaired immediately. The triple-decker portion of the highway sits atop Furman Street and runs from Joralemon Street north to the Brooklyn Bridge, curling east toward the bridge around Orange Street. The city Department of Transportation (DOT) discovered that two of the spans would need to be fixed by this year, and the entire structure would need to be replaced by 2034, according to the report. 

The triple cantilever is attached to the side of Brooklyn Heights rather than perched on metal pillars like the elevated portions of the highway, which means that it poses an even greater danger to neighbors if it fails. It’s also a more complex engineering challenge to rebuild without completely disrupting car travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Besides the urgent fixes, the report recommended a complete reimagining of the larger BQE corridor, which stretches from Staten Island to Queens, with the aim of removing the elevated portions and capping the stretches that are sunk in a trench below street level. 

The cantilever wasn’t engineered for the weight of modern-day cars and trucks, which has prompted DOT to install weight sensors and reduce the number of lanes that cars can use. Last fall, the agency even closed the triple cantilever for a few weekends to conduct long overdue repairs. 

Mayor Eric Adams and his administration have made some strides toward fixing the cantilever, but many advocates and observers feel that the process isn’t moving fast enough. The city convened what it called the BQE Visioning Council with representatives from local community boards and neighborhood groups in September 2022. Then, in December of that year, DOT released three proposals for reconstructing the triple cantilever, all of which involved adding green space on top of the car lanes. Two regular car lanes would be constructed in each direction, plus a third that would be used as a shoulder or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) and bus lane. Local groups are hoping to see proposals that reduce the number of cars traveling through the neighborhood, rather than simply rebuilding three lanes in each direction. 

“We are hoping that this is actually a new opportunity for the city to rethink and reconsider the plans that they had submitted to the government for repair of the triple cantilever,” said Lara Birnback, the head of the Brooklyn Heights Association, which has been involved in negotiations around the triple cantilever since 2019. “The structure needs work. But we felt very strongly that the plans the city had put forward didn’t have the support of communities, and that city DOT was proposing was expanding the highway over people and neighborhoods.”

Birnback also felt that the Adams administration didn’t want to undertake most of the repairs proposed by the de Blasio administration, because it planned to replace the structure quickly enough that they wouldn’t be necessary.

“What they have committed to doing is some of the repairs,” said Birnback. “Their argument against doing the repairs that de Blasio wanted them to do is that it would be expensive. Their vision is, ‘Why would we spend all this money on repairs when we’re going to come up with some new vision?’ ” 

Although the city has hosted a series of public meetings over the past two years, it has yet to settle on a final design for the reconstruction of the triple cantilever or a larger vision for the rest of the BQE. The city controls only the triple cantilever portion, while the state owns the rest of the highway and must sign off on design changes or major repairs. 

“Even if the city did have a vision for the other parts of the highway, it can’t do anything without the help of the state,” said Birnback. “The state has been very reluctant to come to the table and engage in a long-term visioning process.” 

A state Department of Transportation spokesperson said that the agency had applied for its own federal planning and design grant jointly with the city to “further define concepts along the [BQE] corridor based on community and stakeholder engagement.” The planning grant was focused on what the city calls “BQE North and South,” which are the state-owned portions on either end of the triple cantilever. However, the state DOT told Streetsblog last month that it has “no plans” to “redesign the state-owned portion of the BQE.” 

The Federal Highway Administration, for its part, said in a statement that it doesn’t discuss why it rejects grant applications. 

“The USDOT doesn’t comment on specific project selection (the selection criteria is published for each round in the NOFO), but all unsuccessful applicants are offered the opportunity for a debrief,” said a spokesperson for the agency. “As noted in the press release here, despite historic levels of funding, these programs continue to be significantly oversubscribed and therefore very competitive, with the Mega program receiving 117 applications requesting $24.7 billion in funding this round alone.”

Daniela Castillo, a program director at South Williamsburg neighborhood advocacy group El Puente, called the state-owned trench portion of the highway by the Williamsburg Bridge “a scar in the community. All the exhaust and fumes and pollution go directly into the parks that line the BQE, and it has had extremely detrimental health and environmental impacts.” 

Castillo added that “the state is inching closer to being at the table,” but still has not discussed plans for the BQE with community members. Her organization hopes to cap and cover the South Williamsburg trench, and add parks and community space on top. 

“The Southside community deserves the green space that it has wanted for so long, but it needs to come with community ownership and maintenance,” she said. “Community centers and that kind of programming — reclaiming the land as open space for recreation.”

Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Transportation claims that getting rejected for the $800 million federal grant won’t delay the reconstruction of the triple cantilever, which is supposed to begin in 2027. However, the city hasn’t settled on a final design out of the three it presented to neighbors, and it has not undertaken an environmental review for the project. Finally, it has not lined up any other federal funding for the nearly $6 billion effort. The city DOT said that it’s common for agencies to submit multiple applications to the federal government before being approved for funding, and that it plans to re-apply.

“We are committed to delivering a long-term fix for the city-owned portion of the BQE while developing projects to reconnect communities along the highway’s entire corridor in Brooklyn,” said a DOT spokesperson. “We are grateful to our federal and state partners on this project, and to the many communities that continue to provide feedback as we work for the best possible project for Brooklyn and for our city. This is only the beginning.”

Carlo Scissura, who chaired the BQE redesign panel under de Blasio and who is now the president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, felt that the process was moving forward under Adams, albeit slowly. Contrary to what advocates said, Scissura felt the state was involved in the planning effort. 

“The fact that the state is involved with the city and they’re coordinating and working together is a great deal,” Scissura said. “I was a little disappointed that the feds did not approve the grant request, but the project is not really ready for a final approval. They have to go through the EIS [environmental impact statement] process. I feel better about where we are today than a year ago. I’m seeing steps in the right direction. Once the city has a plan, they can go to the feds and say, ‘We have a plan, we’re ready.’ ”