Cuomo’s Priorities: $2 Billion to Cram More Cars on the Van Wyck

Cuomo on a bus playing with USB
$2 billion to add lanes to the Van Wyck while the transit system slowly fails, but at least we have USB ports on buses.

If the transportation budget he released this week is any indication, Governor Cuomo is serious about spending $1.5 to $2 billion to add lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and its interchange with the Grand Central Parkway, part of a $10 billion overhaul of JFK Airport. Cuomo has allocated half a billion dollars for FY 2018 to get the project started.

The Cuomo administration says a lane will be added to each direction of the Van Wyck “within the highway’s existing right-of-way” and that the new lanes will be managed or tolled “to allow for adjustments depending on demand — including for express bus or HOV service.”

As Cuomo sees it, he’s going to “save motorists a combined travel time of 7.4 million hours annually going to and from JFK,” improve air quality around the highway by reducing emissions by “an estimated 30 percent,” and keep airport-bound traffic off neighborhood streets.

But make no mistake — this is a highway widening that will cost a ton of money and increase traffic. The notion that adding lanes will reduce local traffic or improve air quality runs counter to everything we know about how highways work.

Widening the Van Wyck Expressway won't make it less congested. Photo: Google Maps
Adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway won’t cut traffic. Photo: Google Maps

Empirical experience shows that adding lanes to congested roads leads more people to drive, until the road is congested again. Even if the new lanes prioritize buses, they will still make room for more cars and lead to more traffic in the long run. Those car trips won’t begin and end on the highway — they will burden local streets too.

Ask most New Yorkers how they would spend $2 billion on transportation, and faster highway trips to JFK would probably rank far down the list. The real crisis facing the city is its strained transit network — the subways constantly delayed by signal failures and overcrowding, the buses slowed down by traffic and an antiquated fare system. Cuomo could do far more for New York by shifting his attention and budget resources to address these core problems with the transit network.

Even accepting the premise that the Van Wyck should work better for airport trips, other options could be explored, like converting an existing lane to exclusive use for buses, vans, and high-occupancy vehicles. But Cuomo has jumped right into highway expansion mode.

“The real problem is defaulting to any sort of lane or highway widening expansion without studying the alternatives first,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool told Streetsblog. “That is really the approach that our state DOT should be taking.”