Corey Johnson Would Consider BQE Teardown — If Someone Presents It

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, surrounded by Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill residents who support covering over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to benefit their neighborhoods, said he'd love to tear down the roadway, if there is a "responsible" plan to do so. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Council Speaker Corey Johnson, surrounded by Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill residents who support covering over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to benefit their neighborhoods, said he'd love to tear down the roadway, if there is a "responsible" plan to do so. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

This is where the rubber has to hit the road, people.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson is dismissive of the notion of simply tearing down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — but only, he said on Tuesday, because no one has put forward a “responsible” plan for dealing with the 150,000 cars and 25,000 trucks that use the highway every day.

At a press conference before a transportation committee hearing on the Council’s two visions for the BQE reconstruction, Johnson was initially angered by a Streetsblog question about the proposed expenditure of up to $11 billion to repair and cover over the pollution-spewing highway, but then gave a full-throated answer that challenged activists to change his mind about the need to replace the Robert Moses-era roadway.

The exchange is telling:

Streetsblog: We live in an age of climate change in a city with a rising waterline, pollution-induced asthma, 800,000 daily Uber and Lyft trips, and an MTA that can’t fund its capital plan. How do we know that if you spend $3 to $11 billion enshrining another highway, a different type of highway to fix what you called the mistakes of the Robert Moses era, how do we know we won’t come back in 30 years and call this the ‘Corey Johnson era of highway construction’?

Speaker Johnson: Gersh, come on.

Streetsblog: It’s a legitimate question.

Johnson: We are considering the environmental issues. …  The [originally proposed] DOT plans were unacceptable and were not forward-thinking. [The Council’s] two plans are not my plans. I am not a traffic engineer. I’m not that smart. I wish I was. [The engineering firm] Arup looked at the existing plans and ways to modify those plans. … Again, if there is a legitimate way to figure out all the issues that we care so deeply about — and I think I’ve shown my mettle on, time and again, when it comes to transportation, the environment, prioritizing mass transit, making this city safer for pedestrians and cyclists — if there is a way to do this better, I’m all ears. I’m not wedded to something. I’m not saying I love any of these. … I will ask Arup what it would look like to potentially tear the BQE down. Could that be done in a responsible way? I have not heard that it could be done right now. If there is a way, and the Regional Plan Assocation, Transportation Alternatives and other great groups have ideas on that, I am all ears. I am not sure at this moment in time, given the 25,000 heavy vehicles that use it every day, given that we are not [so far] getting federal approval for congestion pricing … and additional express bus service and increased subway capacity, given all those variables, I don’t see how you do what you’re talking about in a responsible way. If there is, I’m all ears.

There is, in fact, plenty to hear. Traffic engineer Sam Schwartz has documented several factors that can enable a BQE teardown, or at least a dramatic reduction in the roadway, given the onset of congestion pricing next year.

Presenting to the mayor’s “expert” panel last year, Schwartz immediately called for the roadway to be narrowed from six lanes to four.

“Traditionally highway engineers routinely added capacity as roadways were rebuilt. However, today many planners and even traffic engineers are challenging that approach,” Schwartz’s report said. “As capacity is reduced, traffic volumes overall decline.”

Schwartz cited the most famous case: The demolition of San Francisco’s elevated Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

“Officials decided not to rebuild the highway and simply provide an at-grade roadway,” Schwartz said. “A quarter-century later, the Embarcadero area, as well as all of San Francisco, is thriving; it is doubtful any official would ever suggest rebuilding it.”

Congestion pricing will reduce traffic on the BQE by roughly 11 to 14 percent in peak hours and directions, Schwartz said. But Charles Komanoff, who created the Balanced Transportation Analyzer model that Schwartz used for his report said that once congestion pricing begins, up to one-third fewer drivers may end up entering Manhattan via the three East River bridges served by the BQE — more evidence that the roadway is less needed than many public officials think.

Schwartz’s report also indicated that there are many ways to reduce traffic on the BQE, such as restricting the Gowanus Expressway to HOV-3 vehicles only, closing some exit and entrance ramps on the BQE, encouraging more cars (via pricing) to use the Battery Tunnel, and, most important, completely reforming the freight industry with the establishment of truck ferries and barges across the harbor, allowing some small trucks on the Belt Parkway, and finally building a the long-sought freight tunnel.

The Regional Plan Association also did not call for removing the highway entirely, but its report last year also said that traffic mitigation strategies and improved mass transit could make the roadway increasingly unnecessary — or certainly not require the kind of roadway we know and hate today.

“[Our] results … strongly suggest that traffic management strategies would make it easier to consider a wider range of highway reconstruction or replacement options,” the RPA said.

The group’s senior transportation fellow Rachel Weinberger agreed with Johnson that there’s no “simple answer” to removing the highway. “Our analysis clearly shows a narrower (four-lane) highway is possible and if there is a will to take that further to an even smaller highway, or none at all, then we’d be open to seeing that studied.”

She was confident that Johnson would be amenable: “Corey has been a champion for safer streets and more public transit and is clearly trying to move toward a more efficient and climate focused solution here,” she added.

It’s not as if Johnson has not indeed been thinking about such things. Another reporter asked him if his support for rebuilding the highway suggested that he had abandoned his call to “break the car culture.” Johnson gave a similar answer, though without the initial peevishness.

If you just tore the BQE down without a mitigation plan for what would happen to all of that vehicular traffic, I think it would be pretty difficult. Now, I do believe in [the theory of] induced demand. We’ve seen it work on 14th Street, with the busway. But in this instance, the trucks would need to be redirected — and they would likely be redirected on the local side streets up and down the corridor, not just where the triple-cantilever is. … Part of what [Tuesday’s Council hearing] is about is talking about how you reduce the footprint of a future highway moving forward, decrease lanes, and reclaim that space for pedestrians and cyclists and for parkland and for mass transit users. How can you do all of those things? When you do those things, you are breaking the car culture and saying we are not going to live under the paradigm of Robert Moses and will think out a way moving forward. … I haven’t seen any of the wonderful great transportation advocacy groups or think tanks or policy groups that do all the smart work of thinking about our region put forward a plan that would tear down the BQE and deal with all those issues I just talked about. If there is a plan that does that, I would consider that.