STREETSBLOG GETS ACTION: DOT Chief Accepts Council Offer of Queensboro Bridge Fix Cash

Pedestrians and cyclists going east and west on the Queensboro Bridge share a narrow path. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Pedestrians and cyclists going east and west on the Queensboro Bridge share a narrow path. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

She said yes.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said on Thursday that she welcomes a recent City Council offer — revealed last week in Streetsblog — to cover the cost of turning the South Outer Roadway on the Queensboro Bridge into a badly needed pedestrian lane on the jammed up bridge. The project has long been stalled due to a variety of DOT excuses.

“I was very heartened to see that the Council would be willing to cover the cost of the project,” Trottenberg said at a press conference. “We are very open to sitting down with elected officials, and if some of our assumptions are wrong and we can do this differently and less expensively, we would love to do that. … We have no interest in inflating the cost of this project or saying that it’s any harder than it is. We’re open to brainstorming with everyone who cares about this project to see if there’s another way.”

Council Members Ben Kallos of Manhattan and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens recently told Streetsblog they were willing to use their discretionary budgets to cover the cost of the eight-foot high security fencing that the DOT said is needed to convert the South Outer Roadway into a pedestrian walkway, freeing up the bridge’s northernmost lane for cyclists, who currently share the space with walkers. DOT had said the fencing is a “multi-million dollar” project, but Streetsblog estimated the cost would be around $450,000, based on a similar project on the George Washington Bridge.

Van Bramer and Kallos both said they welcomed Trottenberg’s offer to sit down and hash out a creative solution to separate cyclists and pedestrians on the bridge.

“More New Yorkers than ever are crossing the Queensboro Bridge by foot and bicycle, and allowing enough space for them to social distance is a safety need as well as a smart investment in our bike infrastructure,” Kallos said in a statement. “I’m eager to take Commissioner Trottenberg up on her offer to work with us on a possible solution. Extensive brainstorming has already been done by advocates that we believe could move this along. Whether we need to put up temporary fencing during the pandemic while we wait for a permanent solution or we can integrate this into the ongoing bridge repair work, we are willing to get creative in order to get this done sooner rather than later.”

Van Bramer, for his part stressed that he was ready to put up money for the project and that it couldn’t wait any longer to happen.

“This is a big step for the Queensboro Bridge and for the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians crossing the East River,” the council member said in a statement. “We are in need of solutions and I’m glad to see this process moving forward after years of advocacy. I’m proud to have partnered with my colleague Ben Kallos. I’m actually putting up money to get it done. It takes more than talk. We need this to be done now.”

The campaign to give the South Outer Roadway to pedestrians has been going on for years, but has picked up steam as more New Yorkers have turned to cycling and walking during the coronavirus pandemic. There was a 20-percent jump in bike traffic on the bridge’s cramped bike/pedestrian path in June and July in 2020 compared to 2019, according to a recent op-ed by Kallos and Van Bramer, all of which came after a two-decade rise in pedestrian and cycling traffic on the bridge.

Between 2000 and 2017, bike and pedestrian traffic rose by 200 percent. Throughout the rise in pedestrian and cyclist use, the DOT has refused to take the South Outer Roadway from cars, despite the fact that it was not an automotive lane until Mayor Rudy Giuliani converted the roadway from a bike and ped path in 1996.

In 2019, the de Blasio DOT said that construction on the bridge’s upper roadway prevented the use of the South Outer Roadway for anything but car traffic until construction was finished in 2022. But Trottenberg also rolled out an excuse this year that without a new fence the road would be too dangerous for pedestrians. But now that Trottenberg opened the door to a new schedule, activists and elected officials are promising to hold her to it.

“It’s good to see the DOT be more responsive to the need for better bike access on the Queensboro Bridge, but it has taken too long to get this far,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens. “We know what needs to be done here and have been pleading with the city for years. I stand ready to do whatever is necessary to get this priority project accomplished.”

Transportation Alternatives also welcomed the news and took Trottenberg at her word that the DOT was willing to sit down and get creative.

“We are happy to see the Department of Transportation’s new openness to quick action for the #MoreSpaceQBB campaign,” TA’s Queens organizer Juan Restrepo said in a statement. “The idea of pedestrianizing the South Outer Roadway in 2022 is too slow and a danger to public health — it needs to happen as soon as possible. Over 3,500 bridge commuters who signed our petition agree, pedestrians, cyclists, runners, and more need more space now. Every option needs to be on the table, and we look forward to working with all the elected officials who support the campaign, and the city, to make it happen.”

That was then! Cartoon: Bill Roundy
That was then! Cartoon: Bill Roundy