De Blasio Promises to Fix McGuinness Blvd. After Hit-and-Run Driver Killed Teacher — But Details are Few

Mayor de Blasio had promised to fix McGuinness Boulevard when he attended a vigil for Matthew Jensen. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Mayor de Blasio had promised to fix McGuinness Boulevard when he attended a vigil for Matthew Jensen. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

He talked the talk. And then he walked the walk. But in the end, he kinda balked.

Mayor de Blasio joined dozens of mourners at a vigil and march for Greenpoint teacher Matthew Jensen, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver on McGuinness Boulevard earlier this month — and vowed to fix the deadly 1.1-mile roadway, where at least three people have been killed by drivers and 411 people have been injured in the last 10 years. But he also gave little indication that he would tame the wild roadway before leaving office in just over seven-months.

Beloved teacher Matthew Jensen.
Beloved teacher Matthew Jensen.

“Everyone, it’s time for profound, real change to protect the people of this city!” the mayor said forcefully, exhorting the mourners in a pep rally of sorts in support of a slate of new laws in Albany. But the mayor also said he would change what he is able to change here at home.

“We’re going to apply Vision Zero right here right now on McGuinness Boulevard because it is long overdue,” he said to cheers at the rally, which was put together by freshman Assembly Member Emily Gallagher. “We are putting money in the budget immediately to redesign and fix McGuinness Boulevard. … It’s time. We’re putting the money there.”

Details were not provided. “We are going to come to the community and say, ‘How does need to look for it to work for everyone?'” the mayor said, but then added, “We are just going to just plain do it. We have to do it now to save lives.”

Pressed for details by Streetsblog, City Hall spokesman Mitch Schwartz said: “[We are] putting money in the budget to commission a study to redesign the boulevard. Study will include community outreach efforts to give Greenpoint a seat at the table and ask the whole community how they want this redesign to look.” [Update: After initial publication of this story Schwartz wrote back and said there will also be money allocated for a capital redesign, not just a study.]

A study?

McGuinness Boulevard has been under the microscope for more than a decade.

In 2010, after Neil Chamberlain and Solange Raulston were killed months apart on McGuinness, Transportation Alternatives went to the intersection of Nassau Avenue, where cyclist Raulston was killed in late 2009, and found that drivers violate traffic laws every 17 seconds — and fail to yield to pedestrians every two minutes.

Two years later, the McGuinness Boulevard Working Group put out a new study that showed that two out of three motorists speed on McGuinness (when the speed limit was 30 miles per hour).

“Speeding along McGuinness Boulevard has been a problem for as long as I can remember and it’s getting worse,” Council Member Steve Levin said at the time. “We have to get speeding under control for the safety of bicyclists, pedestrians and other drivers.”

The speed limit was dropped to 25 miles per hour in 2014, but little else was done to make the roadway — a four-lane speedway shortcut between the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Pulaski Bridge — safer. At the time of the speed limit reduction, 10 pedestrians and two cyclists had been killed on McGuinness between 1995 and 2013. Since then, one more pedestrian and one more cyclist have been killed.

Overall since 2013, there have been 1,548 reported crashes, injuring 40 cyclists, 59 pedestrians and 236 motorists. That’s basically one crash every other day.

Gallagher could not be reached for comment after the mayor promised a new study, but it’s likely she’ll be underwhelmed, given her remarks at the vigil and to Streetsblog beforehand. She said that McGuinness was one of the main reasons she even ran for the Assembly — taking on and besting veteran pol Joe Lentol — after a decade of community activism centered on the notorious roadway, formerly Oakland Street until it was renamed for a Brooklyn pol in the 1960s.

“We’ve known forever that we need a complete do-over on McGuinness,” she said. “In the 1950s, after the Pulaski Bridge was built, the sidewalks were narrowed to create more space for cars. We need to undo that damage. We don’t just need enforcement. We need to redesign this road so that people are forced to slow down. There is political will to do this.”

It would be easy to say that road violence is personal to Gallagher — she lost a friend in a crash in 2012 — but the fact is, McGuinness can strike at any time.

“Every single one of us knows it could be any one of us,” she said.

Elizabeth Adams, who is running to succeed the term-limited Levin, said she was encouraged by the mayor’s words, but want to hold him accountable for his promise of actually fixing McGuinness.

“On such a tough day in a sad week, it was great to see the mayor commit to redesign of McGuinness Boulevard with the funding to make it possible,” she said. “We need to ensure the plan comes with accountability and a concrete timeline for immediate change. I look forward to seeing more details to come — with just months left in the term, it is important that the process for redesign itself gets started immediately, and doesn’t become bogged down in bureaucracy.”

Her rival for the 33rd District seat, Lincoln Restler, voiced similar concerns about the commitment — and basically said the mayor was making promises that his successor would have to keep.

“The commitment today to dedicate funding and engage the community in a redesign of McGuinness is a meaningful start, but we know well that the Greenpoint community will need to hold the next mayor accountable to make the transformation of McGuinness a reality,” he said

Also at the vigil in McGolrick Park, John Ogren spoke eloquently about his beloved cousin, a teacher at PS 110 just a few blocks from the crash site at Bayard Street, sobbing as he showed off Jensen’s bent keys and smashed cellphone.

“When I got the call, I heard it was McGuinness and I wasn’t surprised,” he said of the early morning May 18 crash. Like de Blasio, Ogren called on Albany officials — including State Senators Julia Salazar, John Liu and Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Members Brian Kavanaugh and Gallagher, who were all on hand on the extraordinary event — to “do something to save people’s lives.”

“We didn’t want to lose another Matty,” he said.

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After the vigil in the park, the mourners — mostly children from Jensen’s school and their parents — walked to the intersection where the teacher was struck by a hit-and-run driver in a Rolls Royce, according to police. (De Blasio said, “We will find the driver,” but the NYPD told Streetsblog that no arrests have been made — 10 days after a crash that involved a rare automobile that, no doubt, has significant body damage and would therefore be easy to find.)

The mayor, who rarely attends the seemingly weekly vigils for struck cyclists and pedestrians, made the full walk — a testimony to the impact Jensen had on his community. The mayor talked to grieving neighbors and street safety activists as the procession moved along Driggs Avenue, once a safe, car-free open street that has been reclaimed by drivers after an open streets volunteer was assaulted by anti-open street vigilantes and barricades were stolen by a worker in an Amazon-branded van (the company denies involvement). The mayor expressed his concern that the open street is no longer being barricaded every day.

At the site of Jensen’s death, de Blasio placed a bouquet of flowers and held a moment of silence, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and McGuinness Boulevard looming, homicidally, behind him.

The mayor during the moment of silence, the deadly Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and McGuinness Boulevard behind him.
The mayor during the moment of silence.