Idea of ‘Tearing Down the BQE’ Gets Fresh Look as Feds Open Their Wallets

Building-trades honcho Carlo Scissura says that the city should 'get rid' of the decrepit highway and 'start from scratch.'

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Patch
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Patch

The head of a now-defunct panel that was tasked with coming up with ways to repair the beleaguered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is now bruiting the idea of tearing down the Robert Moses-era highway — although the construction-trades honcho would rebuild it in some fashion.

New York Building Congress President & CEO Carlo Scissura — head of the 16-person panel that Mayor de Blasio created in 2019 after he nixed a plan to replace the endangered road by building a temporary highway that would have knocked out the Brooklyn Heights promenade  — said Wednesday that the city should seize the moment and reimagine the entire 11.7-mile corridor from the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn to the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, in light of the new federal infrastructure bill. The legislation includes money to reconnect communities cleaved by highways like the BQE. In August, de Blasio announced plans to shore up the road, punting the fate of the expressway to the next mayor.

“This highway stinks; it’s decrepit, and it has destroyed many communities,” Scissura told business leaders at a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “I am saying, get rid of it, start from scratch!” 

The remarks represent a volte-face for Scissura, who last year told Streetsblog that his panel had never even discussed tearing down the BQE. He now says that the combination of President Biden’s $1.2-trillion infrastructure package, an incoming mayor and a new governor presents an opportunity to swing the wrecking ball. The legislation includes funds for grants of as much as $2 million to “study the feasibility and impacts of removing, retro-fitting, or mitigating” a highway that “creates a barrier to community connectivity, including barriers to mobility, access, or economic development.” The BQE long has blighted the neighborhoods through which it cuts, including Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene and Williamsburg, and contributes to poor air quality and worsening health outcomes, thus meriting such a grant, Scissura said.

“It’s an opportunity to finally, with federal money and a new governor and new mayor coming in, to rebuild the entire BQE into the right road for the future, that incorporates communities, climate change, resiliency and everything that goes with it,” he said. “It’s not ready for climate resiliency. It should not be a road that causes unnecessary pollution and all bad things that come with that.”

Speaking with Streetsblog after the panel discussion, Scissura offered a vision that was light on details, but he mentioned the possibility of building a “tunnel” or even a “boulevard” to replace parts of the road. There is a precedent for the latter idea: Decades ago, when the West Side Highway collapsed, the city turned it into a low-impact, at-grade, tree-lined boulevard.

In 2018, Streetsblog asked then-NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg (who now works for U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg) for her thoughts on the idea of replacing the BQE with a boulevard. She said that she shared Streetsblog’s “desire to see a city someday that has far fewer vehicles and doesn’t need a massive highway,” but added, “I don’t think that’s where the city is right now.”

Times have changed. On Wednesday, Scissura was positively gung ho about tearing down the southern extension of the BQE, the Gowanus Expressway — which runs about six miles through Sunset Park and Red Hook and connects the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel approach, the Prospect Expressway, the Belt Parkway and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. 

“Tear it down means literally tear it down. The Gowanus Expressway should have been torn down 30 years ago,” Scissura said.

Calls for a fresh look at the BQE come months after Blasio announced what he called a “bold” plan to shore up the road for 20 years — an approach, the mayor said, that will “buy time” for the next mayor, or the one after that, to devise a long-term plan. The mayor said at the time that, starting this past summer and fall, the city would “engage affected communities from Staten Island to Queens, including businesses and the freight industry, on a corridor-wide vision for the long-term future of the BQE.” But it’s unclear if that process has started, and a City Hall spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before the mayor’s lackluster announcement, Scissura’s panel recommended in January 2020 that the city nix two of the expressway’s six lanes of traffic in order to reduce the number of gas-guzzling vehicles that rumble across it every day. But de Blasio panned the idea, buying into the false narrative that more space for cars reduces traffic — a theory dispelled by the proven phenomenon known as “induced demand.” He later embraced the plan, and the reduction started in late summer.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson last year dismissed the notion of tearing down the BQE because he said no one had put forward a “responsible” plan for dealing with the more than 150,000 cars and 25,000 trucks that daily use the highway. On Wednesday he said would take a fresh look at the idea. 

“We need to be transformative. This is a gigantic project that’s gonna be around for decades, if not a century, so we need to really plan for the future and be big and innovative and creative with what we do,” he said during an unrelated press conference at City Hall. “Now, with the infrastructure bill passed and the president signing into law, a whole lot of money — I hope New York gets that money — can be used to do something more creative than what was thought of in the past.”

On Tuesday, similarly bolstered by the feds’ historic infrastructure bill, Bronx politicians, environmentalists, and academics renewed their push to cap the Cross Bronx Expressway.