Shrinking Highways: Could the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Be the First?

Highways have been razed, replaced with boulevards, and streets have been placed on road diets, but what about lane reductions on interstate highways? That's one recommendation in a report released Thursday by a panel of experts on the BQE.

5 minute read

February 3, 2020, 5:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

BravoKiloVideo / Shutterstock

The Manhattan cordon pricing project, while approved and funded, is still very much a concept, but it is already having a transformative effect on other parts of the city. Winnie Hu, a reporter on the Metro desk of The New York Times focusing on transportation and infrastructure, writes about a report released January 30 on the BQE Atlantic [Avenue] to Sands [Street] project 

"The idea of shrinking the highway to four lanes from six is a remarkable shift for the city, which, like the nation, has been shaped by a car-centric culture and is now wrestling with the consequences, including gridlocked streets, polluted air and rising pedestrian and cyclist deaths," writes Hu.

[Contributor's comment: Add climate change to that mix of auto-induced woes: Since 2017, transportation has replaced power generation as the nation's largest source of carbon emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicles, like the ones using the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (Interstate 278), comprising 82 percent of the sector's emissions.

That is the key recommendation from a panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio that was tasked with coming up with a rescue plan for a key stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which is rapidly falling apart under the weight of 153,000 vehicles a day, more than three times what it was built to handle.

The notion of eliminating highway lanes is realistic because of another ambitious effort to move cars off the road: congestion pricing. Next year [hopefully], New York will  become the first American city to charge a fee to drive into the busiest areas of Manhattan.

The report [pdf] indicates (on pg. 20) that the Manhatten cordon-pricing project "is expected to end bridge shopping by equalizing costs at all facilities. This means fewer vehicles using the three Brooklyn to Manhattan bridges and more traffic at the two tunnels currently tolled."

"If the panel’s recommendation to reduce lanes is adopted [by the city’s Transportation Department], it would be the first time in decades that a major highway in the city would be made smaller, and it would run counter to established traffic management policies to expand highways in response to greater demand, according to transportation experts," adds Hu.

Actually, this correspondent thinks it would be the first time that an interstate, or perhaps any freeway or major highway in the U.S. underwent a lane reduction, as opposed to outright removal. Even the Portland area value pricing project, which would toll all lanes on two stretches of urban interstates, would potentially add lanes to "improve bottlenecks."

“It’s just not in the DNA of most highway agencies to build smaller,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, a transportation consultant who advised the B.Q.E. panel. “We’ve gone through a 70-year period of adding and widening but this is a failing strategy. It’s like solving the obesity problem by loosening your belt.”

Speaking of tolling...

The panel included that consideration in their recommendations on page 45 of the 72-page report [pdf], listed under "Other Pricing Strategies to Reduce Demand:"

Make the BQE, within the study area, HOT. At a number of freeways around the country, highway lanes are dedicated to high occupancy vehicles (usually two or more) and driver-only cars that pay a toll. These High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes often are priced based on real-time traffic conditions. The BQE in the study area could be reserved for only cars with two or more occupants. Driver-only vehicles would be allowed but must pay a toll. The toll could be a variable based on real-time conditions or based on construction phases. A variation would be to just make the ramps to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges “HOT.” 

There's only one interstate that is "all HOT" – the 66 Express Lanes Inside the Beltway in Northern Virginia, and it is, in this correspondent's opinion, the best model of congestion pricing in the nation due to the fact that all lanes are tolled, albeit only during peak hours; the tolls are "uncapped," and revenue is used to improve public transit, carpooling, and biking alternatives. The most recent performance report shows that daily trips decreased while the average toll paid by drivers increased.

Why not remove it altogether?

The day before the report was released, Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller and a likely candidate for mayor next year, according to Hu, had an op-ed published in the Daily News, "A better future for the BQE: A park instead of giant parking lot." [Also available on the comptroller's website.]

We are wasting a key moment in our city’s history if we simply repair dilapidated highways and perpetuate a car culture that isn’t working...

It’s time to embrace a new vision of a greener, more pedestrian-friendly city. That’s why I’m proposing a plan to convert a two-mile stretch of the BQE into a linear park — in part by decking over the so-called Cobble Hill trench, essentially a concrete moat that cleaves the neighborhood — and create space at street level for parks, ball fields and other amenities New Yorkers want and need in their communities.

Missing in the op-ed is what, if anything, would go below the deck of that trench. A post last March indicated that Stringer's plan would have truck-only traffic running below it.

Comptroller Scott Stringer's idea for the BQE would not affect the promenade and would add a significant amount of park space. "His plan calls for converting the triple cantilever and the Cobble Hill trench—a depression of the BQE that runs from Congress Street to Hamilton Avenue—into a truck-only highway topped with a nearly two-mile-long 'linear park."

The report (page 9) noted the importance of the roadway to trucks. The BQE "is the only interstate in Brooklyn and handles substantial freight traffic through Brooklyn and Queens...This indicates a continuing need for reliable freight movement along the BQE corridor."

Carlo A. Scissura, the chairman of the B.Q.E. panel and the president and chief executive of the New York Building Congress, a trade association for the building industry, added (in source article): “The reality is there must be a B.Q.E. and there has to be a place for trucks to travel, but we need to limit the trucks and we need to cut down the traffic.” 

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Bill Beren.

Saturday, February 1, 2020 in The New York Times

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