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No ‘Big Dig’: Planners likely to take BQE tunnel option off the table

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Dig they won’t.

State and federal transportation officials told civic leaders and residents on Wednesday night that there is not enough money to move ahead on an ambitious — and popular — proposal to bury the aging Brooklyn–Queens Expressway in a tunnel.

Officially, the state Department of Transportation is still considering several tunnel options to replace the crumbling triple-cantilevered portion of the troubled highway, a substandard roadway that is long- overdue for repair.

But planners say they don’t expect to have the estimated $2.2 billion it would cost to bury the BQE under Brownstone Brooklyn, or at the highest end of the spectrum, the $20 billion it would cost to construct an 8.5-mile outboard tunnel from Greenpoint to Sunset Park.

“We are not anti-tunnel,” said Luis Calderon, Transporta­tion’s acting regional program and project manager. “As an engineer, I would love to work on a tunnel project. That would be my dream. But we have to work within the constraints that are given to us.”

Federal planners agreed.

“Most of the tunnel alternatives will be difficult to find reasonable funding sources, said John Formosa, major projects manager with the Federal Highway Administration.

Cheaper proposals include $200 million of surface improvements on the 1.7-mile stretch between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street.

But residents were galled by lower-tech options.

“That looks like a paint job,” sniffed Boerum Hill resident Bill Harris, a member of a state-appointed citizen’s committee involved in the planning of the mega-repair. “I thought we were talking about the future. I thought we were trying to be visionary here, to try to do this so we didn’t have to do it again in another 30 or 40 years from now.”

Federal, state and city money will be needed to pay for the project, officials said, and Uncle Sam’s allotment comes from a pot of money generated from gas receipts divvied up between all the states. New York’s annual share is roughly $2.2 billion for the entire state. The city usually receives about that half of that for all roadway projects.

“We are going to look at demands citywide and what we can afford for this project,” said Uchenna Madu, a director of planning for the state Transportation Department. “There are big constraints.”

But planners insisted that nothing is of the table for now, adding that if elected officials can pony up more money, or hammer out a public-private-partnership, more-expensive options could become feasible.

Residents vowed to put pressure on their pols in hopes of finally building a tunnel to the 21st century.

“We need to stop acting like a Third World country here and start acting more like our neighbors in Europe and Asia — that are doing these projects every single day — and [advance] a vision that will be an improvement for this borough,” said Allen Swerdlowe, an architect participating in the state-sponsored design workshops.

Not everyone was upset that a tunnel might not be in the cards.

“Be careful what you ask for,” said Columbia Street Waterfront resident Steve Abel, who said boring a tunnel could present a range of problems, including property seizures, traffic jams, and damage to existing structures. “The people who want this plan — this futuristic, visionary plan — want it because they believe it will benefit their own backyard. But property values are already high.”

The cheapest tunnel option would be a 1.3-mile structure connecting Kane Street in Cobble Hill with North Portland Avenue in Fort Greene — an environmentally friendly and efficient transportation alternative that will pay for itself over time.

Last year, the state tabled an expansion of the existing BQE after outcry after reports that it would require the seizure of 300 to 400 residences and 50 commercial properties through eminent domain.

Whatever the solution, work must get underway by 2020. The BQE is in desperate need of repairs, as it does not meet federal highway standards, is degrading rapidly, and is prone to traffic tie-ups and accidents.

State planners will return next month to announce which options they intend to cast aside.

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Reader Feedback

Joey from Clinton Hills says:
meh, I never thought a tunnel would happen anyways.
March 31, 2011, 2:30 pm
trans alt from bike nation says:
How about of just getting rid of the damn thing altogether, and watch the asthma rates in Downtown Brooklyn plummet. Build the rail tunnel between Brooklyn and NJ instead.
March 31, 2011, 2:37 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
After what happened in Boston with their Big Dig and those leaks that occured, I am glad this will not be the case. Keep in mind that this was built there after protests of building through Brooklyn Heights. Nobody is against mass transit, but highways are still needed no matter how much the anti-car crowd hates it. When they were built, they were not made to create the car culture, but react to it to help with efficiency. As for asthma, you can also get it from smoking cigarettes and cigars, but I doubt there will be calls to get those banned. If it wasn't for the interstate highway system, you would have trucks constantly going through neighborhoods on local streets, and I know nobody likes that.
April 1, 2011, 12:27 am
mike from GP says:
Tear it down. Make it a boulevard.
April 1, 2011, 8:01 am
Bob from Northern Vermont says:
How about a special tax for the neighborhood surrounding the route since its thier property value that would go up if its in a tunnel.
April 1, 2011, 9:48 am
Bob from NY says:
If work does not have to begin until 2020, why can't they put some money towards it every year before and after 2020. all the money will not be needed by 2020, so we can save for the first payments starting now.

This would be a monumentally-important way to spend our tax dollars. $2.2 billion is not THAT much considering what this could do to improve traffic and quality of life in BK over the life of the tunnel.
April 1, 2011, 10:03 am
epc from DUMBO says:
It’s ridiculous that the state/city is prohibited from using tolls to fund any work on the BQE, tunnel or otherwise. The so–called “gas tax” barely generates enough revenue to fund the existing road network, let alone expansion or rehabilitation.

The ongoing joke of the one–way toll on the Verrazano is helping accelerate damage to the BQE as truck after truck makes the pilgrimage up the BQE, across into Manhattan and out via one of the other tunnels.

As far as the 2020 date goes, I was at the presentation and my understanding is that the work must be well underway by 2020 as the existing infrastructure will be long past its expected lifespan.
April 1, 2011, 10:22 am
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
I know some of those anti-car fanatics will be grilling me for not seeing that Streetfilms on Demolishing Highways, but I did see that. I think that the idea is more of a short term rather than long term. When the Miller Highway portion of NY 9A was taken down, there was the idea to either to bury it or just make it a regular road. The latter was chosen over the former. BTW, the Westway wasn't just opposed due to the high cost, it was also because environmental studies found it to be a bad idea. Seriously, this portion of the BQE isn't even blocking access to anything, so I don't see what's wrong with keeping it as is. How do we know that the construction for the tunnel will not cause sinkholes due to weak foundations? If you asked me, it's cheaper to rennovate than demolish and build an entire new system. Overall, highways may be obstructive and unsightly, but they help get traffic around efficiently.
April 1, 2011, 4:52 pm
trans alt from bike nation says:
Yes, build something like Octavia Blvd in SF, with two way protected bike lanes. Also, put tolls on the East River bridges and double the tolls on them to discourage autos from coming into Brooklyn.
April 1, 2011, 6:50 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Sorry Paul Steely White, but you and your friend Mark Gorton already lost the battle on congestion pricing and on tolling, so you are not going to win this one either. If you asked me, elevated highways work best, because they do not disrupt local roads. Since they are built on top, the rest can just go under it, so they are not a divider such as those either at or below street level. If Robert Moses agreed to build the LOMEX only Canal Street, which would have held it from end to end, there probably wouldn't have been much opposition, because it wouldn't have involved demolition of any property unlike his plan that involved part of Broome Street. Nevertheless, highways are still needed today despite how much you despise them.
April 1, 2011, 7:44 pm
trans alt from bike nation says:
Sorry, Robert Moses, but your days, and that of the automobile, are ending. There will be congestion pricing within the next two years, and the tolls will rise over and over, until you drivers pay for the devastation you wreak on our communities. This section of the BQE, and hopefully more, will be removed, because that is the only thing the city and state can afford to do.
April 1, 2011, 9:27 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Just like the WNBA, the automobile is not going anywhere anytime soon. It's here to stay forever whether you anti-car zealots like it or not. If highways bother you so much for being elevated, which I think works best, then why not find ways to burry the last subway stations that aren't below the ground as well? They are just as much unsightly, but I don't hear you calling for that seeing that you have a bias against cars hence the selective attitude. The rendering of the plan almost looks like the way the BQE was supposed to be built originally. While I won't view Robert Moses as a hero, he was only trying to help with traffic by creating the very highways, and this was after the complaints of traffic being on local roads, so you shouldn't grill him for this. If you asked me, NYC had worse traffic before the highways were built. As for the interestate highways, they are federally owned, so if there is a decision to change it, that must come from the federal government, not the city or state government, and the same would go for US highways as well. Since tolls were brought up, they were supposed to go to help giving the funds, but later governments misused them for their pet projects and keep giving the excuses to raise them when they will continue to misuse them.
April 1, 2011, 10:50 pm
mike from GP says:
Looks like Tal is arguing with himself again.
April 3, 2011, 8:24 am
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
It looks like mike is still bolstering his ego again.
April 3, 2011, 11:39 am
Roland S from New Orleans says:
The BQE occupies a tremendous amount of real estate, especially where it slices diagonally across blocks, and where it connects to the bridges with loop ramps.

Wouldn't it make sense for the DOT to sell this land to help fund the tunnel?
April 5, 2011, 5:44 am
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
What is this real estate you speak off? Then again, wouldn't putting a tunnel actually raise the real estate value rather than lower it? BTW, where the BQE is elevated, it doesn't block anything and many can just go under it. Just like affordable housing, highways are still needed as there is a demand for it. As for the Cross Bronx Expwy that some complain about, most of it was built in an already existing valley, so much wasn't lost except for the Bruckner Interchange. One other thing, taking down this part of the BQE will result in demolition of some of the property that is there, and many are against that.
April 6, 2011, 8:57 pm
jimbob from carrollgardens/redhook says:
the reality is that those trucks have to go somewhere. if we just build a boulevard, it will be jammed with trucks. i say bury the bad boy and develop the bqe's footprint with some sort of mid rise/park mohawk.
Dec. 2, 2011, 9:01 am

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