How Do You Solve a Problem Like the B.Q.E.?
Good morning. Today we’ll see what the future might hold for the traffic nightmare that is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. We’ll also find out why the district attorney plans to spend $9 million to offer mental health care to people arrested in Manhattan.
Credit…Yuvraj Khanna for The New York Times
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is crumbling from carrying too much traffic — 129,000 vehicles a day. There’s no consensus on what to do to fix it, even though at least a half-dozen plans have been floated in recent years. Now there are more. City officials said on Tuesday that they are considering several design ideas for rebuilding the B.Q.E., which dates to the 1940s. I asked Winnie Hu, who covers transportation and infrastructure, to explain.
One idea that’s under consideration is to put back two lanes on the B.Q.E. that were eliminated just last year, making it a six-lane road again. That sounds like going back to the future at a time when transit advocates have been working to discourage rather than encourage automobiles in the city. What gives?
Yes, one idea is to restore the two lanes that were removed a year ago. The city would rebuild a six-lane highway with three lanes in each direction, which was the original configuration of the B.Q.E.
That is by far the most controversial of the ideas under consideration because you’re correct, a lot of Brooklyn residents and transit advocates have been pushing for fewer cars for reasons that include cleaner air, less noise, improved safety and faster commutes.
It’s important to remember that what the city is presenting right now is a “menu of design ideas,” not an actual plan. City officials have said repeatedly they want community input on these ideas before they move on to engineering drawings, blueprints and construction.
How much worse has traffic been on the B.Q.E. with only four lanes?
Worse, but then again, traffic has been worse on most highways in the New York area since the city opened up after the pandemic. It’s probably not surprising: E-commerce surged, which put more delivery trucks on the streets. Car ownership in the city has also increased, and fewer people are taking subways or car-pooling now.
There have been complaints about more truck traffic in neighborhoods around the B.Q.E. as trucks and cars have gotten off the highway, looking for alternative routes on local roads when the B.Q.E. was backed up.
Those complaints are not the only sign that traffic is up on local roads. The city says that bus speeds on several routes in Brooklyn — the B57, the B61 and the B63 — have declined compared with 2019.
But while traffic on the B.Q.E. is worse since the removal of the two lanes, Hank Gutman, who as transportation commissioner ordered them taken away in 2021, has cited improved safety as a result, because the remaining two lanes were widened, and shoulders were added for cars entrance and exit ramps or to pull over if they break down.
What is the city really looking to accomplish here?
The mayor wants to jump-start this project and begin construction within the next five years.
The B.Q.E. has been crumbling for a long time. The city first sounded the alarm eight years ago. Since then, there have been potential plans and counterplans that have been proposed and studied, with no decisions on how to proceed.
What Mayor Adams has said he wants is to move forward and get something done, in part because he wants to tap into billions of dollars in federal infrastructure money. That money won’t be available forever, so speed is suddenly crucial. But a lot of critics are asking if you can come up with something transformative in this expedited time frame.
At first glance, how transformative are these ideas?
The ideas were essentially three variations on how to rebuild the triple cantilever. The cantilever, if you look at it from Manhattan, is stacked like a wedding cake — three levels of traffic. All three of the variations would cover over the top layer of traffic with landscaping and park space. So even though you will have three lanes going in each direction, you won’t see them when you’re in Brooklyn Heights because there will be green space on top of them.
The city has even come up with a new name for the B.Q.E. Explain.
The city controls 1.5 miles of the B.Q.E., which is roughly 18 miles long. The state is responsible for the rest. City officials have been focusing on that 1.5-mile section, which includes the cantilever. They have rebranded it B.Q.E. Central.
But they have also talked about improvements on the sections of the highway north and south of there that they would have to work out with the state.
The city Transportation Department will be investing roughly $500,000 to work with community organizations along the corridor from Bay Ridge to Red Hook to Greenpoint to look at ways to connect communities that were divided by the highway.
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Mental health care for people arrested in Manhattan
The “criminal justice system must not be the main vehicle for addressing mental and behavioral health,” Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, said in announcing a plan to spend $9 million to offer mental health and housing services to people who have been arrested.
Bragg said people charged with crimes in Manhattan would be connected with mental health and housing services soon after their first court appearances in an effort to speed treatment. He said that “by addressing these human needs, we address the broader needs of public safety.”
He announced his plan as the city continues to struggle with how to handle mentally ill people living on the streets and in the subway system. Bragg’s initiative comes two weeks after Mayor Eric Adams issued a directive giving the police more latitude to remove mentally ill people from streets and subways and hospitalize them involuntarily.
The mayor’s plan is facing a court challenge. Advocates for mentally ill people, arguing that involuntary removals would violate constitutional rights, sought a temporary restraining order last week. On Wednesday, a judge, Paul Crotty, declined to grant it but said he would hold hearings in the case in coming weeks.
Unlike Adams’s plan, Bragg’s initiative will involve voluntary participation by people charged with crimes. Bragg said that some defendants now wait weeks or months before getting access to care.
In the first phase of the plan, 36 social service workers are reaching out to homeless people in five areas of Manhattan to help provide basic items like food and clothing and connect them with behavioral health services and permanent housing.
In the second phase of the plan, social workers will meet defendants in Manhattan criminal court following their arraignments.The social workers can then help defendants get clothing, MetroCards and meals, along with connections to long-term treatment programs and supportive housing. They can also assist defendants to see that they do not miss court appearances as their cases move forward.
Every week since 1976, Metropolitan Diary has published stories by, and for, New Yorkers. Now we’re asking for your help picking the best Diary entry of the year. The voting closes on Monday at midnight.
Holding his newborn daughter in one arm and a Christmas tree in the other, my friend navigated his way down a narrow Astoria sidewalk through a crowd of frustrated pedestrians slowed by a Christmas market.
“Hey,” he shouted to a tree vendor. “Which tree is more expensive — this one or that one?”
“That depends,” the vendor said. “Which one do you like better?”
— Casey Barrett
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Hannah Fidelman and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team [email protected]