Testimony at the New York City Council Oversight Hearing on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am Kate Slevin, Senior Vice President at the Regional Plan Association, and I am joined by Rachel Weinberger, RPA’s Senior Transportation Fellow. RPA is a non-profit civic organization that conducts research, planning and advocacy to improve economic opportunity, mobility, environmental sustainability and the quality of life for those who live and work in the New York metropolitan region. 

With a team at RPA, Rachel and I co-authored RPA’s report last year Reimagining the BQE -- the first of a number of publications that have called for a narrower BQE and a more community-focused planning process. Our President and CEO, Tom Wright, was on the Mayor’s BQE Panel established shortly after that report’s release. 

We applaud the City Council for holding this hearing and pursuing this report with Arup, and for Speaker Johnson’s steadfast support of reducing car dependency in our city. We urge everyone to read the full Council report, because the Tunnel suggestion is one small portion of an overarching plan. 

We broadly support the Council’s recommendations on the BQE, including narrowing the highway, creating a joint City and State entity to manage the project, embarking on a community driven process, and creating a long term vision for the broader BQE and Prospect Expressway. We have called for many of these same approaches.  

Beyond the benefits from a traffic and sustainability perspective, which Rachel will talk about in a minute, reimagining the BQE as a smaller thoroughfare is a more fiscally responsible proposal than keeping the six-lane highway. The projected cost of fixing the triple-cantilever portion alone is $3-4 billion, one of the most expensive projects in the City’s capital program, and the Arup report puts  the BIG/Baker idea to cap the highway and expand public space similar in cost. We will only reduce costs by doing this in a more efficient way. 

Lane reduction, in particular, is a key recommendation of the Council’s report and of the Mayor’s panel, and one we strongly endorse. From a global perspective, cities across the US and countries around the world are taking lane reduction to the end conclusion and eliminating outdated highways altogether. They are replacing hotbeds of pollution with walkable green spaces, all with no discernible negative impact on traffic but instead great benefit to the surrounding community.

RPA’s analysis found that a four-lane highway could easily accommodate existing traffic especially after the implementation of congestion pricing. A combination of congestion pricing and new transit options could easily reduce traffic on the BQE by 15-20%, according to our analysis and the Mayor’s BQE Expert Panel. The split tolls on the Verrazano are also predicted to reduce traffic on the BQE. Other travel demand strategies, such as requiring more passengers per car, managing trucks, could also be used to reduce traffic and make travel more efficient. And new and wider lanes, and simplified on and off ramps, means more cars can move per lane than can today.

Lane reductions have a history in New York City of working. Historical examples in New York City, from closures on the Williamsburg Bridge in the 1980s to the total collapse of the West Side Highway in the 1970s, have shown that traffic is actually absorbed into the system, much of it funneling into public transit.

Smaller highways don’t result in more traffic jams—they result in fewer cars on the road. It’s not unlike the experience of the new, and very successful 14th Street Busway or the pedestrianization of Times Square. In both cases, encouraging the more seamless flow of traffic by de-emphasizing car-centric options in favor of public transit resulted in a more pleasant street-life without adverse traffic effects.

Of course, this isn’t just a traffic issue. A smaller BQE not only means less pollution with fewer cars on the road, but it provides an opportunity to reprogram the open space with additional parks, housing, and other facilities that provide amenities to residents.

As such, RPA stands by you to help as you work with local communities and elected officials reimage the BQE in a way that helps the city break the cycle of over dependence on automobiles. 

Thank you for your time today.