Road Work Ahead, Foreverby LIZ ROBBINS
Published: January 4, 2012
Resigned, he drove his Lincoln Town Car, a livery cab bound for La Guardia Airport on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, into the abyss.
The pothole ate his tire for lunch, and popped off the aluminum rim for dessert. He had a blowout; his passenger missed the flight.
Most days, and most hours, the dire choices faced by many drivers on the B.Q.E. are these: Bad, worse and no exit.
"I will be very blunt about it," said Mr. Torres, who has driven on the B.Q.E. for 20 years. "It's a nightmare."
New York City has plenty of aging, rage-inducing roadways, as drivers who have spent time on the Cross Bronx Expressway can attest. With its multitude of trucks and dangerous on-ramps, the B.Q.E. is a den of congestion at virtually all hours of the day.
But one factor has condemned this antiquated 16.8-mile stretch of highway to a place of longstanding infamy in the New York metropolitan area, if not all of urban America: construction that never seems to end.
As Gerry Michalowski, a truck driver who has traveled the B.Q.E. since 1978, put it, "It was under construction then, and it's still under construction now."
The first section of the road, which included the Kosciuszko Bridge, opened in 1939. In the 1950s, as other sections of the roadway were completed, Robert Moses, New York's master builder, hailed the highway as part of a grand plan to solve the "problem of express travel."
Repairs began in 1960, well before the road was officially finished in 1970. Today, the infernal color orange -- seen on barrels, cones, "Work Ahead" warnings -- is a permanent feature of the deteriorating landscape.
In the latest chapter in this perpetual story of repair, the state last month canceled two environmental studies that were examining alternatives -- including the construction of tunnels -- to rebuilding sections of the highway in Brooklyn Heights and along a section known as the Gowanus Expressway.
There will be no tunnel and no radical reconstruction because there is no money, State Department of Transportation officials said. Smaller-scale repairs will occur when necessary, and when money becomes available.
"Our focus is on preserving the infrastructure and ensuring that safety is maintained," said Phillip Eng, the regional director for the Transportation Department.
The Brooklyn Heights project, including the replacement of the triple-deck bridge that the iconic Promenade sits atop, was supposed to cost $354.3 million. The state said they would save $6 million by canceling the study.
Delays in finding long-term solutions to the B.Q.E.'s chronic traffic woes are not what veteran users want to hear. As freight trucks idle for billable hours on stretches of the roadway, Gregory Benson, the accountant at Hedley's, a trucking company in Williamsburg, looks at his bottom line and wonders about the cost of total reconstruction as compared with continuous repairs.
"Why is it not being done?" he said. "By now it should be a high-tech highway."
But the reality remains that the expressway is woefully outdated.
When the road was built, there were no federal standards for the width of lanes. As a result, in Downtown Brooklyn, its lanes are 10 1/2 feet wide instead of the now-standard 12 feet. The road was not designed for the size or volume of today's vehicles, either; as many as 170,000 travel from the Gowanus Expressway to the Brooklyn Bridge each day, 18 percent of them trucks in Downtown Brooklyn alone, the state said.
That continuous pounding, along with the effects of de-icing salt, has weakened the structural steel and concrete over the past 50-some years, necessitating constant, emergency repairs
In addition, the road has endured a number of specific ongoing projects from Queens to the Gowanus since 2002. The total cost of those repairs on the B.Q.E. extending until 2015 is estimated at $1.2 billion, state officials said.
"The perception of the public that the road is always under construction is accurate," said Denise M. Richardson, the executive director of the General Contractors Association of New York, some of whose members built, and now repair, it. "Because what happens is, we have to close a lane, fix the lane, open the lane, and repeat the cycle."
That has helped make the B.Q.E. a punch line and a refrain of every local traffic report.
"I often refer to it as the Brooklyn-Queens Distressway," said Pete Tauriello, the veteran radio traffic reporter who is heard most frequently on 1010 WINS. "Because that's exactly what it is -- today is no exception. We have very extensive delays as I am speaking, southbound from Kent Avenue to the Belt Parkway. Earlier, we were looking at delays on the inbound side, at one point backed up to the Belt Parkway all the way to the Kosciuszko Bridge."
The legend of the B.Q.E. extends beyond its crippling power -- one fender bender can cause a backup from Long Island to New Jersey -- to the ripple effect it has had on its neighbors.
In Brooklyn Heights, residents in homes overlooking the highway can be awakened by trucks during the only hours they are not slowed by traffic, between 2 and 5 a.m. If a truck going 50 miles an hour hits a single pothole, or one raised seam in the road, sleep might be finished.
"When they hit these bumps, it sounds like a bomb going off," said Bo Rodgers, who has lived in an apartment overlooking the B.Q.E. since 1975.
The highway has also been an irritating neighbor for Lucille Plotz, 85, of Columbia Heights and her husband, Charles, 90. Take, for instance, a recent afternoon inside their apartment. First came the vibrations, then a loud crash; her butter cookies toppled from the counter to the kitchen floor, and the radiator cover dislodged and fell onto a wooden chair.
"If it was properly maintained it wouldn't be a bother, but now it's beyond just maintenance," Mrs. Plotz said.
The highway outside the Plotzes' window travels along a cantilevered roadway that is anchored to a cliff wall, embedding it in the same earth as the surrounding apartment buildings. Mrs. Plotz has corresponded with officials since 1981 about the pothole problem and her concerns about the structural stability of both the bridge's roadway and her building. She joined the B.Q.E. Crisis Committee in the 1980s, urging her neighbors to demand repairs.
By June 2010, state transportation officials had warned local community leaders that "corrective action will be required within the next 10 to 15 years" to fix the bridge, according to the minutes of a meeting about the B.Q.E. bridge project that involved public officials and community leaders.
"You take this structure, it's 50 years old, and it hasn't been significantly rehabbed from the time it has opened," Ms. Richardson, the Contractors Association director, said. But complicating this particular section of the B.Q.E. is the attendant bureaucracy; the bridge is owned by the city, inspected by the state, overseen by a federal agency and repaired by the city. The city is also responsible for fixing potholes along the length of the B.Q.E.
The state is responsible for repairing and repaving larger stretches, as it recently did, to the delight of some drivers, in Jackson Heights and from Kent Avenue to Tillary Street in Brooklyn.
"If you're out early -- or very late -- it's a completely different road," said Michael Pollack, the owner of Brooklyn Roasting Company in Dumbo. His drivers deliver coffee in Brooklyn and Queens starting at 6 a.m. "But you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and you'd be frozen."
To commiserate with his customers, Mr. Pollack created a B.Q.E. espresso roast. Like the roadway, the blend is reconstructed every four months.
"We finish one segment," Mr. Pollack said, "and start another."