Crackdown on trucks urged to deal with New York’s crumbling BQE

Several recommendations for short- to medium-term improvements on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a key roadway for commercial traffic serving the New York City area, have the potential for immediate impact on truck traffic.

The focus of the recently released report is a roughly 1.5-mile stretch of the roadway. It is the famous “triple cantilever” section in Brooklyn (pictured above), across from Lower Manhattan. The top part of the roadway is the popular Brooklyn Heights promenade, for pedestrian use; the other two sections are the six-lane roadways that take traffic toward the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island in one direction, and up to the Long Island Expressway and other parts of Queens, including some crossings into Manhattan, in the other.

The report, commissioned by the administration of Mayor Bill DeBlasio, is blunt about its condition. “The BQE roadway is suffering from significant deterioration and work must begin this year to fix it,” the report said.

After studying data on the 1.5-mile stretch, researchers found the condition of the road  “alarming.” The report “suggests that the presence of many overweight trucks — a function of limited monitoring and enforcement — coupled with deterioration of the cantilever could cause sections of the road to become unsafe and unable to carry existing levels of traffic within five years.”

Since reconstructing and reinforcing the roadway can’t begin immediately — there isn’t even agreement on what should be done there — there are other steps that can be adopted quickly, many of which would impact trucking as the city seeks to reduce the strain on the road.

The panel said the NYC Department of Transportation should “immediately begin to enforce existing restrictions on overweight trucks and impose new restrictions on heavy trucks to extend the life of the current structure.” That includes a call to install “automated weight sensors linked to police enforcement.”

Cutting the number of lanes from six to four is also suggested as a short-term step to relieve stress on the road. On the cantilevered stretch, the six lanes have no shoulder, so the consequences of a breakdown are multiplied by that lack of a safety valve.

A reduction in trucks on that stretch of the highway created by eliminating the two lanes and converting them to shoulders is a key goal. “The Panel recommends an immediate reduction from three to two lanes of traffic in each direction to discourage all vehicles but especially trucks (FW emphasis) and to create safer merging and exiting, thereby prolonging the life of the structure and increasing safety,” the report said.

But the loss of a lane in each direction — and the strategy being successful — appears to rely on two policies that aren’t in effect yet. For example, the ability to cut down to four lanes, according to the report, would be helped by the congestion pricing plan set for New York City next year, under which vehicles traveling in Manhattan would be hit with a fee for traveling in that area at certain times of the day.

The second policy the committee is putting a lot of stock in is a potential ban on having tolls at both ends of the Verrazzano Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island. That step, if adopted, would have tolls paid at both ends of the bridge instead of one double toll just at the west end as traffic heads into Staten Island.

The bridge now handles more eastbound traffic (no toll) than traffic going west, and implementation of split tolling is expected to cut down on the amount of traffic being dumped on the BQE, which a truck heads toward if it stays straight coming off the bridge. If a driver knows his way around New York, it’s possible to avoid tolls by using one non-split toll bridge one way and taking another on leaving the region, hence the unequal eastbound and westbound traffic.

Truck traffic coming off the Verrazzano now heads in sort of a northeasterly direction that eventually takes it into the cantilevered section. Trucks cannot exit off the bridge and head east on the Belt Parkway because it is not open to commercial vehicles.

The report suggests that should be changed … sort of. “Permit small trucks on Belt Parkway — (a)llowing small trucks on the Belt Parkway would reduce some truck traffic on the BQE, particularly trucks traveling between the Verrazzano Bridge and John F. Kennedy International Airport,” the report recommends.

Just getting rid of some trucks is also sought. “Providing environmentally friendly alternatives to large trucks for the transportation of locally originated or destined freight, including implementing Freight NYC, could help reduce truck volumes on the BQE corridor,” the report said. Freight NYC is a proposal to move greater freight tonnage through the New York area via rail or marine.

What precisely is going to go in place of the cantilevered section is unclear. There had been some discussion of a temporary roadway that would take out the pedestrian promenade while work “below” on the cantilevered areas went on; the panel rejects that.

Whatever is to follow, however, has reduced truck traffic as a goal. The panel clearly puts a great deal of faith in the power of measures like congestion pricing and split tolling on the Verrazzano to help get the job done, along with enforcing existing laws on truck weights. 

“We do not accept the premise that the highway must be rebuilt in its current form to accommodate more cars and trucks,” the report said. Current toll structures have a “distorting” effect on the current level of traffic, the report said. And the “lack of effective enforcement” of truck weight laws means that those vehicles are using a road “that was never intended to handle the load or from instead traversing residential streets they are not legally permitted to use,” the report said.