Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Cut It Loose: the Shore Parkway Reconstruction

You may have heard that we're in a recession. Money is tight for both private and public projects. Many projects may not get built, or may be deferred for a long time.

This is not always a bad thing. The deferment or abandonment of developer-driven projects that would bring little or no benefit to the public at large is good. Your Cap'n, for one, won't miss Atlantic Yards, the JFK-Downtown rail link, the Syosset-Bridgeport tunnel and a host of other misbegotten schemes. It's too bad that the horrible awful Yankee Stadium replacement missed getting sucked into that black hole. There's still hope it could swallow up the Hudson Yards (including the #7 train extension), Moynihan West, Hunters Point South and Sunnyside Yards plans.

Unfortunately, it looks like it's not only the ill-conceived projects that are going down. The Second Avenue Subway is important because it has long been a blockage in the pipeline of new transit projects: as long as it's not built, it's been hard to propose any other new subways. Not only is that project now facing a funding gap, but there are similar ones for the Fulton Street Transit Center, the LIRR East Side Access, the pilot "Select Bus" programs, and the assortment of transit projects that the MTA announced last month. The planned ARC tunnel has shrunk to "THE Tunnel." Key expansions of the rail network in New Jersey - like the restoration of service on the Lackawanna Cut-Off, which could eventually lead to passenger service to Scranton and Binghamton - are unfunded.

In this climate it's important to do what we can to keep the sustainable projects from getting sunk while cutting the unsustainable ones loose. As I wrote a month ago:

Get public funding secured as much as possible for transit and livable streets, and get roads as defunded as possible. Then try to stall parking and associated sprawl projects until they run out of funding. Hopefully by the time anyone can afford to build anything again there'll be more of a public consensus, and more private money, for transit and livable streets.


In this spirit, when I see expensive projects that predominantly benefit drivers and contribute to sprawl, I'm going to point them out. This is money that could go towards better bus service or the Second Avenue Subway.

Today's candidate comes from Streetsblog's morning headlines. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the New York City DOT is planning to spend $850 million over the next seven years to replace seven bridges on the Belt (a.k.a. Shore) Parkway from Bay Ridge to Canarsie.

For those of you who've never experienced the Belt in all its glory, well, I can't say it's worth much. It was built by Bob Moses as a four-lane parkway like the Bronx River or Meadowbrook, but it's a sad excuse for a parkway now, after having been widened to a six-lane pit of noise and fumes. It has a bike and pedestrian path alongside for much of its length, but the path is very close to the highway and generally not very well maintained. When it's not closed without notice, it's often filled with road debris. Who knows what it's doing to the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay?

As for its current function, it facilitates sprawl in Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens by funneling traffic onto the Gowanus Expressway where it can plague Sunset Park and South Brooklyn. Every time I've seen the highway it's been packed bumper-to-bumper with cars each containing one or two miserable, enraged Brooklynites. I can't see anything of value that it contributes. If you know of anything, please feel free to bring it up in the comments.

Over the years there has been a freeway revolt movement that seeks to tear down - or simply not rebuild - wasteful highways. The most famous successes have been the West Side Highway in Manhattan and the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, and a dedicated group in the South Bronx is hoping to add the Sheridan Expressway to that list. Many of them are along rivers or bays, and when they are torn down it restores access to these long-neglected waterfronts.

The Belt Parkway is a similar barrier. In Bay Ridge, where it is redundant with the Gowanus, environmental groups have already asked for it to be removed. It's reasonable to maintain it while it's still in good shape, but spending $900 million to rebuild those bridges is another matter. Tearing it down would end the waste once and for all, but it would also be expensive. A small, two-lane road, or even a four-lane parkway that didn't overwhelm the pedestrian environment, would probably be appropriate for that corridor.

If we replaced the six-lane bridges with two- or four-lane bridges, how much could we save? How much less pollution would there be, how much less gas consumed, how many cars no longer driving through Manhattan and South Brooklyn? How much gentler would it be on the wildlife in Jamaica Bay? How much less impact on the neighborhoods it passes through?

The absolute most critical aspect is that this reconstruction facilitates sprawl. The low-density neighborhoods of southeastern Brooklyn and Queens are not set up as villages, they're set up as endless rows of tract houses where everyone has to drive to the big-box stores, and most people drive to work. The Belt Parkway enables this inefficient, non-human-scale infrastructure. Without it, the residents might support some effort to extend rapid transit to the area. With it keeping the cost of driving low (you can currently drive from Canarsie to Canal Street without paying a toll, all on limited-access highways), their backyards and driveways are heavily subsidized. By who? By you: the New York City taxpayer.

I'm happy to pay my taxes and help keep our city running. But I don't want that $900 million going to subsidize an Oldsmobile and a swimming pool for someone in Mill Basin. I want it going to efficient, sustainable transportation. I'd love for it to go to a big-deal item like the Second Avenue Subway, but you know what? Let's keep the money in that part of Brooklyn. Use it to extend the #2 train south to Kings Plaza, and build a light rail system on Kings Highway, Flatlands Avenue and Linden Boulevard, from Bensonhurst to Valley Stream.

BTW: nycroads.com says that some of these bridge replacements were due to be completed by 2006. I wonder what happened.

17 comments:

jonboy200 said...

Cap,
You're usually right on about things but wrong on this one. I grew up in Southeastern Queens right off the Belt Parkway. Yes people own cars there, but those cars stay parked during week day hours. The only people that drive to work are going to the airport(JFK) or Long Island. All my neighbors that had jobs in Manhattan(including my Mother) took transit, and slow crappy transit at that, the feeder buses that serve Jamaica Center are always full and they can't ever seem to run enough of them, plus Merrick and Linden Blvd, and Guy Brewer Blvd have a million dollar vans. Southeast Queens is the biggest reason the Queens Blvd. subway is over capacity. As for big box shopping people shopped there because that's what their is out there, and a lot of people take transit to that too(Q5 and Q85 have Green Acres Mall extensions). And there is a fair amount of neighboorhood shopping in these neighborhoods. As per the Belt specifically the portion that runs from the Bridge eastward is pretty important, its the only non-Manhattan route a car can use to go from New Jersey to Brooklyn/Queens and points Eastward, it also connects Staten Island to points east with out creating messes on the Gowanus. Also Southeast Queens is much more dense than Northern Queens and any of the sprawl mess out on Long Island.

Cap'n Transit said...

Jonboy, thanks for filling us in on the situation in Southeast Queens; I was mainly speaking from my visits to the parts of Brooklyn that are affected.

It's good to know that Southeast Queens is dense and transit-oriented. We should encourage that with more transit improvements, like reasonably-priced, frequent service on the LIRR, and real bus rapid transit instead of the stalled Select Bus project on Merrick Avenue.

It sounds like you don't use the Belt, so you wouldn't miss it if it were gone. But you could use the money and the access to the bay.

Unfortunately, this project will eat up money that could be used for transit, and your Assembly members seem to think that everyone drives to Manhattan.

The Belt is not the only non-Manhattan route to get from New Jersey and Staten Island to Brooklyn, Queens and points eastward. There is the Gowanus/BQE/LIE, the Interboro Parkway, and a number of roads that go that way but are not limited access, like Linden Boulevard and Kings Highway. But that obscures the real question: why do we need to pay for a limited-access route in this corridor?

If you're concerned about messes on the Gowanus, it can't get any messier than it is. Please read Charles Siegel's piece about induced demand. In a nutshell, if you build it they will come, and if you tear it down they'll go away - or at least take the train.

jonboy200 said...

The Belt is not the only non-Manhattan route to get from New Jersey and Staten Island to Brooklyn, Queens and points eastward. There is the Gowanus/BQE/LIE, the Interboro Parkway, and a number of roads that go that way but are not limited access, like Linden Boulevard and Kings Highway. But that obscures the real question: why do we need to pay for a limited-access route in this corridor?

The Interboro and BQE/LIE serve Central Queens and Long Island. Think nabes like Forest Hills, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks. Plus to use them you are assuredly driving through Manhattan if you come from the West. On local streets(Canal, or Yikes 34th). The Belt serves Southern portions of the Queens and the feeds the Southern State for the South Shore LI. A person can bypass Manhattan on trips from Jersey by crossing the Gothels, crossing the SIE and using the Belt. That's a good thing for livable streets in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, because thats where a lot of that traffic would end up via the tunnels if the Belt didn't exist. This is also why the city wants to upgrade the bridges to allow trucks that goods flowing to Long Island don't end up clogging Canal Street. Also, it serves JFK Airport and is the main way a Brooklynite(via, Cab, Car or Bus) would get to the airport.


It sounds like you don't use the Belt, so you wouldn't miss it if it were gone. But you could use the money and the access to the bay.


I use it when I go to see Mom and Dad and other family in Queens. It certainly sucks, but it's a necessary evil. If you want an parkway that is really superflous and could be converted to Transit/Park/etc. the Grand Central east of the Kew Interchange is the way to go. It is parallel from that point on directly by the LIE, they even cross several times on Long Island.

Re, induced demand, I'm certainly familiar with the concept, but I don't think this is best case for it. Making better use of the route for goods going east and reducing the need for those trucks to pass through Manhattan is a better outcome here

Cap'n Transit said...

Jonboy, why don't you think that the theory of induced demand would apply in this case? Read the stories on Charles's website: every time a highway was torn down (or fell down), people prophesied doom on the parallel roads. In case after case, that simply didn't happen. The traffic just disappeared. Why would you not expect this traffic to disappear too?

jonboy200 said...

Cap,
Because we're not depopulating Southern Brooklyn, Queens and most importantly Long Island. The expressways that he mentions are mostly stub highways. Half of them never got completed because people rightfully rebelled against their superfluousness so they kind never went anywhere. Think the Prospect Expressway, or the Clearview in Queens, those are two that I think you could get rid of and get good results. The Belt IMO is a primary route across the region. I believe it even predates the LIE as a route, it serves the airport from the east.

Alon Levy said...

Actually, we kind of are depopulating Long Island. Suffolk County's population peaked in 2004; Nassau County's been decreasing since 1970, with a brief respite in the 1990s.

Alon Levy said...

On another note...

BTW: nycroads.com says that some of these bridge replacements were due to be completed by 2006. I wonder what happened.

Wikipedia says that the Second System was due to be completed by 1948. I wonder what happened.

Cap'n Transit said...

It's true that the Prospect and Clearview could be seen as unnecessary, and the Grand Central as redundant. They could be taken down because they aren't very highly used.

I am arguing that the Belt should be removed or reduced precisely because it is highly used. It's a primary enabler of sprawl, and we can't afford to continue subsidizing sprawl with our taxes.

Bedford Empress said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cap'n Transit said...

Empress Doug, I'm deleting your comments here because they're only aimed at insulting people ("anti-highway religion") instead of having a meaningful dialogue.

jonboy200 said...

Actually, we kind of are depopulating Long Island. Suffolk County's population peaked in 2004; Nassau County's been decreasing since 1970, with a brief respite in the 1990s.

While this true, they are still millions living out there. They have to get goods and be able to get out. Let me say this, I want better more livable streets, but just like the automobile being allowed to take over everything was a mistake, destroying all car related infrastructure overnight is not going work. It will only cause pain. What needs to happen is a systematic change on how we develop land and how we live. Long Island has no one seat connection to the rest of the world outside on a rail network, so if they want to go say Philadelphia they drive. That's not their fault, they didn't make these awful policy decisions. People need to be given real options to reconfigure the way they live in both urban areas and suburbia, for it to really work for everyone.

Douglas A. Willinger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Douglas A. Willinger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Yury said...

It takes 15 minutes for me to go from Sheepshead Bay to JFK every day to work. At timeframes when I use the Belt it is not congested and I don't have to sit in traffic jams.
If I used public transportation it would take me at least 2 hours one way. I don't want to loose 4 hours of my life everyday just because some people need walking access to the Bay.
If you want it to be removed, build a good railroad on the same root instead.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yury, I'd love to see a train on this general route. But would you settle for an express bus?

Yury said...

I probably would.
Nothing is more convinient than driving your own car but if the question is to save the nature, I would agree to take a nice comfortable express bus.
But I also would prefer fully electric car (this way the nature will not be hurt) because nothing will replace the convinience of NOT freezing balls on a bus stop in winter.

George K said...

Cap'n: I'm sorry I'm late on this, but I have one question: Are the people who are advocating for the removal of the Sheridan Expressway asking for it to be replaced by a greenway or a boulevard-type street?

Thanks.