Friday, September 3, 2010

Brilliantly STOOPID

I'm a little late responding to this, but so far I haven't seen this angle covered in anyone's blog posts, only in comments. It also covers points that I've made in several posts before, and I'm frustrated that I haven't been able to convince very many people of the validity of those points, and getting kind of tired of repeating them.

This particular incident started with a "design workshop" for the State DOT's BQE widening plan. Some guy from Cobble Hill named Roy Sloane suggested tunneling straight under Gowanus and Fort Greene to bypass Brooklyn Heights. An architect working on the project, Allan Swerdlowe, called the idea "brilliant," and from there it made its way into the Brooklyn Paper, Gothamist, the Post, and finally Second Avenue Sagas.

Well, yeah, I guess the idea is brilliant, in the same way that it would be brilliant if someone stood up at one of those meetings and said, "Why don't we just tow the cars and trucks over Downtown Brooklyn using trained flying hamsters?" Yeah, that's kind of brilliant, and it wouldn't add to the congestion on existing roadways, either.

Many commenters pointed out that the Gowanus tunnel proposal has been around longer and would provide more benefits in terms of burying unsightly structures and putting cars out of sight. They are both brilliant, and both incredibly stupid ideas. I just feel stupid myself for even giving the idea any attention, but since so many others are putting their thoughts into it, I feel like I have to address it as well:

  1. As many commenters have mentioned, there is no way to build "Swerdlowe's vision" of a tunnel that whisks the cars under Downtown Brooklyn into Williamsburg, since many of them don't want to go to Williamsburg. They would either have to use local streets or continue to use the current structure in order to get to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges.

  2. The tunnel would also require large ventilation structures, which would replace existing buildings or parkland and spew carbon monoxide.

  3. The BQE is not falling down. It is "functionally obsolete," which means that it is narrower than the highway builders think it should be. That is not a good reason to dig a tunnel.

  4. There are plenty of cheaper, more effective ways to increase safety than by digging a multi-billion-dollar forgiving highway.

  5. Of course it would add capacity. We're talking about the State DOT here. They're organizationally incapable of fixing a pothole without adding three lanes.

  6. It would be nice to remove the cantilevered highway, fill in the ditch in Cobble Hill, and tear down the elevated Gowanus highway. None of these desires require the highway to be replaced. As Gandalf said, "That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind."

  7. The billions that it would cost to dig this tunnel are billions that would not be spent on transit.

  8. Anything that makes it easier for people to drive encourages people to drive more, increasing the number of drivers and reducing the constituency for transit.

  9. If you want to move freight, build freight rail.

  10. As commenter Andrew pointed out on Second Avenue Sagas, most of the traffic on the BQE in downtown Brooklyn is induced by the "free" bridges. Toll the bridges, people will take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel instead, and the BQE will see a lot less congestion and a lot less wear and tear.

The overall point, and I can't stress this enough, is that the BQE is in competition with all the parallel transit routes. Every dollar that makes it easier to drive private cars on the BQE takes away ridership from the Staten Island express buses, the Fourth Avenue subway, the G train and the proposed Tribororx line. So if you want to see healthy farebox recovery on these lines, don't build up any parallel car routes.


George K said...

Here's a radical idea: Since the express buses are very inefficient to run, a commuter rail line could be built in the median of I-278. It could start in the Arrochar neighborhood, where a whole bunch of express routes terminate, and have stops at 86th Street, 65th Street, and Columbia Street (to serve Red Hook) before terminating at the Fulton Street Transit Center. The buses could be conveniently timed to meet the commuter rail line, and some kind of fare system could be implemented to give discounts to people who use transit to access the rail line (possibly just making the cost the same as the express bus fare, with any fares paid on transit acting as a credit toward that fare). This would save the MTA money by not having to run express buses all the way into Manhattan, along with the associated non-revenue runs.
This can be done in addition to a regular subway connection from St. George to the 4th Avenue Line and/or Culver Line, and there could be a connection from the Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel to feed into this commuter rail system.
Of course, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge would have to be able to be retrofitted to allow rail for this to happen, unless this line starts on the Brooklyn side of the bridge.
As far as I-278 goes, if it is rebuilt, it should be built with 2 wide traffic lanes with my commuter rail idea in the middle.

What do you think?

Cap'n Transit said...

That's, uh, brilliant, George! ;-) Seriously, any rail plan is better than throwing more cash into the highway money pit.

But before anything like that, I'd want to try a two-way, 24-hour dedicated busway from Slosson Avenue to Chambers Street. I'll bet that there are express buses that could make money with that run, just like Coachusa makes money in Bergen and Rockland Counties.

George K said...

I remember a post you wrote about the faebox recovery ratios of different companies. Could you send me the link so I can see what the farebox recovery ratios.
As far as the bus lane, the problem is that, once you build it, you are pretty much stuck with it. Since the population of Staten Island is growing rapidly, if you decide later on that you need the capacity offered by a rail line, the work would affect that many more people (I think in 2030, the population of Staten Island would be 630,000, instead of 500,000, meaning that the work would potentially affect 26% more people).
The problem is that the MTA is a public corportation, meaning that it has additional costs that private companies don't have, meaning that most routes would have to be privatized in order to turn a profit.
But you're right-investing in transit is much more efficient than investing in car transportation. Like you said, the only green road is a dead road.

Cap'n Transit said...

Here's the link; unfortunately the spreadsheet where I did the basic analysis is on another computer; I'll try to upload it tonight. If you're impatient you can download the whole megillah from the NTD; its Table 19 under "RY 2008 Data Tables - Complete Set."

Cap'n Transit said...

With regard to your other points, George, from an engineering standpoint the two-way busway could be put in in a day. A rail line could be put in later, when the Gowanus is genuinely ready to fall down.

Also, that kind of population projection is pretty unreliable.

George K said...

Thanks. I'll take a look at your links later on.

As far as the bus lane vs. rail line debate goes, I see your point. There wouldn't be a point in putting in a permanent transitway like a rail line until the entire structure is replaced. Also, the advantage of a bus lane is that you can use it for all types of buses (for example, if there was a bus lane the full length of the Staten Island Expressway, a local bus can go from, say, Clove Road to South Avenue and the Teleport and another local bus can go from Hylan Blvd to Richmond Avenue).

I see what you are saying about the population growth. I would also like to add that, as population density increases, transit use increases more proportionately than auto use, which is an argument for any type of transit expansion as opposed to auto expansion.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, absolutely! It turns out it's actually Table 26 that has the farebox recovery data, and I've put it up in Google Docs.

Dave 'Paco' Abraham said...

Cap’n… I always enjoy your commentary both here and on Streetsblog but disagree a bit on the ‘stoopid’ level of the BQE tunnel proposal. I am part of the project’s Stakeholders Advisory Committee and have been rather pleased so far that the process has been extremely inclusive of community opinions and brought in every level of government (city, state, and federal) to attend the meetings. There’s no debate about how large the undertaking is; it’s massive. And overall, there’s been little debate about which plans are best as many (not just the tunnel idea) are still on the table as we move forward in the screening process and soon began an EIS.

You’re right the BQE is not falling down. Despite is tremendous car volume (more than 120,000 daily) and tremendous complexities (21 separate bridges within the span of Atlantic to Sands Street if I recall correctly), the BQE should stand up just fine for quite some time in the future. And considering this replacement wouldn’t be in the ground till 2017 at the earliest, that’s good news. But, it is entirely non-compliant with AASHTO regulations and has no shoulders to alleviate congestion, or offer any safe-haven for accidents caused by poorly designed on-ramps that yield collision rates much, much higher than state averages (see the BQE Watch for pics of many of them

The tunnel is just one idea and does have some serious drawbacks. Large ventilation structures would indeed be much, just as they are for the 2nd avenue subway tunnel digging currently under way. And yes, access to the bridges would still be needed so local streets and/or some form of the existing BQE alignment would need to remain but there is still a sizable percentage of cars simply using it to get to the LIE, Grand Central, airports, and other spots in Queens and Long Island.

However, it may not be fully accurate to say the billions spent here would not be spent on transit at all. Many ‘livable-streets’ minded voices in the Committee are vocal when it comes to the “transit/transportation system/ travel demand management” elements of the project. This includes possibilities of Bus Rapid Transit, HOV lanes, improved ferry service, electronic tolling of the Verrazano heading East to end the ‘Trucker’s Special’ that Gridlock Sam so eloquently described (, electronic tolling of the East River Bridge Crossings, and much more.

So, the scope of this project is not at all just dig a tunnel to add capacity; Thankfully so far it’s been much more logical and comprehensive, and probably a conversation you’d enjoy.

Alon Levy said...

Dave, what you say about AASHTO regulations and accidents may be the conventional view of car accidents, but is incorrect. Building wider roads with shoulders does not prevent accidents. The limit to car accident rates is psychological; people adjust to higher risk (more cars on the road) by driving more carefully or not walking, and adjust to lower risk (seat belts, wider lanes) by driving faster and more aggressively.

If building roads up to standard prevented accidents, you'd expect to see accident fatalities per VMT drop dramatically as the Interstate system was built. In reality, the opposite happened: deaths per VMT stayed flat in the 10 years following the Interstate Highway Act, temporarily halting a multi-decade trend of decline. The increase in car volume was so great that it overwhelmed the learning curve of adjustment to cars.

Cap'n Transit said...

Paco, you've done a ton of great things for livable streets in this city, but it's sometimes hard to see stoopid when you're completely surrounded by it, and I think that's what must be going on in those stakeholder meetings.

It is with the highest admiration and esteem that I invite you to be a stakeholder in my new brilliant project.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for letting me see this from a different perspective!