As our city continues to grow, signs that our infrastructure is failing to keep up are all around us. The MTA has some of the worst on-time rates of any system in the country; regular failures of the tunnels between New Jersey and New York shut down Amtrak for days.
In a time of emergency, looking past what’s directly in front of us seems impossible—but we must make room for big thinking and long-term planning to truly resolve the infrastructure crises that plague us.
Which is why we are resurrecting an innovative idea – initially presented decades ago – to bury six miles of the Gowanus Expressway, from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Verrazano Bridge.
It may not feel like the most urgent infrastructural priority for New York’s commuters or elected officials, who will be well out of office by the time any ribbons are cut– but few projects will bring as many jobs, as much clean air, as high a quality of life or as much positive growth to Brooklyn and the surrounding boroughs as burying the Gowanus Expressway.
As New York City’s population has expanded, the neighborhoods along the Gowanus have boomed. Near express subway stops and the waterfront, these neighborhoods are ripe for new investment.
But the Gowanus Expressway holds these neighborhoods back—creating a painful traffic bottleneck, polluting otherwise residential neighborhoods and separating waterfront communities from the rest of Brooklyn with an aging highway.
The Gowanus Expressway was built by Robert Moses at a time when cars were king and superhighways were the wave of the future. But New York City has long replaced superhighways with bike lanes, and Moses’ car-centric vision of the future, once so innovative, has been replaced with a humanistic one that focuses on the personal experience at the street level. The Gowanus expressway, which disrupts the street level experience of so many of our city’s most charming, most quickly-growing residential neighborhoods, is an aging remnant of a bygone era.
Right now, over 55,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions pour into the neighborhood from the Gowanus Expressway every year. Burying the expressway would allow us to capture most of those emissions, tremendously improving health outcomes in the neighborhood.
In addition, a rezoning of Industry City alone could generate over $1 billion in investments over the coming decade, and create a total of almost 20,000 jobs– expanded to the whole area around the Expressway, the job and investment opportunities are practically limitless. Similar rezoning efforts in Red Hook, for example, yielded close to $3 billion in investment.
What’s more, federal dollars may be available for large-scale infrastructure projects in a way they aren’t for many other urban wish-list items. And with advances in the mechanics of construction, digging a tunnel won’t be nearly as disruptive as it would have been just a few years ago. The technology is finally there to execute on large-scale infrastructural visions, and we must take advantage of that.
Some may say that an ambition of this scale is impossible when so many other priorities exist; that it’s not worth fighting for a project of this magnitude when our subways are in critical condition and the Gateway Tunnel project is on life support.
But we believe that investing in the livability of our city, especially in the outer boroughs, where people of diverse incomes live and raise their families, is our most urgent priority. Simply put, investing in transformative projects now is vital to the future of New York City.
Yes, many projects demand our attention. But given this moment of infrastructural crisis, when all eyes are on our roadways and public transit, now is the time to fight for City residents; for the Brooklynites for whom clean air and quiet streets are not just a faraway wishlist item but an urgent priority; and for the economic development of our city — not just midtown, but Sunset Park and Coney Island.
For too long, we’ve been so focused on putting out fires that we’ve lost sight of what we want. A lack of foresight is what got us into our current infrastructural predicament in the first place.
New Yorkers are always thinking bigger and planning for the next great thing—it’s what makes our city special. It is time for us to harness some of that spirit of ingenuity to build some long-range vision into our infrastructure planning, beginning with the burying of the Gowanus Expressway. Together, we can build a better city, and that begins with rethinking the relics of our shared past.
Carlo Scissura is president of the New York Building Congress and Justin Brannan is a New York City Councilmember representing the 43rd district.