Kenneth Dellaquila

‘The Gowanus Expressway holds neighborhoods back—creating a painful traffic bottleneck, polluting otherwise residential neighborhoods and separating waterfront communities from the rest of Brooklyn with an aging highway.’

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.

8 thoughts on “CityViews: To Fix the Gowanus Expressway, it’s Time to Bury it

  1. Unfortunately we can’t build projects like this in the NYC area anymore. Years of delays and massive cost overruns would be the result. Engineering issues also make this undoable. How and where would the tunnel be vented? Water table issues, etc. The NYSDOT did a decent job of rebuilding the Staten Island Expressway (I-278) to modern standards, why not the same for the Gowanus potion of I-278?

    • None of these are serious issues. There are certainly fewer engineering issues with this tunnel than with building the 2nd Ave subway where it took years to relocate all the underground utilities and where the fragile foundations of large buildings made the task very slow going. The water table isn’t a problem either. The Swiss dug the longest tunnel in the world through the Alps and literal underground rivers. Venting could be done conventionally every X hundred feet — not nearly as complex as ventilating a tunnel under body of water. In fact, it wouldn’t have to be much more sophisticated than what the subways use.

      The problem is cost. With Republicans drying up federal revenue with tax cuts there’s not much there for major CapX. And our first tunnel priority is going to be the $17B Hudson train tunnel because we’re only one disaster away from rendering the Path useless and Amtrak and NJ Transit trains crippled for years.

      The Staten Island Expressway occupies at least twice as much lateral real estate as the Brooklyn leg of I-278. That’s not an option unless you start condemning buildings along 3rd Ave. Furthermore, you would have to add the existing six lanes of local 3rd Ave traffic to the BQE load, which includes double-parked delivery trucks, cross traffic and traffic lights.

      I haven’t seen any bottlenecks on the Brooklyn side of the Battery Tunnel since the toll booths were removed. The serious bottleneck there is pretty obvious: the Gowanus merge into the BQE after the Hamilton Ave exit. I don’t know why a Gowanus tunnel would be any different, especially if it was eight lanes, which I believe is/was the plan.

  2. About 40 years ago, I accidentally found out about the impending reconstruction of the Gowanus (I was proposing converting a section under the Gowanus for a “mini-mall” to bring people & lighting to the abandoned area – and thus “chase” away illegal dumping, prostitution and drug dealing). I went before the Council on Environmental Quality to force an EIS. At that time it was predicted to be a 3 to 5 year job at about a quarter of a billion. Through the years I have watched them repave the same areas at least 5 times! I had suggested the city do what they did with the Gowanus’ “sister” structure – the West Side Highway – turn the Gowanus into an at grade roadway with limited access and sequenced traffic signals. It could have worked – it still can work. But a tunnel is ridiculous – the simple problem is – huge bottle necks at the start of the tunnel and at the end of the tunnel. A first year traffic engineering intern can explain that. If Carl is serious about fixing this problem he should embrace it. By the way – the life expectancy of a viaduct is the shortest duration of any roadway. The Gowanus was said to have a 30 year life expectancy. They planned on the “repair” in 1990 – 50 years after if original construction (in 1940) and 30 years after the expansion in 1960. We are now entering about 28 years of “emergency” repairs (and what I deem illegal capacity additions around 18th Street) in all these years there has never been a painting contract – I was told (in response to a FOIL request) about 4 months ago – they will not paint it until they are finished. This project is a boondoggle – keep
    ing contractors employed for generations. Carl, if you are serious about fixing this mess, join me in pushing for an at-grade roadway – the example is there in Manhattan and proven to work.

      • An at- grade replacement simply cannot work. The math disputes it. The existing viaduct has 7 lanes (1 flex HOV) and is jammed with traffic. Third Avenue has 6 lanes and is already near capacity. How do you squeeze 13 lanes of traffic into an area that can physically support, at most, 8 lanes of traffic? And that’s before you throw in traffic lights, about 60 cross streets and hundreds of businesses that need commercial loading zones for trucks? And all the antiquated infrastructure buried under 3rd Ave that is in constant need of repair. It would make West St look like the Taconic.

        A tunnel is the only practical alternative.

  3. I am DEFINITELY of the same opinion as expressed above. Why not modernize the expressway instead of burying it? At this point in the massive and illustrius history of the area in question WHY would anyone think to “bury” the expressway – which provides a vital, unimpeded(minus traffic) and expedient route from the VB half way around Bklyn.

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  5. The Gowanus/BQE is an enormous exhaust pipe that runs the length of Brooklyn and spews toxic dust on our citizens. Burying it in a tunnel could manage some of that pollution and quiet the roar of diesel power on our eardrums. It is easily affordable should the politicians agree to toll the resulting highway. Since the Brooklyn Heights portion is slated to be rebuilt soon it would be a good time to end the one-way tolling of the Verrezzano Bridge, eliminate the perverse incentive for freight traffic to choke Brooklyn and Staten Island with enormous traffic jams and smooth out the commutes for half a million people.
    Yet, the free, simple exercise of establishing a two way toll as all other TBTA bridges have is beyond the vision of our politicians and civic leaders. They choke on it being “Federal Legislation” shrug their shoulders and pretend it does not make a bad problem (traffic) worse.

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