Tunnel Vision: Zeroing In On a Plan to Replaced Gowanus Expressway

By Helen Klein

While a decision on a replacement for the aging Gowanus Expressway is still a couple of years away, the agency charged with responsibility for the project continues to narrow down its options. At the January meeting of the Community Board 10 Traffic & Transportation Committee, which was held at the board office, 621 86th Street, representatives of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Gowanus Community Stakeholder Group (GCSG) provided an update on progress made in narrowing down possible tunnel options to one or two, for inclusion in the Environmental Impact Study (EIS), which will also include two options for replacing the viaduct with another such structure. It is expected that, within just a couple of months, the tunnel option choices will be made. That a replacement is needed was basically unquestioned by those making the presentation. The reality, said Michael Cairl, GSCG’s chairperson, is that the existing viaduct is, “Inadequate for what it is supposed to do.” It is, he added, “More of a detriment tot he community than any benefit. It doesn’t achieve the basic aim of a highway which is to provide good transportation. It’s beyond capacity. Good transportation is vital to the well-being of this city. Good transportation doesn’t compromise public safety or public health by diverting traffic onto local streets.” GSCG, he added, has been “advocating the replacement of what exists now with a tunnel.” However, he added, “it is very important to get the right tunnel, in terms of location and in terms of construction methods.” Addressing Variety of Needs A key, added Neil Cohen, the vice chairperson of the GCSG, is to make sure the differing needs of each community along the Gowanus corridor are addressed. “All the communities along the Gowanus are like beads on a string,” he told his listeners. “Every one has different needs, different issues, but what we’re trying to do is address all of the needs of all of the communities the best we can.” It’s important to look ahead at future developments, stressed Cairl. With projects such as the downtown Brooklyn Nets arena in the offing, he said, “Vehicular traffic is projected to increase significantly. When you have increasing levels of traffic but inadequate infrastructure, and cars are going to find some other way to get to where they’re going. That means they are going to go through your neighborhood and my neighborhood.” This was echoed by Bob Cassara, a member of CB 10 who is also a committee chairperson for the GCSG. He noted that projections included in the Southern Brooklyn Transportation Investment Study indicate that by the year 2025, there will be an increase of 17 percent in traffic coming over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. However, at the same time, noted Cassara, the study projects an increase of only two to three percent in traffic utilizing the Gowanus, as well as an increase of only two to three percent in traffic utilizing the Belt Parkway. “Where is the difference?” Cassara went on. “You can guess where the difference will be unless something is done. That, to me, is pretty significant. If traffic can’t move efficiently, it is going to wind up on our streets.” Five Options Now There are currently five tunnel alternatives being considered by NYSDOT. These include building a tunnel along the bulkhead, following the waterfront, building a tunnel under First Avenue, building a tunnel along Second Avenue, building a tunnel with one tube under First Avenue and one tube under Second Avenue, and the community tunnel alternative, follows the shoreline from Fort Hamilton to Red Hook. All options include connections to the Prospect Expressway, as well as to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Each of the options has different benefits, noted David Moyer, senior project manager for Parsons, a consultant to NYSDOT. Constructing the tunnel running along the bulkhead, for example, would not result in traffic disruption on city streets. The construction method that could be used for such a tunnel would be less expensive than the method needed for constructing a tunnel under a city street, said Moyer. The community tunnel option, he said, would result in a net increase of about five acres of parkland near Shore Road. While some would be taken to construct an entrance for the tunnel, lanes on the Belt Parkway could be eliminated, with the tunnel running underneath, yielding additional parkland Cairl drew comparisons between a Gowanus tunnel and a tunnel recently approved for the Seattle waterfront to replace a viaduct damaged in an earthquake some years back. That tunnel, he said, would not only address issues of traffic flow but would provide the opportunity for revitalization in portions of that city’s waterfront. For Brooklyn as well, the benefits of a tunnel go beyond getting traffic and pollution off the surface, stressed Cairl. “It means a whole lot of opportunity for sustainable development that is environmentally sound and that produces jobs at the same time in addition to land for new parks and schools,” he told his listeners. “It’s not unreasonable to assume that Third Avenue could become a boulevard like West Street in Manhattan. That’s not a pie in the sky thing. We need to think long term. We need to think big.” Looking Ahead Once the decision is made as to which tunnel options to include in the EIS, public outreach will commence on the part of NYSDOT and GCSG. The two viaduct options to be included in the EIS are, “The rehabilitation of the viaduct with operational improvements, replacing the deck, adding steel and addressing some of the bottleneck locations that exist now as well as putting in auxiliary lanes at some locations” and “rehabilitation of the viaduct with a relief viaduct on top,” said Harold Fink, structures supervisor and director of the Gowanus Group for NYSDOT. With the EIS process commencing this year, it is likely that a final decision on what to build to replace the current viaduct can be made by 2008. It would take approximately two to three years to design the project, with construction beginning by 2013, assuming all the funding is in place, according to Fink. Under this timetable, a replacement for the Gowanus could be completed by the year 2020. In the meantime, a great deal of work is being done to shore up the existing viaduct. According to Fink, NYSDOT is pouring over $400 million into a series of projects to ensure the viaduct’s stability. “Whether we like it or not, the existing Gowanus is going to be with us for another 15 to 20 years,” he told his listeners. “Doing interim deck replacement is the only way to address it, to eliminate holes.” The patching done over the past 15 years, said Fink, “hasn’t worked very well.” The goal of the deck replacement work is, he said, to give the Gowanus, “A life of 15 to 20 years.” While the main purpose of the work is to sustain the viaduct till a replacement can be constructed, it will include some improvements to traffic flow, said Fink. Studies are being done, he said, as to the feasibility of widening the exit at 65th Street and Sixth Avenue. “We may also be able to relocate the Seventh Avenue on ramp,” Fink went on. NYSDOT plans to finish the interim work by 2011, said Fink. Beyond that, the replacement for the existing viaduct, stressed Cairl, will reshape traffic flow in the borough. “We are looking at much more than a road-building project,” he emphasized. ‘We are looking at something that’s going to radically transform Brooklyn, no matter what happens. Our position is that a tunnel is the best bet for Brooklyn. New York and Brooklyn deserve better infrastructure than we have. We are a world-class city. We shouldn’t leave it to Seattle to lead the way.”

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