By Kelsey Durham
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) is calling on the city to repair a pedestrian tunnel in Bellerose that residents say has deteriorated to the point of being unsafe.
Avella met with about 50 residents last week at the mouth of a tunnel crossing under the southbound Cross Island Parkway at 88th Avenue to call attention to the condition of the walkway, plagued by peeling paint, mounds of garbage and overhead lights that residents say have been out for months.
“We’re here because of a very self-evident issue,” said Avella, pointing to the tunnel around him. “I’ve come through this pass myself and I’ve never seen it in such a terrible condition.”
Avella said he has reached out to the city Department of Transportation, which is in charge of maintaining the tunnel, about sending someone out to clean up the walkthrough.
But he said he was told the DOT has just one small unit in charge of upkeep for all bridges and tunnels throughout the five boroughs.
A spokesman for the DOT said the agency received a letter from Avella about graffiti and is currently conducting maintenance at the site.
“You know what that means,” Avella said. “It means this is probably at the bottom of their priorities and won’t get done for years and that’s unacceptable. This is a very quiet, residential neighborhood and they are entitled to get the same resources as the major bridges and tunnels.”
As of Wednesday morning, a thin layer of paint had been applied to the entrance only on top of the layer that could be seen peeling away underneath, and graffiti had already been reapplied over it.
The walkway is used as a pedestrian pathway from one side of the Cross Island Parkway to the other along 88th Avenue, and Avella, along with several residents, said there is no alternative for crossing the major highway without going about half a mile off course, down by Jericho Turnpike.
The tunnel is used on a daily basis all year by students and parishioners at the nearby St. Gregory’s the Great Church, which sits a block away from the bridge.
“On Sunday mornings, many people travel back and forth through the tunnel on their way to mass, and quite often we bring the children from the school through here for various activities,” said the Rev. William Dulaney, of St. Gregory’s. “It does get a lot of use, and the safer it is, the better.”
The tunnel walls have also become lined with graffiti that residents say the NYPD has told them represents gang symbols. After Avella alerted the public to his plan to gather at the tunnel last Thursday, some of the graffiti was thinly painted over, though it was unclear who came out to do the patch job.
“That’s not enough, Avella said. “They’re putting a little Band-Aid over a serious issue. You can’t just paint over it when the paint is peeling off the walls.”
Miriam Napolitano, a 37-year resident of the neighborhood, said the dark and dingy condition of the tunnel could end up attracting crime to the area, such as the graffiti problems the neighborhood has experienced in the tunnel. She said with the lights being out, it has become a frightening experience to walk down the pass-through while it is dark outside.
Some residents said that without working overhead lights, they fear someone might be waiting to harm them at the other end of the tunnel and also said they would prefer to have cameras installed inside the tunnel to deter crime.
“This is a safe community, but we don’t want that to make us a target,” Napolitano said.
Destiny Krause, a 15-year-old who lives in the area, said she has also gotten flat tires on the bike she rides through the tunnel as a result of shards of glass from broken bottles that have not been cleaned up in years.
Though he said he had no luck getting through to the DOT, Avella urged the residents and civic leaders who stood beside him last week to continue pressuring the agency to complete the maintenance he said the community deserves.
“A major job has to be done here,” he said.
Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at kdurham2cnglocal.com.