This 2002 photo shows the westbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) approaching EXIT 29 (Tillary Street / Manhattan Bridge) and downtown Brooklyn. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
THE BROOKLYN-QUEENS CONNECTING HIGHWAY: In 1936, the Regional Plan Association recommended the construction of a link between the Gowanus Parkway and the Triborough Bridge. Originally, this plan was devised as an alternative to a competing plan for a proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge (which eventually opened as a tunnel in 1950), and included the reconstruction of the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.
The "Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway," which was to be financed by Federal, state and city funds, was proposed as an express bypass through heavily built industrial, commercial and residential areas. It was to also provide a link from Brooklyn and Queens points to the East River crossings.
One of the leading developers in New York City, Edward A. MacDougall, described the benefits of the proposed expressway as follows:
By affording an express bypass over congested areas and at the same time easy access to these areas for those who must reach them, this highway will do more to relieve traffic congestion than anything heretofore accomplished. The immediate effects of this highway would be to give Brooklyn direct access to the Triborough Bridge, to the (1939-1940) World's Fair via Queens Boulevard and Horace Harding Boulevard, and to the 38th Street (Queens-Midtown) Tunnel via the Meeker Avenue Bridge and Borden Avenue. It would also give Queens a direct route to the tunnel.
The future effects of this and other improvements upon the residential and industrial prosperity of Brooklyn and Queens are incalculable, especially those sections already favorably located in relation to the existing parkways, the Triborough Bridge and rapid transit lines.
The first section of the Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway, which connected Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with Queens Boulevard (NY 25) in Woodside, Queens, opened to traffic in 1939. This section included the 6,021-foot-long Kosciuszko Bridge, whose main truss span has a horizontal clearance of 300 feet and a vertical clearance of 125 feet over Newtown Creek. Since the 1700's, several bridges had been constructed at this location, which was known as "Penny Bridge." The new Kosciuszko Bridge was named after Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish-born military engineer who contributed to the triumph of the Revolutionary Army over the British.
This 1998 photo shows the westbound (southbound) Brooklyn-Queens Expressway over the Kosciuszko Bridge. The bridge, built by the city of New York in 1939, connects the Penny Bridge section of Queens with the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. In the background are the two natural gas tanks owned by Brooklyn Union (now Keyspan Energy). These tanks, which stood unused for nearly a decade, were imploded in 2001. (Photo by Jeff Saltzman.)
SERVING INDUSTRIAL AND DEFENSE NEEDS: In 1940, New York City arterial coordinator Robert Moses recommended that the road, which he saw as a gap in the metropolitan arterial system, "should be filled immediately as an aid to the national defense." He went on the make the following case for the expressway:
In 1940, Robert Moses recommended that the road, which he saw as a gap in the metropolitan arterial system, "should be filled immediately as an aid to the national defense." He further went on as follows:
With the completion of through arteries under construction in Brooklyn and Queens, more traffic will be funneled into the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges than the streets tapping these bridgeheads can carry. The present streets are narrow and congested, with crossings at every block. The crazy quilt pattern of the streets inherited from the villages that grew together to form the present borough adds to the difficulty of travel.
This proposed artery should be built for six lanes of express traffic, separated for most of its length from service roads by malls. It is estimated that construction will cost $5,100,000. This project would require the acquisition of land assessed at approximately $7,000,000, and utilize city-owned property assessed at $345,000.
The New York City Planning Department further defined the route as follows:
Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway: The portion of this route between Queens Boulevard and the Kosciuszko Bridge has recently been opened to traffic. North of Queens Boulevard to the Grand Central Parkway, the route has been mapped and is scheduled for early construction. It will provide express service for trucks and passenger cars from the Triborough Bridge to downtown Brooklyn. It will also provide for express service from LaGuardia Airport to the midtown Manhattan area via the recently completed Midtown Highway and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. The section north of Roosevelt Avenue will form a northerly continuation of the proposed Middle Brooklyn-Queens Highway, and thus will be a link in a proposed circumferential route through the middle of Brooklyn and Queens from the Grand Central Parkway in Astoria, Queens to the Belt Parkway in Owl's Head, Brooklyn.
There were some important differences in the city plan as follows:
For the time being, the city plan omitted the "Brooklyn Shorefront" section between the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. It substituted major streets "pending further investigation to determine the best location for an express highway connection" to distribute traffic among the other East River crossings. It is possible that the proximity of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a sensitive area prior to wartime, was a determining factor in this decision.
The city plan included a "North 9th Street Connection," an elevated highway spur along North 9th Street that was to connect the mainline highway with Wythe Avenue. It was to provide access to an industrial area along the Williamsburg waterfront.
Two 1960 views of the newly opened Brooklyn-Queens Expressway near the Manhattan Bridge (left photo) and near the Brooklyn Navy Yard (right photo). (Photos by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.)
MOSES AND THE BQE: In late 1945, Moses included the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as part of his postwar arterial development program. Under his watch, the next section of the BQE, a stretch of six-lane elevated highway between the Williamsburg and Kosciuszko bridges, opened to traffic in 1950. This section of highway was built over Meeker Avenue, which was improved and widened just prior to World War II, and connected to the existing "Brooklyn-Queens Connecting Highway" to the north, which opened in 1939.
In the following excerpt from his biography The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro described how Moses kept a watchful eye over the construction of the BQE:
During construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Moses rented the penthouse floor of the Marguerite Hotel - an old, sedate establishment right next to the expressway - and used it as an office. It had two advantages: only very few people knew of its existence, so he was interrupted by few telephone calls, and he could look down on the construction as he worked. And he spent a lot of time looking down at it, watching the cranes and derricks and earthmoving machines that looked like toys far below him moving about in the giant trench being cut through mile after mile of densely packed houses, a big black figure against the sunset in the late afternoon, like a giant gazing down on the giant road he was molding. "And I'll tell you," said one of the men who spent a lot of time at the old hotel with him, "I never saw RM look happier than he did when he was looking down out of that window."
Once Moses drew his proposed route for the BQE on the map, his engineers were able to transform this "line on a map" into a highway. This often meant clearing block after block of neighborhoods, often in the name of "slum clearance."
More from the Newsday article "New York: Chess in Concrete" by Bob Liff as follows:
"(Moses) could have run it down Van Brunt Street by the water, but he didn't," Camille Sacco said of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Instead, Moses shoved it through Hicks Street and bisected Sacco's Red Hook neighborhood, in connecting the Brooklyn Bridge with the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The story was different in nearby Brooklyn Heights, whose more affluent and influential residents were able to win design concessions from Moses that the poorer, mostly Italian-immigrant Red Hook residents could not.
Brooklyn Heights remained intact, as the expressway was moved four blocks to the west and redesigned into a bluff-hugging, double-level roadway topped by the Promenade and its magnificent Manhattan panorama. Red Hook got a below-ground, open-cut highway that still pours pollution into neighborhood streets.
"They got the Promenade and we got the shaft," said Red Hook activist Celia Cacace.
"What can you do?" said Joe Tomo, who ran a Red Hook candy store once midblock on Union Street that now stands alongside the expressway. "These were mostly immigrants here who were afraid they might get deported if they protested. You can't fight City Hall."
And Robert Moses was City Hall.
LEFT: This 2002 photo shows the eastbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) approaching EXIT 27 (Atlantic Avenue) in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.) RIGHT: This 2001 photo shows the westbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) at EXIT 30 (Flushing Avenue), near the former Brooklyn Navy Yard. This section was reconstructed during the mid-1980's. (Photo by Christopher G. Mason.)
MAKING DESIGN CONCESSIONS: In some locations, however, Moses had to make concessions. The original 1947 plan called for a six-lane, open-cut highway bisecting the community of Brooklyn Heights, similar to the configuration to the Red Hook community immediately south. In response to Moses' unpopular plan, community groups developed a "Citizen Alternative Plan" that proposed a three-decked structure immediately along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront. The structure was to carry three westbound lanes on the lower level, three eastbound lanes on the middle level, and a park and promenade on the upper level.
Moses agreed to the "Citizen Alternative Plan" on the condition that the park and promenade, originally proposed for private gardens, would be open to the public. This eight-block-long cantilevered section, which opened in 1954, allows motorists to view the vast expanses of the lower Manhattan skyline and New York Harbor, while residents enjoy park space above the expressway. The engineering firm Andrews and Clark, a firm that Moses retained for his highway projects, constructed the expressway and promenade.
Outside Brooklyn Heights, Moses used other mitigation measures along the length of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He built small neighborhood parks in space usually became open after buildings that once stood in the path of the expressway's right-of-way were demolished. Moses also used brick facades over concrete abutments in an attempt to blend the expressway into the urban landscape.
CONSTRUCTION TRAGEDY: The construction of the expressway was marred by tragedy in 1956, when nine children were trapped in a large dirt mound at a Williamsburg construction site. Six of the nine were killed in the accident.
Two 1998 views of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway taken just south of the Brooklyn Bridge shows the beginning of the dual-level roadway. As the expressway traverses the community of Brooklyn Heights, the upper level carries eastbound I-278, while the lower level carries westbound I-278. (Photos by Jeff Saltzman.)
I-278? OR I-87? In August 1958, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was designated Interstate 278, making it eligible for 90-percent Federal funding for completion of new sections and reconstruction of existing sections. For a brief period in late 1958, the expressway was proposed to carry the I-87 designation from EXIT 32 (Williamsburg Bridge / Metropolitan Avenue) north to the Triborough Bridge (and thence to the Major Deegan Expressway); I-278 was to begin at the Williamsburg Bridge exit and continue to the south and west. The state withdrew the proposed I-87 designation in April 1959, bringing I-278 back to the BQE in its entirety.
COMPLETE, BUT OBSOLETE: The final section of the BQE in Brooklyn was completed in 1960 in the area of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Four years later, the final section of the expressway in Queens, between EXIT 36 (NY 25 / Queens Boulevard) and EXIT 38 (NY 25A / Northern Boulevard) in Woodside, was opened to traffic. The 10.4-mile-long mainline expressway and 1.2-mile eastern wye (originally called the "Boody Street Connection") were constructed at a cost of $137 million.
Since it was designed prior to the development of the Interstate Highway system, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was plagued with design flaws. Sharp curves, lack of shoulders, short acceleration and deceleration ramps, and confusing left-exit configurations were characteristics of the pre-Interstate era expressway.
To compensate for the safety shortcomings, the highway was reduced from six lanes to four in some locations, and the speed limit was set at 45 MPH throughout the length of the highway. The expressway, already taxed to its capacity at six lanes, was further stretched to its limits. Trucks also had to be detoured for a portion of the route: just before the Triborough Bridge, I-278 truck traffic exits onto Astoria Boulevard, since this segment is actually part of the Grand Central Parkway, which is open to passenger cars only. (Astoria Boulevard, which serves as a service road for the Grand Central Parkway in Astoria, Queens, has "TRUCK I-278" signs posted.)
Massive reconstruction of the BQE began in the 1966 at the LIE-BQE interchange. When it began in 1966, the $30 million LIE-BQE interchange project was the largest such undertaking on the Interstate highway system. (This dubious distinction was later bestowed on the "Bruckner interchange" project in the early 1970's.) Temporary traffic lights were installed on the entrance and exit ramps between the two highways as part of the interchange project.
Starting in the mid-1980's, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underwent a decade-long rehabilitation to conform the road to Interstate standards. While the rehabilitation brought wider lanes, improved sight distances and longer acceleration-deceleration lanes to the BQE, it did not bring breakdown shoulders. One feature of this reconstruction project was the elimination of the left-hand exits at EXIT 32B (Metropolitan Avenue) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. In this area, two separate elevated roadways were widened to create one wider elevated roadway, eliminating the left-hand exits in the process.
In the 1990's and 2000's, community groups and landscape architects presented plans before the NYSDOT to place a deck over the BQE in Jackson Heights, Queens and Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Playgrounds, ball courts, and other park facilities would be placed above the expressway.
This 2001 photo shows the cantilevered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278), the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade and the Brooklyn Piers from New York Harbor. Reconstruction of this cantilevered section is scheduled to begin after 2005. (Photo by Tom Scannello.)
CURRENT AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS: According to the NYSDOT, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway handles approximately 160,000 vehicles per day (AADT) through the borough of Brooklyn, and approximately 120,000 vehicles per day through Queens.
To cope with chronic safety and congestion issues, the NYSDOT and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council have scheduled the following projects for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway:
The BQE connector ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge, a four-lane steel viaduct built in the 1950's, was recently replaced with pre-cast, post-tensioned segmental box girder bridge. The design of the new superstructure, which consists of two parallel box girders, allowed for the bridge to be built in two stages, minimizing disruptions to both commuters and community residents. (During construction, one lane is open in each direction on the connecting viaduct.) The $47 million project was completed in December 2001.
The BQE-Park Avenue viaduct, another all-steel bridge built in the 1950's, was completely rebuilt. The re-designed viaduct is similar to that completed along the BQE-Meeker Avenue section (a newer steel-and-concrete design replacing an older all-steel design) in the 1990's. The $110 million project was completed in late 2005.
Further north in Queens, the expressway was rebuilt from Broadway north to 25th Avenue in Woodside. Begun in April 2000, the project included the horizontal and vertical realignment of the mainline along the CSX freight rail tracks; reconstruction and widening of the mainline roadway and ramps (to permit 12-foot-wide travel lanes) on the BQE mainline, western leg and eastern leg; construction of a new single-point-urban-interchange (SPUI) at EXIT 38 (NY 25A / Northern Boulevard); construction of 19 new bridges (including a nine-span bridge at EXIT 38); and rebuilding of adjacent streets. The roadway was lowered to provide the necessary 15½-foot clearance for underpasses, and in others, utilities were relocated. New shoulders, drainage, retaining walls, lights and signs also were provided. In conjunction with the CSX Railroad, the NYSDOT realigned the adjacent freight rail tracks to provide a two-track roadbed. Furthermore, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) worked in conjunction with transportation officials to reduce air pollution by planting trees and other vegetation along the expressway. The tree-planting project was designed to mitigate the visual and noise impact of heavy vehicle traffic on area neighborhoods. The $267 million project was completed in March 2005.
Just to the south of the Woodside project, the NYSDOT began work recently on a one-mile-long stretch of the expressway from EXIT 37 (Broadway / Roosevelt Avenue) south to EXIT 36 (NY 25 / Queens Boulevard). The $124 million project, which is scheduled for completion in late 2008, will include repaving of the mainline and ramps, rebuilding of bridges (at Roosevelt Avenue, 41st Avenue, and 70th Street), installation of new drainage and noise walls, and landscaping.
The state recently undertook studies for rehabilitation alternatives on the cantilevered section of the BQE through Brooklyn Heights. Reconstruction of the cantilevered section is expected to begin in 2009.
The NYSDOT is examining several alternatives to rebuild the existing Kosciuszko Bridge, replace the aging six-lane span with a new eight-lane, high-level bridge over Newton Creek, or build a new eight-lane tunnel underneath the creek. The existing bridge, which has six 11-foot-wide lanes, steep grades and no shoulders, is beset by ongoing maintenance problems. If a new span were to be built, it would have a clearance of 90 feet (less than the current 125 feet) in order to improve sight distances and ease congestion on the expressway, and to accommodate the existing traffic on Newton Creek. Construction of the approved alternative is not scheduled to begin until 2011. (As an interim measure, the NYSDOT is conducting a $12 million rehabilitation of the bridge's superstructure and deck.)
A ROAD STILL LURKING WITH DANGER: The projects underway underscored the need for motorists to proceed with caution through construction zones. On January 16, 2006, a tanker truck filled with 8,000 gallons of gasoline overturned and exploded on the eastbound lanes underneath a temporary construction bridge near Roosevelt Avenue. The temporary bridge over the BQE collapsed, and with the raging fire threatening the nearby Roosevelt Avenue overpass and trestle carrying the IRT #7 subway line, vehicular and train traffic was stopped, as was traffic on the BQE, for at least 24 hours. Fortunately, no one was injured seriously in the mishap.
IS IT TIME TO TUNNEL THE BQE? In its 1999 research paper, "How To Build Our Way Out of Congestion," the Reason Public Policy Institute advocated replacing the elevated sections of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway with a tunnel, citing high land values and local antagonism in the area. The proposed tunnel, which would be based on the new Paris "Metroroutes," would allow urban buses and most fire equipment, but not heavy trucks or long-distance coaches. Nevertheless, smaller vehicles that constitute more than 90 percent of rush-hour traffic flows would be permitted, allowing for considerable cost savings.
Two 1998 views of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at EXIT 36 (NY 25 / Queens Boulevard) in Woodside, Queens, taken in the westbound / southbound (left photo) and eastbound / northbound directions (right photo). This section of the BQE is being rebuilt through mid-2008. (Photos by Jeff Saltzman.)
A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BQE: Despite more recent improvements, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway still falls short of Interstate standards in many areas. Ty Rogers, contributor to misc.transport.road, submitted the following excerpt to Scott Oglesby's "3di" site:
I-278 (specifically, the Brooklyn-Queens and Gowanus expressways) has to be the worst excuse for an Interstate highway in the whole country. It is a series of different roads thrown together. Many entrance ramps have no acceleration lane at all and have "STOP" signs where they join the expressway. On the Grand Central Parkway, which is part of I-278 at the parkway's extreme western end, there is a sign saying "EXIT 4 (I-278 / Brooklyn-Queens Expressway)." To continue on I-278, one has to exit onto a single lane ramp. All this when I-278 should be the mainline and the Grand Central Parkway should be an exit of I-278. I know that there are many other examples around the country of having to exit in order to continue on the "mainline" Interstate, but the frequency of these problems collectively put I-278 in the hall of shame.
Steve Riner, creator of the "Minnesota Highways" web site, opined the following in misc.transport.road:
The worst limited-access highway I've ever seen was the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Upon entering it from the Bronx, I sneered at the posted 45 MPH speed limit. I soon found out why it was posted.
Nevertheless, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway has its admirers. From Mike Tantillo, Long Island contributor to nycroads.com:
Although this highway is notoriously old, clogged with traffic, and in bad physical condition, there are many unique features along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The designs of the overhead arches, the brick walls and other features are very varied from section to section. Besides, where else are you going to find something like the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade?
This 2005 photo shows the eastbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278) at the newly renumbered EXIT 41 (NY 25A / Northern Boulevard) in Woodside, Queens. Prior to reconstruction, this interchange was EXIT 38. The New York Connecting Railroad trestle in this photo was relocated as part of the reconstruction project. (Photo by Alex Nitzman, northeastroads.com.)
For the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Gowanus Expressway portions of I-278, "NORTH" and "SOUTH" direction plates should be used. Interstate 278 actually runs north-south through Brooklyn and Queens, not east-west.
The NYSDOT should erect improved signing over exit-only lanes and lane drops. Such advance signing would allow motorists to move to the appropriate lane, reducing traffic bottlenecks.
SOURCES: "Freeways Are Now Urged," The New York Times (12/13/1936); "Highway Project Will Aid Queens," The New York Times (11/11/1937); "Vital Gaps in the New York Metropolitan Arterial System," Triborough Bridge Authority (1940); "Master Plan: Express Highways, Parkways and Major Streets," New York City Planning Department (1941); "Opening Set Today for Three Road Links," The New York Times (10/14/1950); "Dewey Speeds LI Expressway, Approves Bill To Add 64 Miles," The New York Times (3/27/1954); "Brooklyn-Queens Link To Be Completed Today," The New York Times (12/23/1964); Arterial Progress 1959-1965, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1965); "Along the East River, Everything Old Is To Be Made New Again" by David W. Dunlap, The New York Times (3/02/2005); The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, Vintage Books-Random House (1974); The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "New York: Chess in Concrete" by Bob Liff, The Newsday Magazine (12/04/1988); "Exit Strategies" by Clara Hemphill, Newsday (10/03/1999); "How To Build Our Way Out of Congestion" by Peter Samuel and Robert W. Poole, Jr., Reason Public Policy Institute (1999); "Inventory of Comparative Decking Projects," Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas (2001); "Bridge of 'Size' May Have To Be Lowered" by Tom Topousis, New York Post (4/22/2002); "BQE Reconstruction Continues" by Andrew Thomas Klingle, The Queens Gazette (3/20/2003); "Parsons Brinkerhoff Providing CE&I Services for Brooklyn-Queens Expressway," Roads and Bridges Magazine (7/01/2005); "Digging Deep" by Andrew Moesel, The Queens Tribune (10/20/2005); "BQE Project Will Shift Traffic Until 2008" by Andrew Morsel, The Queens Tribune (11/17/2005); "Tanker Explosion Shuts Down Queens Highway and Subway," The New York Times (1/16/2005); "Smoke Pours From Tanker Truck Overturned On BQE," WNBC-TV (1/16/2006); DLand Studio; Kosciuszko Foundation; Net Resources International, Limited; New York City Department of Environmental Protection; New York Metropolitan Transportation Council; Tri-State Transportation Campaign; URS Creative Imaging; Phil Case; Ralph Herman; Gene Janczynskyi; Donghyun Kim; George Kowal; Dan Moraseski; Steve Riner; Ty Rogers; Jeff Saltzman; Tom Scannello; Mark Stauter; Stephen Summers; Mike Tantillo; Kevin Walsh; Douglas A. Willinger.
I-278 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Jeff Saltzman. 1950's BQE guide sign photo by Kevin Walsh.