New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

StreetsBlog OUT OF EXCUSES: Council Members Offer DOT Money for QBB Security Fence by Gersh Kuntzman

OUT OF EXCUSES: Council Members Offer DOT Money for QBB Security Fence

All she has to do is ask.

Two members of the City Council — whose districts flank the Queensboro Bridge — have promised to allocate capital money that they control to install a security fence on the south outer roadway, a missing piece of infrastructure that Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says is preventing her agency from doubling the amount of pedestrian and cycling space on the fabled span.

“I’m all in,” said Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.

“We could do this now,” added his Manhattan colleague Ben Kallos.

Both council members vowed to allocate a portion of their $5-million discretionary capital budget towards the fence after Streetsblog reached out to break an impasse created by DOT, which has long declined to convert the south outer roadway from a current car lane to a pedestrian pathway, a move that would make the north outer roadway available entirely to cyclists, who currently must share the narrow path with pedestrians.

Crashes are common because of the congestion on the bike/ped path, which has experienced double-digit percentage increases in foot and two-wheel traffic, city stats show.

There’s one catch before the money can flow: the mayor has to formally request that the council members make a “capital budget modification” before the lawmakers can shift money from one already-funded capital project to another — in this case a fence project that would likely not cost more than a few hundred thousand dollars (more on that later in the show).

The mayor has not indicated if he is willing to ask for the money. (The DOT declined to comment, despite repeated requests from Streetsblog to explain whether it wants the money.)

Activists say the agency should just take the money and … install the fence.

“We’ve heard countless excuses from the city as to why they can’t turn the south outer roadway into an exclusive pedestrian path, so it’s a relief to see Council Members Kallos and Van Bramer stepping up and committing funds for this critical project,” said Transportation Alternatives Queens Organizer Juan Restrepo. “We look forward to seeing the city’s timeline for creating a safe right-of-way for New Yorkers who walk and run over the Queensboro Bridge.”

City Hall’s refusal to request the money would be a stunning development, given the long saga to create what everyone says is absolutely necessary: doubling the space on a narrow bridge for sustainable forms of transportation.

A brief history lesson in easy-to-digest bullet points is necessary:

  • The south outer roadway had long been a car-free path — and there was no security fence beyond the barrier you see today. But in 1996, bikes and pedestrians were banished in a Giuliani-era effort to, well, banish bikes and pedestrians in favor of car drivers.
  • Walking and biking traffic over the Queensboro Bridge was up 200 percent between 2007 and 2017, Streetsblog reported. At the time, advocates were already calling for the south outer roadway to be converted to a walkway.
  • In the morning and evening rush hours, bike and pedestrian traffic — squeezed into one narrow lane — exceeds car traffic on the roadways.
  • Pressure mounted on DOT to do something, and in 2019, the agency started claiming that it could not take away a lane of travel for cars until 2022, when reconstruction work on the upper roadway of the bridge is completed. “Due to upcoming work on the Queensboro bridge, the South Outer Roadway will be needed for vehicle diversions during construction,” a spokesperson said at the time. “If [conversion of the south outer roadway to a bike path]  is found to be feasible, this conversion could be timed to coincide with the completion of the construction work.”
  • The excuse that one lane out of nine couldn’t be taken away from cars was DOT dogma until May, 2020, when the agency issued an entirely new rationale for inaction: there’s no security fence on the south outer roadway. The existing car barrier is “really low and quite scalable, it’s not really safe unfortunately to use for bikes or pedestrians,” Trottenberg said about a barrier that is approximately six feet tall.

Now you’re up to date, except you’re missing some information: the cost of the security fence.

The Department of Transportation told Streetsblog last week that an eight-foot-high security fence would be a “multi-million-dollar” project because it would need to be 1.3 miles long and “would need to be attached securely to an old and landmarked structure.”

The agency has declined to provide any documentation to support that cost estimate, and Streetsblog has filed a Freedom of Information Law request for documents pertaining to the cost of the security fence on the north outer roadway (it’s FOIL-2020-841-03205 in case you’re playing along at home).

“The fencing went in decades ago, and the cost records aren’t readily available,” an agency spokesman told Streetsblog.

Yet somehow the agency was able to set the new pricetag at “multi” millions of dollars.

The number seems preposterous on the face of it. Actually, on George Washington’s face of it.

According to documents reviewed by Streetsblog, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey budgeted $770,000 for the new security fence on the Hudson River span in 2018 [PDF]. That figure is roughly consistent with a 2017 letter from Manhattan Community Board 12 demanding that the Port Authority immediately install the fencing, which was estimated at that time at $703,000 [PDF].

So roughly $770,000 funded a security fence that is 1.56 miles long.

But despite the DOT’s 1.3-mile measurement, the Queensboro Bridge would require only 4,813 feet of fencing to protect the area from First Avenue in Manhattan to 11th Street in Queens, or roughly 58 percent shorter than the GWB fence. Assuming equal costs, the fencing on the Queensboro Bridge should be, at most, $450,000.

Split it two ways between Van Bramer and Kallos, it’s easily doable. And if likely supporters such as Council Members Costa Constantinides and Keith Powers and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer chip in, each lawmaker would need only contribute chump change.

Kallos doesn’t believe for a second the “multi-million” cost estimate.

“Millions? For a fence?” he mocked. “As chairman of the contracts committee, I’d love to pull that contract.”

He also pointed out that whatever the cost of the fence, its construction could be accomplished quickly and more efficiently than other proposals, such as Sam Schwartz’s vision of several new car-free bridges across the East and Hudson rivers.

“At a time when people are talking about spending billions to put in bike highways, this is something we could do now,” Kallos said.

But there’s that sticking point of the mayor needing to formally ask the council for a capital budget modification — and Van Bramer doesn’t think Trottenberg is eager to go that route, which would require the removal of a car lane).

“I had dinner with Polly and the Queens DOT team in Sunnyside and the first thing I brought up was the Queensboro Bridge,” Van Bramer said. “She said, ‘Budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts.’ And she said it’s not something she has the money for. But if DOT came to me and Ben right now and said, ‘We need $250,000 from each of you,’ then, voila, it would happen tomorrow.

“But no one ever says that to us,” Van Bramer added. “I have great respect for Polly, but I don’t think they want to do it.”

Or, as one former DOT official put it bluntly: “It wouldn’t cost millions and if they wanted to do it, they could just do it.”

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