Two City Council Members, two state Senators, a Borough President and the head of the city’s foremost bike and pedestrian advocacy group met with Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on Monday — and got what participants said was a firm quasi-commitment that the city would take back a lane on the Queensboro Bridge from car drivers and finally give it back to pedestrians, who currently share a single crowded lane with cyclists going in both directions.
“Everyone wants this project to happen, including Polly Trottenberg,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who walked the bridge with his Council colleague Ben Kallos, plus state Senators Jessica Ramos and Michael Gianaris, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris and Trottenberg. “And everyone knows these are disastrous budgetary times, but the money is not the issue. It’s a small amount of money relatively speaking.”
Well, everything’s relative. At the walkthrough, Trottenberg threw out several price tags to make the bridge’s south outer roadway safe for pedestrians: $3 to $4 million for state-approved fencing to $12 million for a city-approved fence design, participants said. And she asked the participants for patience as she intends to ask the mayor for approval to move ahead, a political ask that isn’t going to be easy when the city is facing billions in red ink.
That said, Kallos and Van Bramer each control $5 million in discretionary funding, and each has promised to pay a significant portion of whatever Trottenberg needs. Brewer, whose discretionary capital budget as borough president is much larger, has also promised to contribute.
Kallos said he was also optimistic.
“My question for the DOT coming into this was what sort of commitment do they need to get this process started — and the response was the process has already started,” the Manhattan lawmaker said.
But there are lots of devils in that process. Kallos and other participants said that once the DOT decides on whether it will do an expensive fence or a less-expensive fence, it has two options: it could write a “change order” on the current roadwork on the bridge to include the fence, but that would require the bridge’s current contractor to agree to do the work at an acceptable cost (which might not happen, given that the contractor would have the city over a barrel) — or the city could go through the normal procurement process, which wouldn’t have to be normal at all.
“It could be done as an emergency procurement, which would require a sign-off by the city comptroller, but my colleagues think that could be done,” Kallos said, adding optimistically that under either scenario, construction could begin in six months.
Other hurdles remain: the bridge is a city landmark, meaning any new fencing would need approval from the design commission (which is ironic, given that the north outer roadway was fitted with a fence back in 2000, so it stands to reason that the same fence should be pre-approved). But all agree that something has to be done.
“The current bike and pedestrian lane is farcical,” Kallos said, referring to a recent photo showing the bike lane markings crashing into each other. “If the bike lane isn’t wide enough for the graphic representing two bikes to be painted on the ground, it ain’t wide enough for two actual bikes.”
The fact that there was a gathering on the bridge at all is a testament (OK, a small testament, but a testament nonetheless) to Streetsblog’s coverage of the issue. Over the last several months, Streetsblog’s coverage has revealed a shifting series of explanations for why the DOT could not convert the south outer roadway — which had long been the pedestrian path on the bridge until it was given to cars permanently in the 1990s — into the walkway it long was so that pedestrians and cyclists in both directions do not have to share a single roadway.
Initially, DOT said it could not even consider south outer roadway conversion until it had finished roadwork on the upper deck of the span. The agency later said it couldn’t repurpose the south outer roadway because it lacked a security and suicide fence. When Kallos and Van Bramer told Streetsblog they would pay for the fence, the DOT went back to the upper deck renovations argument. But Trottenberg has said she would accept the council members’ offer.
“It’s $3 million to save lives,” Van Bramer said. “The north outer roadway is dangerously crowded, with near misses all the time. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. We have an emergency here. The point is not to wait until someone dies on the bridge.”
Oddly, the many participants to whom Streetsblog spoke on Monday said the DOT’s primary stall tactic — the argument that it could not even consider conversion of the south outer roadway into a pedestrian path until the upper deck work is completed — never came up in any discussions on Monday. And background materials provided by the agency have clearly shifted in tone from caution to optimism.
Four participants — Van Bramer, Kallos, Ramos and a fourth principal who requested anonymity because of their position in the negotiations — said no one from DOT said anything about the upper level work as a reason for delay.
“It did not come up at all,” Van Bramer said. “Clearly, we’ve broken that logjam: the rallies, the petitions, the march last Sunday, Streetsblog getting our commitment to fund it — it’s working. I believe that if the mayor told his budget director to give Polly $3 million, it would be done in a day. We left with a commitment that Polly will ask for the money, so we’ll see. It’s still just a matter of political will.”
Kallos credited Van Bramer for starting a push that now includes “Transportation Alternatives, Bike New York, StreetsPAC, the readers of Streetsblog and now three council members, two state senators and a borough president. DOT left with an understanding that this is a strong enough coalition to get it done.”
And it appears DOT understands that.
“We had a productive walkthrough today, and we’re looking forward to working with elected officials and advocates to move this project forward as quickly as our construction timeline and budget priorities allow,” agency spokesman Brian Zumhagen told Streetsblog.