The plan recently announced by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to deal with a key piece of interstate highway structure that needs significant repairs appears to put a heavy burden on the trucking industry.
At the center of the plan is a structure that is unique in American highways: a three-deck cantilever that carries roughly 150,000 cars a day on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), which is also part of Interstate 278 in the New York City area.
But the cantilevered highway that hugs the waterfront in Brooklyn, across from lower Manhattan, is corroding and has significant structural weakness. The city and state have been discussing solutions for years.
What de Blasio’s office announced last week is a plan that is far less radical than others that have been proposed for keeping traffic flowing while repairs were made. The mayor’s office says the repairs would extend the life of the cantilevered section of the BQE for 20 years, which when measured in terms of potential mayoral terms — limited to eight years — could mean that mayors not far down the line are going to need to tackle this issue again.
The section of the highway in question is not long; depending on where the measurements begin and end, it’s not more than 1.5 miles.
And the “comprehensive” plan released by the mayor’s office seeks to “reimagine the corridor for a long term future with less reliance on large diesel trucks.”
Among key parts of the plan that will impact trucks, according to the prepared statement from the mayor’s office:
— Weigh-in motion technology will be installed. The goal will be “to automatically fine overweight trucks, which put undue strain on the structure.” De Blasio’s statement also said it already has increased the number of summonses for overweight vehicles fivefold since February. (The city’s separate plan for dealing with future freight movements, “Delivering New York,” said about 90% of vehicles with four or more axles are overweight. The plan, released in May, based that conclusion on road sensors from two unidentified sites in the city.)
— There will be a monthly period of “surge enforcement,” where additional law enforcement units are deployed for a certain period of time to enforce weight laws.
A plan to cut the amount of capacity on the highway also has the potential to impact truck movement. At the end of August, a half-mile stretch of the highway will drop from three lanes to two. The two lanes will be wider than the existing lanes, but the assumption is that by adding room for a shoulder — which doesn’t exist now — it can make exit and entry easier and allow breakdowns to be cleared up faster. “This will reduce weight along a critical segment of the structure, make the roadway safer, and reduce delays caused by breakdowns and collisions.”
Ultimately, the plan leaves everything in place at the BQE that is in place now. It is radically scaled down from some earlier plans for rebuilding, one of which called for a temporary highway to be built along the top tier of the cantilever, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade — open now only to pedestrians — while the road was rebuilt underneath. That plan met with fierce opposition from residents of Brooklyn Heights.
Plans to extend the life of the highway for 20 years do not just include trying to discourage overweight trucks. They also involve continuation of concrete and rebar work that is ongoing as well as new work beginning next year.
Kendra Hems, the president of the Trucking Association of New York, told FreightWaves in a phone interview that her group was “incredibly frustrated” by the relatively small scope of what the mayor’s office announced.
“For over two years, they’ve been talking and reviewing proposals,” she said. “Everybody understands the severity of how bad the road has deteriorated.”
But reducing weight on the cantilever is a “tricky subject,” Hems said.
That’s because the city formerly granted permits for certain trucks to exceed weight limits. That program ended in the ’80s, she said, but a grandfather clause allowed the permits to continue and survive transfer to a successor truck.
So if a company had a permit for a given truck, and that truck was retired due to age, the truck that replaces it can be granted the same permit. A new vehicle, however, cannot get a permit.
“They’ve created a system of have versus have not,” Hems said. “Some companies that have permits can legally run overweight, and then there are others that can’t get them.”
Moreover, while New York City stopped granting the so-called Divisible Load Overweight Permits, the state of New York continues to do so. The number of grandfathered city permits floating around the industry is believed to be in the thousands.
That often means that a company with one or more permits is able to bid more competitively on work, Hems said, because the permit effectively gives it more capacity.
Hems said her organization is “not opposed to enforcing the law against trucks that are blatantly violating it.” But given the focus on overweight vehicles in extending the life of the cantilevered section of the BQE, “we feel strongly we should be having a serious conversation about the permit program.”
A push to reduce big rig traffic is not just showing up in the plans for stabilizing the BQE. In the “Delivering New York” report, subtitled “A Smart Truck Management Plan,” the opening letter by Transportation Commissioner Henry Gutman said “more and larger trucks are emphatically not the answer.”
“We need to bring about a transformative shift in the way freight moves through our city, to reduce our dependence on large trucks to deliver goods on our neighborhood streets,” Gutman said.
One of the ways New York City has sought to do so has been to more fully utilize the city’s waterways. The North American Marine Highway Alliance was created last year, with New York City’s backing, to try to move freight off Interstate 95 and other north-south highways on the Eastern Seaboard and put it on barges or ships.
Separately, the Freight NYC plan unveiled in 2018 seeks to use the waterways of the city to take trucks off the road and put it on barges instead.