By Benjamin Fang
Queens is at the epicenter of some of the city’s most exciting transportation initiatives.
The Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar may finally offer much-needed north-south connectivity; Select Bus Service (SBS) is Woodhaven and Cross Bay boulevards can cut commute times in a transit desert; NYC Ferry now allows residents of Far Rockaway, Astoria and Long Island City to travel by water.
Meanwhile, both LaGuardia and John K. Kennedy International airports are undergoing major redevelopments to make traveling nationally and internationally a better experience.
These are some of the projects being closely watched by Tammy Petsios, managing director of VHB’s New York City office and co-chair of the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Committee. VHB, an engineering and planning consulting firm, has a hand in many of these transportation projects.
“It’s about mobility and getting people and services moving,” Petsios said.
Inside her office at One Penn Plaza, Petsios discussed her thoughts on some of the biggest short-term and long-term projects that will affect the borough.
On the BQX streetcar, which is still in its feasibility stage, Petsios, a Whitestone resident, said it can be a win-win for residents and businesses alike if it is implemented.
“You tap into so many more potential employees if you had easier access,” she said. “Imagine going from Astoria to Sunset Park, it’ll take you from one end of the N train to another. There’s a very big need to connect Brooklyn and Queens. Going through Manhattan is just not feasible.”
She noted that there are still concerns to be addressed. The long construction period could potentially disrupt businesses along the route and affect truck routes. Michael McArdle, senior vice president and chief development officer at VHB, said the challenge is designing the streetcar and constructing it in a way that won’t put companies out of business.
“It will be disruptive during construction, but in the long run, I think it’s going to be a huge boon for businesses,” he said.
Another idea Petsios is watching closely is Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s light rail proposal connecting south and central Queens to Long Island City, serving neighborhoods like Glendale along the way.
Petsios said it’s a good idea because the right-of-way already exists, and the project wouldn’t need extensive environmental studies. However, the rail line, which currently carries freight, would need to build new stations and get the support of the MTA.
“It’s something that has to be looked at holistically,” she said. “A lot of the folks in those areas are underserved.”
Petsios is a fan of the Woodhaven SBS, a cheaper and faster way to improve transportation for residents of southeast Queens. Another proposal to connect south and central Queens is the QueensRail, which would reactivate the rail line between Rego Park and Ozone Park.
More than 70 years ago, the line was used by the Long Island Railroad and was known as the Rockaway Beach branch. Some residents are now calling for it to be opened once again.
Petsios said though she sees a need to get people in and out of the Rockaways, particularly after the Far Rockaway rezoning, QueensRail would have to be approved by the MTA board. It could potentially carry a high cost, and would need to be included in the MTA’s capital plan.
“Funding is always an issue, so they’re going to look at the cheaper solutions,” she said. “You have ‘x’ amount of jelly beans that you’re dealing with. You have so many moving parts.”
Petsios and McArdle also discussed the current MTA crisis and proposals to fund immediate improvements. Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to unveil a congestion pricing plan, while Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for a millionaire’s tax.
Petsios, a 30-year veteran of the engineering industry, said congestion pricing has been studied under previous mayors, including Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. She has doubts about whether it can even pass, especially when it affects the outer boroughs like Queens.
“I really think it’s going to be difficult to pass in the city where there’s a lot of opposition,” she said. “I don’t think it has the political momentum behind it.”
However, having gone through the “Summer of Hell,” Petsios said she understands the need for more funding, one way or another.
“There has to be a dedicated funding source,” she said. “They have to make those repairs.”
McArdle commended both the mayor and governor for their proposals, though he isn’t sure which is the best solution. What he does know, he said, is that the traditional ways of funding transportation infrastructure won’t work today.
“Like when you build a new house, it’s great for the first 10 to 15 years, you don’t have to spend any money on maintenance because it’s new,” he said. “But now, we need to maintain this infrastructure. The money that we once had to build new infrastructure and expand the transportation network is now going to maintain it.
“This summer is a great example of what happens when you defer the maintenance,” he added. “We need to come up with innovative and creative ways of funding our infrastructure going forward.”
McArdle said he believes that technology and the private sector will need to play a big role in finding solutions. In order for that to work, there needs to be “trust and open, transparent collaboration” between private and public organizations.
“We have to encourage and embrace and look for those types of funding mechanisms, through public-private partnerships and be more creative on that side,” he said.
He added that technology will continue to play a bigger role in transportation, and people should embrace it. McArdle said he sees a future with autonomous cars, real-time decision-making based on data and more efficient ways of getting around.
“Where technology is leading, it could create solutions for us that we never envisioned,” he said. “We need to be thinking about smarter solutions looking to the future, not solutions that worked back in the 50s and 60s.”
One way that transportation projects can move faster is through design-build, a method that allows engineers, designers and contractors to work collaboratively to design and build simultaneously.
Traditionally, when an agency wants to do a project, they hire an engineering firm to create a fully detailed design. The project then gets put out for a bid, and the winning contractor constructs the project.
Under design-build, an agency puts together a preliminary design. A team of engineers and contractors then puts a bid together to finish the design and build at once.
Though the state has used design-build on projects like the Kosciuszko Bridge and will apply it for the L train tunnel renovation, the city cannot legally use it. Petsios and McArdle want that changed.
“They have thousands of bridges they’re responsible to maintain in the city, and would love to have the ability to do design-build,” McArdle said. “That saves money in and of itself. It allows you to get things done more quickly.”
He said it could speed up the process for projects like the LaGuardia AirTrain or BQX.
Moving forward, Petsios said the Queens Chambers’s Transportation Committee will continue hosting events and guest speakers to discuss transportation projects that can improve the lives of Queens businesses and residents.
“It’s an open dialogue between decision-makers in the agencies and listening to the businesses and people affected by this,” she said. “We’re a facilitator in providing these opportunities. We’re in the infancy, but we’re hoping to continue that in the future.”