A planned renovation of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York City raises the opportunity to consider community input and environmental justice when implementing the major infrastructure project.
The future of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a major highway in New York City that circles Brooklyn and connects Brooklyn with Queens, currently is the subject of a major dispute between environmental justice and community groups and the city’s mayor. This expressway was built by city planner Robert Moses over the course of almost 30 years last century. As the only interstate highway in Brooklyn, it represents a major source of transportation for cars and trucks: 130,000 vehicles make daily use of the BQE. According to the Office of the New York City Comptroller, approximately 80 percent of vehicles use the BQE for intracity transportation (35 percent within Brooklyn), and about 9 percent are trucks shipping goods into the city from other regions. Though heavily relied upon for movement of people and goods, an important debate has emerged regarding the role of the BQE (and, more broadly, highways throughout the city) in continuing to transport people and goods for decades to come.
As the city of New York determines its plans around the future of the BQE, understanding the environmental impact of these decisions and how the decisions will affect communities of color for years to come is paramount, particularly considering the legacy of harm created by the highway development that Robert Moses spearheaded. Equally important is the process of community input around decisionmaking. A current proposal is under review by the federal Department of Transportation (US DOT) to rebuild and expand part of the BQE, despite community opposition and efforts to develop alternative, community-led plans. How the US DOT resolves this dispute is a bellwether for understanding how the agency will incorporate justice principles in its grant review process, in light of federal commitments to resolve the persistent environmental injustices that are caused by the construction of large highways through communities of color.
The BQE has a problematic history. To build it, Robert Moses defunded many miles of public transit that connected Brooklyn and Queens (mainly aboveground trams), which had provided significant mobility options for residents (Figure 1). The construction of the highway also displaced many communities of color, bifurcating neighborhoods such as Red Hook and Williamsburg.
Figure 1. Public Transit in New York City
Above: 1924 (pre–Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). Below: Current (post–Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). Source: Segregation by Design.
Although the current public transit system in New York City is the largest in the country, commuting between Brooklyn and Queens on public transit is particularly difficult and time consuming—even though these two boroughs are contiguous. Only one rail line runs directly between Brooklyn and Queens (the G). Commuters moving between points that are not attached to this specific corridor must either take a bus (which, given congestion, can be an excruciatingly slow endeavor) or travel into Manhattan and then transfer lines to head backward again to the outer boroughs, adding significant time to what otherwise could have been short commutes. Aside from being inefficient, a large difference in commute times between public and private transportation creates an incentive for commuters to travel via private vehicles instead of public transit, contributing to the massive amount of congestion and air pollution in the city.
Planning in Motion
Much like many US highways across the country, the BQE is starting to crumble. One particular section of the expressway (the “BQE Central” shown in Figure 2) is precarious and has been the focus of maintenance plans for the past few years.
Figure 2. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway
In 2021, New York City released Reimagine the BQE, a “comprehensive plan to extend the life of the [BQE] cantilever for at least another 20 years, while reimagining the corridor for a long-term future with less reliance on large, diesel trucks.” The plan involved conducting maintenance on the BQE while gathering and using community input to develop a community-based vision for the entire transit corridor, including a traffic management plan and approaches to reducing the concentration of truck traffic along this corridor and beyond.
Under this solution, the community would not have been burdened with expanded highways and the associated pollution and land loss. Instead, members of the community would have participated in deciding what kind of transit solutions for the region would best serve their needs. Given the mobility challenges that commuters face in the outer boroughs, and the air pollution and congestion citywide, this type of reset could have been beneficial particularly in terms of reducing reliance on private vehicles in New York, where 44 and 62 percent of households in Brooklyn and Queens, respectively, own cars.
However, when New York City Mayor Eric Adams came into office in 2022, this original plan was defunded, and in 2023, New York State and City governments jointly submitted a grant application for $800 million to fully rebuild the BQE Central. The application was submitted to the Mega grant program, a funding pool established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for “large, complex projects that are difficult to fund by other means and are likely to generate national or regional economic, mobility, or safety benefits.” The requested $800 million represents 14 percent of the total project cost. Construction is estimated to last for six years.
A key difference between these two plans is the level of involvement by the local community in deciding how these investments will be made. The city’s Mega grant application claims that the plan will consider community input, yet community groups believe that input sessions with the city essentially have been performative. Indeed, the current grant has motivated significant community opposition, with resistance from environmental justice groups, residents, neighborhood groups, and nongovernmental organizations.
Creating a Just Future
The federal government has stated its intent to repair the harms that highways have placed on communities of color, particularly in light of the Justice40 Initiative, which specifies that federal investments must provide 40 percent of their benefits to disadvantaged communities. Additionally, in April 2023, the federal government released the executive order “Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All,” which seeks to advance environmental justice through federal decisions and investments. The executive order specifically calls out the need to “strengthen engagement with communities and mobilize federal agencies to confront existing and legacy barriers and injustices.”
Implicit in the executive order is the idea that advancing environmental justice outcomes through investments in transportation infrastructure requires addressing more than distributional justice (the idea of ensuring that the benefits of the investment are shared across all communities). These investments also must incorporate recognition justice (recognizing the harm the BQE has placed, and continues to place, on environmental justice communities) and procedural justice (meaning that the community has a true voice in deciding what their transportation system looks like). Thus, financing highway repair and replacement within the framework of environmental justice requires decisionmakers to consider these three principles of justice. We will wait to see whether the review of the Mega proposal by the US Department of Transportation sufficiently weighs these justice considerations in its grant review.
The two BQE repair plans represent fundamentally different perspectives on incorporating community input and enacting justice principles in transportation planning. These plans therefore serve as an excellent case study on exploring the most effective ways to implement the federal Justice40 requirements. Reimagine the BQE, the plan proposed by the city in 2021 but defunded in 2022, epitomizes a just process. The new plan, which was proposed in 2023 and involves a Mega grant application and highway expansion, has the potential to perpetuate the same injustices that communities of color have faced for decades, particularly if voices from local communities are not a significant part of the process.
The US DOT has said that the Mega grant program will comply with Justice40 commitments. If the agency is truly committed to contributing to a just transportation system nationwide, it must take recognition justice and procedural justice seriously. Acknowledging these forms of justice would require the federal agency to consider the BQE grant in light of alternative options which are led by the communities that are affected by these investments. If the US DOT decides to grant the funds, it should carefully scrutinize how the city is incorporating community feedback, with the aim of ensuring that federal investment in local infrastructure does not continue to exacerbate existing inequities over the coming decades.