Brooklyn citizen lobbyists trek to Albany to push for faster, cheaper BQE fix

March 08, 2018

Originally published in Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 08, 2018

Cuomo changes mind, supports design-build; Golden revises bill with ‘add-ons’

By Mary Frost

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Volunteers from six Brooklyn communities attempting to avert years of unnecessary traffic chaos piled onto a bus chartered by the Brooklyn Heights Association early Tuesday morning, headed for the state capitol in Albany.

Stakeholders from Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus and Park Slope were making the trip to lobby for a quicker, cheaper method to carry out the upcoming $1.8 billion rehabilitation of a rapidly deteriorating length of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).

Alarmingly, the stretch of the BQE from Sand Street to Atlantic Avenue will no longer be able to bear the weight of trucks by 2026. The stretch includes the triple-cantilever roadway under the famed Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

The seven-year reconstruction must be completed by 2026. If it’s not, NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) says it will likely have to divert 16,000 trucks daily from the highway onto local streets, causing jams that will reverberate from Brooklyn to Staten Island and Queens.

To get the job done before traffic chaos erupts, Albany must authorize a fast-track contracting process, called design-build, by the end of this month. Design-build would allow the work to be completed as many as two years faster and $113 million cheaper.

But the city needs state approval to use design-build, and this approval has hit a snag in Albany. Though the Assembly approved its use for the BQE last year, the Senate did not. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not initially include the authorization as one of his legislative priorities this session.

[Civic-minded Brooklyn residents board the bus to Albany. The bus was chartered by the Brooklyn Heights Association.] Civic-minded Brooklyn residents board the bus to Albany. The bus was chartered by the Brooklyn Heights Association.

Good News: The Governor Gives His Blessing

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) has taken a lead role in lobbying for design-build.

“I can't say strongly enough how important this trip is,” BHA Executive Director Peter Bray told his fellow travelers as the bus headed north from Brooklyn Heights. He had some good news for the volunteers.

“Yesterday, the governor's counsel sent a letter to Corey Johnson, the new City Council Speaker, announcing that the governor is supporting design-build for New York City for certain projects, in particular the BQE,” Bray said, eliciting applause from the riders.

The support from the governor made their lobbying trip even more important, Bray said. The governor’s “change of heart” could be seen as a kind of letter of intent, he ventured.

“Whatever horse-trading takes place in Albany, it is really critical to have the governor behind design-build,” he said. “So we're going to Albany today to try to close the deal with the Legislature.”

DOT gave the volunteers lists of downstate legislators to call on because of the “courtesy principal” that implies that Senate and Assembly members upstate “are going to show courtesy to our representatives and back this piece of legislation,” Bray said.

Some had already expressed their support, signing a letter that state Sen. Brian Kavanagh and state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon sent to the governor in January. Others attended a rally on the Promenade two weeks ago, or an earlier rally in Brooklyn Bridge Park. But some officials have not yet committed.

“Keep the message focused,” Bray told the volunteer lobbyists. “Get design-build authorization for the BQE.”

[The group lobbies Lauren Done, legislative session assistant to state Sen. Andrew Lanza (Staten Island). From left: Roger Adler, Lauren Done, Bridget Reel, Katherine Davis, Franklin Stone, Peter Bray, Jane Platt and Martha Dietz.] The group lobbies Lauren Done, legislative session assistant to state Sen. Andrew Lanza (Staten Island). From left: Roger Adler, Lauren Done, Bridget Reel, Katherine Davis, Franklin Stone, Peter Bray, Jane Platt and Martha Dietz.

Learning How the Sausage Is Made

After checking through security at the Capitol Building, the 18 volunteers split into an Assembly team and a Senate team. Armed with posters and information packets prepared by BHA, each group visited offices on their appointment list, intending to deliver their talking points and, hopefully, seal the deal.

It turned out that lobbying involves a lot of footwork. Many of the elected officials were not in their offices at the appointed times, but were in conferences or in chambers, and some pitches were instead delivered to legislative aides.

At other times the lobbyists ran into their designated officials — including state Sen. Brian Kavanagh — in the wood-paneled hallways surrounding the historic “million-dollar stairway" of the Capitol building.

[State Sen. Brian Kavanagh speaks meets the lobbyists in the hall next to the Capitol’s “million-dollar staircase.”] State Sen. Brian Kavanagh speaks meets the lobbyists in the hall next to the Capitol’s “million-dollar staircase.”

“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to do this. So let’s just bring it home,” Kavanagh told the citizen lobbyists, adding, “It’s odd that this has taken this long.”

One insider speculated that Cuomo, famously feuding with the mayor, found he could more easily deal with Speaker Johnson in approving the authorization.

Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, also in a hallway visit, said she felt Cuomo’s approval was meant to “signal the Senate.”