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Authorization To Fix The Crumbling BQE Faster Stalls In Albany

Legislation that the Department of Transportation predicted could shave years and millions of dollars off of critical Brooklyn Queens Expressway repairs floundered in Albany this session, to the frustration of local politicians, policy groups, labor unions, pro-business groups, and residents who live alongside the decaying BQE triple cantilever in Brooklyn Heights.

Currently, New York City seeks a designer for an infrastructure project, then puts out a separate bid for construction. "That separate company is allowed to say, 'Well that design had problems,'" DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said last month. This can lead to delays and lawsuits, she added. A process called design-build, which requires state authorization, requires engineers and construction firms to bid jointly on contracts, forcing accountability, supporters say. The state-run Kosciuszko Bridge replacement, on time and on budget, is a design-build project.

Legislation introduced in the Senate by Brooklyn Republican Marty Golden would have authorized design-build for the BQE and other city-run projects, after similar legislation passed the Assembly. It didn't make it to a floor vote.

"The whole thing has just really puzzled me," said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan policy group. "It kind of seems like apple pie to me. It saves money, it would reduce time, why not support it?"

The steel and concrete BQE trip cantilever carries roughly 123,000 vehicles per day, according to the DOT. Designed by Robert Moses and constructed in 1948, the roadway has already surpassed its intended 50 year lifespan by more than a decade. According to the city, design-build would shave $300 million off of an earmarked $1.89 billion in DOT and Parks Department funding for the BQE overhaul. It would also push up the estimated completion date two years, to 2022.

"This was really a case where the opposition came from outside New York City," said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York, a business interest group that has lobbied for design-build for the last three years.

"There is a basic resistance in Albany, and upstate generally, to what is considered privatization of the state contracting process," she added. "The main opposition comes from public service unions that are concerned about their jobs somehow disappearing or being diminished." (Emily Cote, director of communications for the Civil Service Employees Association, said the union did not take a position on the NYC-specific legislation, but has historically opposed design-build for state agencies. "We wanted to ensure that men and women in the state workforce, who are perfectly trained and qualified to do the work, didn't lose their jobs because of design build outsourcing," she stated.)

Design-build for NYC has also been a sticking point for the Associated General Contractors of New York State, a contractor lobbying group, because the NYC-specific legislation would have required contractors to settle terms with union construction workers. "It makes it hard for nonunion contractors to compete," AGC president Mike Elmendorf told Gothamist, adding that he fears that mandatory project labor agreements would "set a precedent."

On state-run projects, project labor agreements only apply after the relevant agency conducts a study to confirm that a labor agreement would be cost effective, according to the Governor's Office.

NYC Department of Design and Construction Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora said last month that design-build timing is "critical" for the BQE. "If we don't get it now, we may miss the opportunity to be able to use design-build on this project. Because we will have to move forward with a design firm [soon]."

The DOT, however, was more measured this week. "New York City remains committed to securing design-build authority and is exploring all possible options," a spokesperson said. "We intend to leave no stone unturned when it comes to saving time and taxpayer dollars on this critical project."

The next legislative session starts in January. The DOT spokeswoman said that the city will "stand by our support of project labor agreements as included in this year's legislation," suggestion the possibility of a continuing stalemate between upstate and down.

"I think that if design-build is granted to the city [next year] that they can implement it on a project like the BQE, even if some of the preliminary work is already done," Brooklyn Councilman Steve Levin predicted. "It's really silly if the holdup is political, because this is just regular quality of life for eight-and-a-half million New Yorkers. It's totally across the board. I don't care how you interact with the city, you have some interaction with this infrastructure."

In a statement, Cuomo spokesman Morris Peters described the governor as a major proponent of design-build. "In the past, the legislature has rejected expansions of design-build for local governments and unfortunately they did so again this year," he said.

Senator Golden did not respond to requests for comment on his bill, or the Governor's placing of blame on the legislature.

An earlier version of this story said that the Civil Service Employees Association opposed the NYC design-build legislation. In fact, the union opposed design-build for state agencies.

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