Trucks rumbled along the crumbling triple cantilever section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway Friday afternoon as NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg implored state legislators to pass a bill she believes could shave two years and millions of dollars off of critical repairs. Unless a streamlined "design-build" process is approved in the next 11 days, she argued, a long-overdue overhaul to the high-traffic roadway could get further bogged down in bureaucracy.
"We really need to get moving," Trottenberg said. "The structure is safe at the moment but it's not something where I can wait years and years. We've been up in Albany for a few years now trying to make this case."
Supporters of design-build say the process holds engineers and construction firms accountable by forcing them to bid jointly on contracts. Currently, New York City seeks a designer for a project, then puts out a separate bid for construction. "I have one company that does my design, and then I hand that to a separate company [for construction]," Trottenberg said. "That separate company is allowed to say, 'Well that design had problems.'" This can lead to delays and lawsuits, she said.
"Timing is critical," added Department of Design and Construction Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora. "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 BQE rehab project already hit a major snag in 2011, when the State Department of Transportation backed out. Topped with the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the steel and concrete structure supports three lanes of Queens-bound traffic, which jut over three lanes of Staten Island bound traffic. Designed by Robert Moses and constructed in 1948, the network of roadways 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, according to DOT.
Opponents of design-build include upstate labor unions who argue the streamlining process could marginalize their rights and benefits, Crain's reports. Public employee unions have also pushed back, demanding that approved projects include explicit protections of their bargaining rights. The State Society of Professional Engineers has argued that engineers could lose autonomy under the process.
But local union organizations—including the NYC Central Labor Council and the NY Building Congress—support design-build, which also has the endorsement of good government groups. "So much of this city was built up to 50, 80, 100 years ago," Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, told reporters on Friday. "It is deteriorating. It is aging. We need to make sure the limited funds we have for infrastructure get stretched as much as possible."
Republican State Senator Marty Golden introduced legislation this session that would secure design-build for the BQE, one of eight projects NYC has prioritized, including the Rodman's Neck NYPD training facility and a new NYPD Precinct in Southeast Queens.
"I'm working with Senator [Daniel] Squadron to at least help us get out the BQE and Rodman's Neck," Golden said Friday. "We're going to hopefully come up with a compromise, [but] we have a lot of work to do." (The bipartisan support is unusual, a spokesman for Squadron, a Democrat, noted.)
Governor Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mayor de Blasio, who has long endorsed design-build for the BQE, stated Friday that, "We have serious capital needs that cannot wait for an emergent crisis."
Senator Squadron, who represents Brooklyn Heights, said Friday that considering Albany's track record, action now is critical.
"The normal session ends in three weeks time," he said. "After that there's no way to get this authorization until the beginning of next year. And the way this works in Albany, everyone says, 'Let's wait until the end of the budget' ... and if it doesn't happen in the budget, everyone says, 'Alright, by end of session.' And before you know it you're thirteen months from today."
Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon predicted the wait could be disastrous. "This roadway is being beaten up all the time and it's not going to continue to last," she said. "We need to build a shorter nightmare, rather than a longer one."