NEW YORK -- It's a Kings County icon. While not exactly as beloved as the Brooklyn Bridge or Prospect Park, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway carries 160,000 vehicles a day and merited a cinematic suite from musician Sufjan Stevens.
But does Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz want to slap tolls on the BQE, as TollRoadsNews, an industry newsletter, has suggested?
Built under the stewardship of master builder Robert Moses, the BQE is now "functionally obsolete" and its sister highway to the south, the Gowanus Expressway, is sucking up $680 million for a redecking.
The plans floating around to fix the roads, both of which form part if I-278, ranged from the ambitious -- repairs for more than $2 billion -- to the audacious -- massive underground tunnels for up to $20 billion. But in late November the state and federal governments scotched those plans and said they'll keep trudging along with interim fixes.
Markowitz, always one for a hyperbolic quote, said in a December 6 letter protesting the move that it was "tantamount to terminating New York State's commitment to addressing the deplorable conditions of Brooklyn's only highway. It is a show of disrespect to the great borough of over 2.5 million people that I represent."
Marty's suggestion: latch on to Governor Andrew Cuomo's recently proposed New York Works Infrastructure Fund.
"You have recently proposed funding infrastructure through the expansion of public-private partnerships including the use of pension fund investments to pay for our roadways and bridges," Markowitz wrote. "Although the details of your proposal need to be finalized, I believe it is a great start and should be used to immediately address Brooklyn's I-278."
The only problem is that many of those "public-private partnerships" for roads pay their investors back through tolls. Pension funds don't just give money away.
As TollRoadsNews's Peter Samuel, a long-time observer of the industry, noted, Markowitz's letter "contains no explicit reference to toll financing, but it is difficult to imagine how public-private partnerships or pension fund investments could be attracted without a solid toll revenue stream."
The people who use "Brooklyn's only highway" probably wouldn't be happy to hear about tolls. They certainly weren't happy when Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to levy a congestion fee on people driving into Manhattan.
Reached over the phone, Markowitz spokesman Jon Paul Lupo quickly shot down Samuel's perhaps slightly mischievous interpretation of the BP's letter.
"Absolutely not," Lupo said. "The borough president would not support placing tolls on the Gowanus or the BQE."
Perhaps Markowitz just misunderstood. Governor Cuomo so far has been slow on releasing infrastructure fund details. Many New York pols seem to have mistakenly imagined it will simply mean free money for their pet projects. But public-private partnerships almost always come with a catch, and sometimes a toll.