The $35-million Whitestone Expressway drainage project has been shortened by five years, just as the area has been ravaged by flooding.
Speeding up the time-frame had nothing to do with the recent storm damage, officials said at a meeting last Friday that included City Councilman John Liu, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Christopher Ward and about 40 members of the community.
The comprehensive plan, which started one year ago, will provide storm sewer, catch basins and drainage outlets in the area immediately east of the Whitestone Expressway in the vicinity of 20th Avenue.
Douglas Greeley, DEP deputy commissioner, explained that Queens developed as a cluster of independent villages, and that each one spent the least amount of money possible on sewage removal. “Nobody thought comprehensively about the drainage systems,” he said.
If the massive scope of this project is any indication, the DEP has been thinking big this time. Funding has been increased from $30 million to $35 million, and the project will be completed in five years instead of the original estimate of ten. Greeley said that from an engineering standpoint, the project is very exciting.
He said the timeframe was adjusted in part because of the help of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. In response to community pressure to move faster, the DEP got the EDC involved, which is also developing the College Point Corporate Park. The EDC has a streamlined procurement process that speeds up the bidding and acceptance procedure.
Phase one of the project will open up a tunnel underneath the Whitestone expressway. This tunnel will serve as an outlet for stormwater collected from the area east of the Expressway and south of 20th Avenue that currently has no sewers. The storm sewers will eventually discharge into retention ponds in the old Flushing Airport.
The tunnel under the Whitestone Expressway will be constructed using a process called “micro-tunneling.” It is less disruptive because workers make one opening at the start of the tunnel and then burrow through, as opposed to opening up the tunnel from the top for its entire length.
The Whitestone project will be a “blue-belt” one, meaning it will use nature and gravity to route the water. The old Flushing Airport is a natural wetlands, and rainwater from the surrounding areas would naturally flow to it.
Once the water reaches the wetlands, Greeley and his team are planning to use less invasive methods for keeping the rainwater in the retention pools. Instead of building concrete walls, for example, the DEP will use plantings and landscaping as natural barriers. Greeley said this type of urban planning is the wave of the future. Blue-belt drainage projects have been completed in the area around John F. Kennedy International Airport and on Staten Island.
He added that when the system is completed, it will solve the normal flooding problems that area residents have been experiencing, but the extraordinary storm that occurred two weeks ago was impossible to prepare for.
From the wetlands, a piping system will shuttle water through to the Flushing Canal. This would have been the unhindered natural route of rainwater, Greeley said. He emphasized that water will constantly be moving from the wetlands to the canal, so mosquito larvae will not have a chance to develop.
In the second stage of phase one, the DEP will be building storm sewers into neighborhoods in the area bounded by 20th Avenue, the Whitestone Expressway, 147th Street and Bayside Avenue. The next stage will build sewers farther east, in an area bounded by 147th Street, Bayside Avenue, 149th Street and 16th Road.
Phase two will move the project north. As in phase one, the outlet under the Whitestone Expressway will be built first, and then the sewers in the neighborhood will be put in. These will be in the area bounded by 20th Avenue, the Whitestone Expressway, the Cross Island Parkway and 147th Street.
Residents are lobbying for input into where the new sewers will be built, and so far the DEP has been responsive. Councilman Liu will be spearheading a community task force to bring residents of affected neighborhoods together with the DEP to designate which areas regularly have the worst flooding and where to put storm drains so they will be most effective.
Rosemarie Veljak, president of the 20th Avenue Homeowners Association, said at the meeting that it was important for the community to stay involved and keep the pressure on the city officials. “We know what is best for us,” she said.
Councilman Liu, who moderated the meeting, said that hopefully the DEP will be committed to working with the local residents to solve a long-term problem.