Drivers who chug along the Grand Central, just as it breaks away from the Jackie Robinson, can’t help but notice the massive construction project at the Kew Gardens Interchange, the series of ramps and roads at the confluence of the Grand Central Parkway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Jackie Robinson Parkway, Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike.
With the summer months approaching, the state Department of Transportation is confident traffic will lighten, making for an easier commute, but with the project going on for over a year now, there is some skepticism over the outcome this transportation hub makeover will have.
“Well, the split is going to be enlarged and the lanes will be widened and it should make a difference, but just how much of a difference it’ll make has yet to be seen,” AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said.
The project has been split up into two contracts. The first, which began in 2010, is reconstructing a half-mile section of the Van Wyck, just south of the interchange between Union Turnpike and Hillside Avenue, as well as a quarter-mile section of Queens Boulevard over the Van Wyck Expressway.
The second contract, which got underway in 2012, continues Van Wyck construction north to 72nd Avenue, an additional three-quarters of a mile. It will replace the northbound Van Wyck viaduct with a three-lane version. The ramp connecting the westbound Jackie Robinson and Union Turnpike with the northbound Van Wyck will be replaced and widened into two lanes.
The contracts are scheduled for completion in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
“As far as I have observed, there is an inherent engineering flaw at the peak ramps of the interchange, which backs up traffic on the Van Wyck almost to the airport,” Sinclair said. “This project will address some major problems on a major roadway by updating the ramps, but a lot more needs to be done.”
The first project is being funded on the city, state and federal levels. The second contract is not being funded by the city.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) is optimistic that the project will be successful.
“We’ll have to wait and see of course, but I certainly hope it helps with traffic,” she said. “That was the intention of this project. The way they presented it, it seemed legitimate. If it’s the improvement they say it’s going to be then, yes, I’ll be happy with it, but if not, that’s going to be upsetting because a lot of money went into this.”
According to the state DOT, the current construction cost of both projects is $260,053,000.
“The genesis of the project was the need to perform repairs on the Van Wyck Expressway viaducts, which were built in the 1960s,” Adam Levine, director of public affairs for the state DOT, said.“Upon further analysis, our engineers saw an opportunity to improve safety and reduce congestion with modest improvements to the interchangeIn addition to the structural repairs, the expressway will see the addition of shoulders, which will provide breakdown space in emergencies, as well as an auxiliary lane between Hillside Avenue and the Grand Central Parkway in order to relieve the bottleneck at Queens Boulevard. Both of these improvements, as well as others being done on ramps and on Queens Boulevard, are expected to improve safety and reduce congestion for drivers through the interchange.”
Residents and commuters in the area seemed indifferent to the construction and the outcome.
“There’s been construction here for so long, I don’t even think about it,” Evelyn Sanchez said. “Then again, I take the bus and train, so I guess my opinion doesn’t really matter in this situation but if it helps, good.”
“I don’t know, I hope it improves things,” Kevin Heck said. “Whenever I hear the DOT say something is going to get better, I’m hesitant to believe them. There are so many roads and lights and intersections where there are problems and they don’t seem to fix those, so I’m not sure this will be much different. I will tell you that if it does everything they’re saying it will, it’ll make driving around here a bit more pleasant.”
“Whatever the outcome of what they’re doing, it’ll definitely improve safety,” Kew Gardens Civic Association Chairman Al Brand said. “The interchange is one of the most dangerous roadways in the city.”
Sinclair suggested that the major issue that needs to be addressed would require an extreme citywide effort.
“These roads predate modern engineering, so the amount of trucks that go through here just beats up the roads, causes congestion and emits diesel fuel,” he said. “And we have all of these trucks because we lack a rail freight tunnel.”
Sinclair went on to say that transporting goods by rail would not only clear up some of the traffic; it would also improve air quality.
“The emissions from one 100,000-pound truck does the same damage as 20,000 cars,” he said. “Now think of all of the trucks driving, not only on the interchange but all over the city.”
While transporting by rail would be efficient, Brand said, we need to be more practical.
“I think in a perfect world, having more rail would reduce truck capacity, but this sort of ‘pie in the sky’ mentality isn’t realistic,” he said. “You can’t have a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality for every project and I think that the state really is trying to do what it can.”
Levine said complaints have been minor throughout.
“Really, the only complaints we’ve gotten were from civic associations looking for updates,” he said. “Those really weren’t even complaints, they were really just looking for good information.”
Brand did add that when the DOT presented to the civic association, officials mentioned that they studied the area for some time before coming up with a proposal for the hub.
The project will not be complete for some years, so the effect the alterations have will only be seen ... down the road.