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Queens Chronicle

Expect delays: Big road project will take years

Kew Gardens work aims to improve safety and traffic flow, but disruptions around interchange are a major concern

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Posted: Thursday, August 18, 2011 12:00 pm

The city Department of Design and Construction will be repaving Queens Boulevard from 78th Avenue to 80th Road, as well as Kew Gardens Road from Union Turnpike to 80th Road, in a project expected to last two weeks. Work will be done from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. beginning on Monday, Aug. 22 and ending on Labor Day. However, one lane of traffic will remain open at all times.

While some motorists may loath the delays it may cause, it’s nothing compared to a larger project which is scheduled to begin in a few months.

Second phase set for February

In February, the second phase of the Kew Gardens Interchange project will get underway. It is a massive reconstruction and renovation plan affecting a complex web of thoroughfares — the Van Wyck Expressway, Grand Central Parkway, Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike — which are used by half a million vehicles each day.

The first phase of the four-part project, which aims to correct structural problems and operational deficiencies, is already in progress.

The engineers overseeing the project from the Manhattan-based firm of Hardesty and Hanover gave a presentation about the status of the project at a Community Board 8 meeting last Thursday.

It will include the ramp to the northbound Van Wyck, originating from the eastbound Union Turnpike and eastbound Jackie Robinson Parkway; replacing the northbound Van Wyck viaduct, and construction on the eastbound Union Turnpike over the connection between the Grand Central, Van Wyck and merge bridge.

“The Kew Gardens Interchange project is much needed and will ease congestion and make our roads safer,” City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said in an email.“The project will finally allow motorists to have easier access to the roadways that take you to different parts of Queens.This is a long-term project that will take time and patience.”

The interchange project is driven by several factors, including geometrics — improving the shape of the bridges, shoulder widths and number of lanes, according to William Nyman, an associate with Hardesty and Hanover. At the southern end of the interchange where traffic splits between the Van Wyck and the GCP, longer distances are needed so that cars can get into the appropriate lanes.

High accident rates a concern

Another reason for the project is to improve stopping distances and other factors that are correlated with traffic accidents and high volume. It also aims to improve the condition of viaducts, which were built in the 1960s and are not up to current standards. However, Nyman, added that even lacking these improvements, the bridges are safe.

In the southbound direction one of the issues is that as one gets off of the viaduct, heading south, there is a very short distance to merge with traffic coming from the GCP before drivers are locked into a three-lane configuration. The engineers are adding a fourth lane as part of Contract 1, so traffic will flow more smoothly through that area, but as part of Contract 2B, they will be working on fixing the southbound viaducts as well.

“Is there going to be sufficient signage so that trucks will know not to go on the Grand Central?” asked CB 8 board member Mark Lefkof.

Nyman said there are signs there currently that state that, but the engineers are seeking to make more signage improvements to eliminate confusion.

There will be some overlap between the end of Contract 1 and the start of Contract 2A, but that was done intentionally to condense the schedule of the work, according to Nyman.

“One of the reasons we’ve split the contact up is to get competitive bidding on the project,” Nyman explained. “If we bid it all as one big contract we wouldn’t get as many bidders and we wouldn’t get the good prices. It also allows us to get the first contract going and underway while we finalize the second contract.”

Contract 2A will include multiple improvements. There will be a new northbound Van Wyck viaduct structure, which will be expanded from two to three lanes upon completion of Contract 2B. They will also be replacing the ramp that directs westbound traffic from the Jackie Robinson and Union Turnpike to the northbound Van Wyck.

There will be a deck replacement on Union Turnpike over the Van Wyck-GCP connector. The westbound Union Turnpike ramp to the westbound GCP will be realigned. Substantial water and sewer replacements will take place throughout the interchange as well as landscape restoration.

600 trees will have to go

The new construction will require the removal of approximately 600 trees — 300 small diameter or less than 6 inches and 225 medium diameter or 6 to 12 inches. Only about 80 will be replaced during Contract 2A because the rest occupy areas that will be utilized during the next phase of the plan. More trees will be planted later in the project.

An MTA-DOT arterial maintenance yard at the northwest corner of the interchange, adjacent to the subway yard, which has an access road will be realigned to slightly reduce viaducts on the northbound Van Wyck.

“It’s in an area that the public really doesn’t see, but it’s necessary to make the project work,” Nyman said.

The building itself, to the west under the viaducts, will be replaced. A new two-story structure is being proposed to house city and state DOT maintenance groups.

In developing the plan and trying to highlight problem areas, the engineers surveyed accident locations by comparing the number that occur relative to the statewide averages, per vehicle million miles, for a similar facility.

For example the northbound Van Wyck viaduct has four times more accidents than state figures and the south approach is twice as high as the state numbers. The highest rate occurs at the north approach of the southbound Van Wyck, which was almost six times the state average.

Though the engineers are convinced that the project will be worth the time and effort for the long-term improvements it will make, not everyone is pleased with the plan.

Community board skepticism

“The one thing we have been complaining about and we have been complaining about it forever is the traffic backups from the airport, but there is nothing we can do about that,” Mary Ann Carey, district manager of CB 9 said Monday. “I don’t think the project will affect us positively because it will just cause delays, and it has been causing delays.”

Lefkof and other members of CB 8’s Transportation Committee were also concerned about the lengthy duration of the entire interchange project. Contract 2A will cost over $100 million and take 54 months or approximately four and a half years to complete. It consists of five main stages and 17 sub-stages.

“It sounds pretty complicated, but the problem with a project like this is that you do need to maintain traffic and every time you do a piece of work, you have to get traffic shifted somewhere else,” Nyman explained.

Throughout the duration of the construction, two lanes will be maintained on the Van Wyck viaduct as well as three lanes on the adjoining sections of highway, just as it already exists. Pedestrian traffic will be maintained along the eastbound and westbound Union Turnpike.

But there will also be a series of delays.

There will be a temporary overnight detour implemented while a temporary barrier is placed along a two-lane section of the northbound Van Wyck; and during the temporary and permanent construction of a ramp connection from the eastbound Union Turnpike to the northbound Van Wyck. It will also be used for one full weekend in the fall 2015.

Also, 132nd Street will be closed to the eastbound Union Turnpike service road. It will be reduced to two lanes for two months and will infringe upon 36 parking spaces used by the courthouse in Kew Gardens.

Infrastructure needs updating

Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesman for AAA New York said Monday that while he had hoped the project would have been closer to completion by now, he said the plan is necessary in order to prevent roadways from becoming functionally obsolete.

“It is important to bring roadways — the slopes and grades of the hills and the turn radii from the ramps — up to standards,” Sinclair said. “A large part of New York City’s road infrastructure predates modern transportation engineering.”

Sinclair also noted that the interchange is an important link to John F. Kennedy International Airport, providing a route for passengers, cabs and trucks to connect from the southern part of the city to the rest of the region.

City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) also favors the plan, calling it a necessary project to maintain roadways and improve traffic flow.

“Of course it is a big dislocation, levying a short-term burden in the community with noise and the rerouting of street traffic,” Gennaro said. “Our best hope is that the state DOT will fully engage and inform the community, which they have done, of any potential problems that will arise from such a large construction project.”

CB 8’s Transportation Committee had asked the engineers to examine expanding the exit of the Van Wyck at 72nd Avenue, but to realign the exit would infringe upon parkland and take substantial justification such as proof of a high accident rate or serious congestion or operational problems, according to Jim Romanovsky, a consultant supervisor with the state DOT.

Another suggestion the board made was to have the exit go right up to Jewel Avenue, but that is even more problematic, Romanovsky said. It would interfere with a path of parkland that runs along the Van Wyck on the northbound side and a combined sewer culvert that hugs the shoulder.

The boundaries for the entire interchange project include the Van Wyck Expressway from Jewel Avenue to Jamaica Avenue; the Grand Central Parkway from Jewel Avenue to Parsons Boulevard; the Jackie Robinson Parkway from Queens Boulevard to the Van Wyck; and the Union Turnpike from Queens Boulevard to Main Street.

Contract 1 had a price tag of $146 million and is expected to be completed in December 2014. Contract 2B is expected to begin in July 2016.

“This job started out as a $50 million deck replacement in 2000,” Romanovsky said, “and it grew quite a bit.”

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