Queens Boulevard Bike Lane Remains Stalled Amid Jail Politics
An April 2019 protest over the stalled Queens Boulevard bike lane (freepicker / Ross Barkan)

Last June, Queens Boulevard was supposed to get a brand-new stretch of bike lane. Set to run from Rego Park to Union Turnpike near Queens Borough Hall, the protected lanes were championed by both City Hall and transportation activists as a way to promote healthy transportation alternatives and cut down on reckless driving.

But more than a year later, the project remains indefinitely stalled. A protest to call for the city to begin work on the bike lanes erupted in April. But the city Department of Transportation has offered neither timeline for a renewal of the project nor an official explanation for the delays.

Publicly, DOT has nothing new to report. “We are moving forward with the redesign and working with the community, but have no updated timeline to share at this time,” said Brian Zumhagen, a DOT spokesperson.

A source close to the city Department of Transportation has told freepicker that work on the easternmost section of bike lane through Rego Park and Forest Hills could begin in the early months of 2020, possibly as soon as January. Yet suspicions remain that the bike lane has become tangled in politics over the city’s proposal for a new jail in nearby Kew Gardens, which has also been a flashpoint in the borough’s too-close-to-call district attorney race.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, a centerpiece of his transportation policy has been the “Vision Zero” initiative, a push to drastically reduce pedestrian fatalities. DOT immediately focused on Queens Boulevard, a heavily trafficked corridor known as the “boulevard of death” because of the more than 100 pedestrians killed crossing the street since 1990.

Part of the city’s planned redesign of Queens Boulevard in 2015 was a bike lane, which would not only protect cyclists, but serve as a traffic calming measure that would make the road safer for pedestrians as well. Since then, there have been only a handful of pedestrian fatalities on the thoroughfare, a stark contrast to the 18 deaths that the roadway saw in the single year of 1997 alone.

Transportation advocates, however, point to the rising rate of cyclist deaths citywide as a sign that City Hall most do far more.

“Without a comprehensive redesign with protected bike lanes, safer crossings, and more space for pedestrians, Queens Boulevard will struggle to shed its ‘boulevard of death’ moniker,” Juan Restrepo, Queens organizer for Transportation Alternatives, told freepicker. “Thousands of seniors, students, cyclists, and other vulnerable road users are counting on the city to put in these life-saving street treatments, this summer, and not delay this process any longer.”

While the three phases of the bike lane, in several western Queens neighborhoods, were rolled out with little opposition over the last few years, the fourth phase of the bike lane initially encountered opposition from the Rego Park and Forest Hills community board and business leaders. The resulting elimination of several hundred parking spaces, they warned, could have a deleterious impact on local businesses.

DOT, however, was prepared to override the local community board. What changed, according to the source close to the agency, was the city’s proposed jail complex at Kew Gardens, which is set to be one of the four borough-based jails intended to replace Rikers Island when it closes in 2027. The new jail drew fierce resistance from the community, both from longtime residents who didn’t want to live next to an expanded jail complex and from those, such as Queens DA primary finalist Tiffany Cabán, who believe no new jails should be constructed anywhere. (Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Cabán’s opponent in the DA race recount, voted against the new jail in June.)

The local city councilmember, Karen Koslowitz had tentatively supported the new jail, something that reportedly led to her constituents heaping scorn on one of her staffpeople at a public meeting in February. With Koslowitz’s support needed for council approval of the jail, City Hall may have determined that it was better to leave the bike lane—which Koslowitz opposed—as a battle for another day. (Koslowitz’s office denied to freepicker there was any link between her support for the jail and City Hall’s retreat from phase four of the bike lane.)

In the meantime, bike activists remained enraged—and not terribly hopeful City Hall will deliver.

“God forbid someone is killed while the mayor delays,” said Peter Beadle, a transportation activist and member of Community Board 6, which encompasses Forest Hills and Rego Park. “Phase four should be completed immediately.”

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