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No federal funds for Queens Blvd. improvements

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Safety measures implemented over the past six months have reduced the accident rate on Queens Boulevard, leading the city to leave the roadway off its latest list of transportation projects that qualify for federal funding.

The absence of Queens Boulevard from the city’s Transportation Improvement Program list suggests there are no long-term plans to redesign the thoroughfare that has claimed 74 pedestrian lives since January 1993.

“It means that the DOT does not seem to be considering a long- term overhaul of Queens Boulevard,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian advocacy group.

Instead the city will rely on new safety measures. Since January it has lowered the speed limit to 30 mph, added two red light cameras, created a new parking lane to calm traffic in the service road, lengthened the time given to pedestrians to cross during peak hours and installed barriers to hinder jaywalking.

The Police Department has also increased its vigilance in issuing summonses to speeders and jaywalkers, issuing tens of thousands of summonses.

Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, noted that the changes are working. He cited a 21 percent drop in pedestrians struck by vehicles and a 13 percent decline in accidents involving injuries along the boulevard in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

From January to June 2001, 23 pedestrians were struck by a vehicle along the boulevard, compared to 29 in the same period last year, according to Cocola. There were 84 accidents involving injuries in the first six months of 2001 vs. 96 in the same period last year, he said.

“We believe that the initiatives we’ve taken since January of this year have helped save lives,” said Cocola.

Despite applauding the new safety steps, community members, advocates and urban planners contend the city did not go far enough.

“The safety improvements are a great step forward, but it’s still very tough for old people to cross,” said Kaehny. “No matter how hard you work, it is a major highway with crosswalks. That’s wrong. That’s not what Queens should have as its defining street.”

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D. Forest Hills), who has lived in Forest Hills for 39 years, said the new measures were, “a first step but by no means an only step. Everything has to be done to make sure more people don’t get killed.”

Norbert Chwat, president of the Forest Hills Action League and a city council candidate, said his organization wants the city to completely overhaul the seven-mile roadway, the city’s widest.

“The only way you can guarantee there are no more deaths is to reengineer it,” he said. “They are using it like the Grand Central Parkway. But Queens Boulevard is running through a residential community.”

Allan Jacobs, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley who published a study on Queens Boulevard in 1995, agreed with Chwat. “Safety measures are great, but an awful lot of physical improvements have to be done to make it a good street,” he said.

His report recommended widening the medians and narrowing the service lanes. The larger medians would then be transformed into a park of sorts with planted trees, benches and light fixtures.

But in order to redesign Queens Boulevard, the busy thoroughfare needed to appear on the TIP list, a requirement for any capital project to receive federal funding. Cocola said a major overhaul such as the one described in Jacobs’ report would cost around $200 million, roughly half of the department’s annual capital budget. He described the current plan as “faster, smarter and easier.”

The 650 projects included on the list, to be finalized later this month, are divided between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city and state Departments of Transportation.

The MTA projects include the Second Avenue subway and connecting the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal. Among the DOT projects are the reconstruction of the Gowanus Expressway and construction work on the Brooklyn, Queensboro and 145th Street bridges.

Koslowitz hopes that the absence of Queens Boulevard from the list does not mean it will fade from the public’s attention.

“I don’t want it to be forgotten,” she said. “It’s too big of a street, too dangerous to be forgotten about.”

Reach Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:18 pm, October 10, 2011
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