Today’s news:

Whitestone Br. heads for 4 yrs. of construction

Traffic will only get worse in northeast Queens while the MTA completes work on the Queens approach to the Whitestone Bridge, which will leave a lane closed for more than a year and the 3rd Avenue exit off the Whitestone Expressway shut down for two.

Commuting will be rough for nearly four years while construction is underway on the vital connector between Queens and the Bronx, but officials said at a meeting with Community Board 7 members and community leaders last week that the payoff will be worth the headache.

Bidding closed April 5 for the contract to complete the final phase of a four-year, $200 million project to rehabilitate the aging bridge, which was built in the 1930s. The work will replace the entire Queens approach to the bridge, widen its lanes and install emergency shoulders there over the course of 42 months, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to award the contract in June, according to MTA Bridges and Tunnels acting Facility Engineer Chris Saladino.

The bad news is that there will be 378 days of lane closures during that phase of construction and the 3rd Avenue exit off the Whitestone Expressway will be closed for up to two years while the work is underway, according to the MTA. For most of that period, only one lane will be shut down at a time in order to allow crews to replace the bridge’s 72-year-old roadway decking.

Although it will inconvenience millions of drivers for the next few years, the project is a necessity for the future of interborough travel, according to Ray Webb, general manager of the bridge.

“There’s some good things coming on the Queens side, but there will be a little bit of pain, which we’ll be doing everything we can to mitigate,” he said. “The contractor has been identified. We just have to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. It will happen in the next few weeks.”

The future of the playground at Francis Lewis Park below the bridge’s Queens approach has been a sticking point with residents. The existing playground will close permanently Sept. 22 and a replacement playground is slated to open to residents in March 2012, MTA officials said.

“The playground will be the first thing they do when the contract is awarded, before they even get to working on the bridge,” MTA Bridges and Tunnels spokeswoman Joyce Mulvaney said.

Another key concern of many neighbors, including Malba Gardens Civic Association President Al Centola, is the possibility that noise levels will increase in the area when the work is complete.

Centola is worried that the added width of the bridge will eventually bring vehicle traffic closer to homes, which the MTA says will not happen because the new capacity will be reserved only for use as a breakdown lane.

“We currently have a noise study that we’re working on right now, and we’re looking into it,” Saladino said.

In 2010, 41 million vehicles used the Whitestone Bridge, according to the MTA. Construction on the Bronx approach to the bridge, which began in December 2008, is ongoing. So far, new foundations and concrete piers have been constructed beneath the bridge and two lanes of the approach roadway heading to the Bronx have been replaced.

One Queens-bound lane will be closed through the end of the fall. But three traffic lanes remain open in peak morning and afternoon directions by using the center lane as a reversible traffic lane, according to the MTA.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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