Bronx Groups Hope State Doesn’t Insist on its Way for the Highway

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James M. Mituzas, RLA/NYC Parks

Concrete Plant Park, one of the open spaces that Hunts Point community groups worry will be harder to reach if the state goes ahead with its plan to rework access to the Bruckner.

Dozens of South Bronx community residents and business owners, along with activists and experts, testified last week against the state proposal for how to reroute truck traffic after the impending renovation of the Sheridan Expressway.

It was the final public hearing for the Hunts Point Interstate Access Improvement project.

The $1.8 billion dollar state initiative to revamp the Sheridan has two parts. One is the “Arthur Sheridan Enhancement Project, a $96 million project to make the Sheridan Expressway easier and safer to cross while creating access to open space and parks. It entails renovating the expressway and adjacent roads to include three pedestrian crosswalks, a bike lane, sidewalks, a bridge within Starlight Park, traffic lights at intersections, and tree plantings, among other improvements. Some changes will be made to the adjacent roads, but the number of lanes and width of the roads will remain the same. Construction is slated to begin in fall of 2018 and finished in the fall of 2019.

The second part is the Hunts Point Interstate Access Improvement Project, which is supposed to address community concerns about trucks traveling along local streets to and from the food distribution center in Hunts Point. The proposed project entails the renovation of the Bruckner Expressway with new ramps parallel to Edgewater Road from Leggett Avenue to facilitate better access to the distribution center.

The proposal also includes two options for construction of a shared-use pedestrian/bicycle path along the Bronx River to connect Concrete Plant Park and Garrison Park—one a path along the Bronx River under the Eastern Boulevard Bridge and the other an underpass underneath Bruckner Boulevard/Expressway to the west of the Eastern Boulevard Bridge structure. Additional improvements for pedestrian and bicycle were also included in the plan.

The proposed Access Improvement Project is slated to be completed by 2025 and with a price tag of at least $1.7 billion.

The state Department of Transportation held a final, two-session public hearing on the Access Improvement Project last Wednesday at a Bronx public school. Stakeholders, residents and community organizations testified for and against the state proposal for the ramp access to Buckner Boulevard

“After years of advocacy, the borough president and state officials pushed the government. Now it comes down to the details, it is unfortunate that we are at odds. We wish the community is truly heard because it took so long to get to this point. We want [the process] to slow down a little to make sure we are taking the right steps,” said Angela Tovar, director of community development at the Point, a local community development corporation.

In the 1960s, during city planner Robert Moses’ era of influence, thousands of residents and several local businesses were displaced and the South Bronx entered a decades-long period of decay some caused by in part the highway network that bisected the area.

Originally, Moses wanted the Sheridan Expressway to be over a mile long and to connect with the New England Thruway. But a shortage of public support for that plan meant the Sheridan Expressway was left as a underutilized, 1.3-mile long highway connecting the Cross-Bronx to the Bruckner Expressway. The Sheridan Expressway is often used by large trucks that are trying to get to and from the Hunts Point food market. But those trucks exit the Sheridan and thunder through neighborhood streets to reach the market. The Hunts Point ramp access project is supposed to be a way to reduce local truck traffic.

In 2013, the city released its own study of a possible revamping of the Sheridan with recommendations for the state on the construction of Hunts Point access ramps. The city’s study, supported by the community, recommended ramps at Oak Point Avenue and Leggett Avenue that it argued were critical to improving access to Hunts Point while creating less traffic. Those ramps would route traffic through the southern half of the neighborhood.

The state countered that the best placement for the ramps is at Leggett Avenue and at Edgewater Road, the latter at the northeastern corner of the area, because it would cause less traffic in and around the ramp. According to the state DOT, a ramp at Oak Point would block some access to the Oak Point rail yards. It would also raise the cost to a much higher $2.6 billion, according to the state, but community groups have disputed that cost estimate.

During last week’s public hearing, some impassioned residents and community leaders turned their backs on the state officials and addressed the crowd of a little over a dozen in the auditorium. Others faced the officials to talk about how the changes would impact their lives and their livelihood.

Business leaders spoke up, too. Scott Miller said his business, Sims Metal Management, which recycles scrap metal for the city, will be negatively affected by the significant construction work and changes encompassed by the state’s plan. Sims uses barges to move recycling through the waterway but does have trucks that bring in material and will not be able to make the wide angle in turn from Edgewater Road.

Another business along Edgewater Road that would be affected is Sal’s Scrap Metal Co. which has operated in the area for over 30 years, “We have more than a dozen employees and all of our livelihoods are threatened by this proposal,” said Jack Dellorusso, president of Sal’s Scrap Metal Co. in a press release. Dellorusso’s attorney John Faust at the hearing said, “Any benefits that come are at the expense of our business. This construction put a massive wall all along Edgewater Road … decreasing the space for trucks—which are the lifeline of Sal’s business—to maneuver off the property. It will drive away Sal’s customers, who may never return.”

One business that supports the construction is the Hunts Point Produce Cooperative. Executive director Myra Gordon said the cooperative has been there for over 50 years, employs an estimated 1,300 people and does not plan on going anywhere, “We understand the value of taking our 130,000 trucks that come in every year across the bridge off of the local streets. We are going to stay in Hunts Point and this construction is primarily one of those reasons.”

The South Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA), a coalition of seven groups that has been campaigning for the conversion of the Sheridan for over a decade, expressed disappointment with the state proposal and still backs the city’s 2013 study and its recommendations.

“We are sick and tired of suits telling us what we need in our community. You don’t live here and you don’t spend enough time here. We have three options — don’t come over here and tell us the best option is your option,” said Wanda Salaman, resident and Executive Director for Mothers on the Move, one of the groups that support the coalition.

SBRWA have argued that Edgewater Road is central to the area where groups have successfully advocated for increased access to parks and the Bronx River. The current state plan would diminish those goals, its members said. At the hearing, opponents of the state plan said the proposed ramps would cause more pollution—including particulate matter—and impact access to three nearby parks and community spaces shared by nonprofits Rocking the Boat and The Point Community Development Corporation. The SBRWA also wants for the comment section of the proposal process to be extended for an additional 45 days.

Some of the criticism concerned the larger plan. “There are issues here that are methodically problematic and were not considered,” said Elena Conte, member of SBRWA and director of policy for the Pratt Center. “For example, they want to add a crosswalk on the boulevard and also direct traffic there, so when you change that by introducing stoppages on a roadway that has a deterrent effect on traffic. At the same time, you are expanding that roadway and making it a direct pathway to the Hunts Point food market. You basically have two forces that are acting in opposite directions.”

But the state Department of Transportation’s leading engineers for the Hunts Point Interstate Access Improvement Project, Harold Fink and Wahid Albert, both said the coalition’s favored option for the ramps—on Leggett and Oak Point Avenues—would negatively impact railroad operator CSX and Amtrak, require the acquisition of nine properties, be less effective at providing access points to the Food Distribution Center and would cost more and take longer to construct.

“The Oak Point ramps would be much longer under the current federal highway regulations and therefore cost much more,” said Fink.

Albert added, “We are still talking 13,000 trucks off of the local streets. There is a much bigger picture here with the new parks and Metro-North station being planned. We have to watch the taxpayers’ money here. For decades, this area has been neglected and now that is changing. We have taken into account what the community has said by extending the bike paths and additional features for pedestrian safety. And we are open to ideas for improvement but the Oak Point is not an option on the table.”

Final approval of the Hunts Point Interstate Access Improvement Project is at the discretion of the Federal Highway Association, the federal agency that has provided some of the funding for the project and must be involved in any project that affects interstate traffic.

FHA has approved the draft scope of the project the state proposes and must still sign off on final environmental impact statement before the project can begin.

According to FHA, the environmental component can take longer than other components of the review process such as evaluating the geometric design of the road. Once a project receives its final review then the federal agency determines if the state’s financial plan is viable for the project.

City officials were not present at the state’s public hearing. The city Department of Transportation has not made any official comments on the state proposal for the Hunts Point ramp access project. But the city is working with the state for transferring control of the Sheridan Expressway to the city administration for maintenance, according to a DOT city official.

The public has until July 16th to add comments for the Hunts Point Interstate Access Improvement Project here: www.dot.ny.gov/southbronx

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