Advocates: State DOT Analysis Engineered to Preclude Sheridan Teardown

Sheridan_Map.jpgThe Sheridan Expressway runs only 1.25 miles between the Cross-Bronx and Bruckner Expressways. This option, one of two remaining alternatives, would remove it entirely. Image: NYSDOT

At a public meeting last night, the state Department of Transportation released a traffic analysis of the proposal to tear down the Sheridan Expressway, the Moses-era "highway to nowhere" that separates Bronx residents from the Bronx River waterfront. The main conclusion appeared to bode poorly for the plan to replace the highway with housing and parks: According to the state DOT, removing the Sheridan would force traffic onto local streets.

In response, advocates for transportation reform and environmental justice warned about potential flaws in the methodology behind DOT’s traffic analysis. They also questioned the assumptions behind the agency’s impending environmental review, which won’t take into account any of the benefits of what will replace the Sheridan.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Kyle Wiswall called the
DOT’s environmental analysis
"an exercise in futility" that "seems to be engineered to reach a
preconceived result" — keeping the highway in place.

For years, the state DOT has been studying ways to improve the highway system near Hunts Point, a regional food distribution center that’s a hub for truck traffic. Currently, trucks travel onto the peninsula via local roads, destroying the quality of life for area residents even as the many highway interchanges in the South Bronx — the Sheridan, the Major Deegan, and Bronx River Parkway all run between the Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways — snarl highway traffic.

Thanks in large part to a sustained advocacy campaign, under the umbrella of Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, the teardown option has gradually gained momentum and entered the official discussion of what to do with the Sheridan.

The DOT has now narrowed their proposal down to two possibilities. In some ways, they are identical. Both would add an exit on the Bruckner that could connect more directly to Hunts Point, intended to keep truck traffic off local streets. Near where the Bruckner meets the Sheridan, it briefly narrows from three lanes to two, before widening again; both plans would add a lane on that segment to eliminate the bottleneck.

But the difference between the two plans is a big one.

One would keep the Sheridan Expressway in place; the other would remove the highway altogether. That would be the first highway teardown in New York since the West Side Highway was removed in the 1970s and 80s. The state DOT will make a final choice in early 2012, according to Gill Mosseri, the project manager with the consulting engineering team. 

The Sheridan is only 1.25 miles long and serves as a redundant connection between the Cross-Bronx and the Bruckner. The Major Deegan connects the two only four miles west of the Sheridan, while the Bronx River Parkway connects them less than a mile east of the Sheridan. The Cross-Bronx and Bruckner merge directly only two miles east of the Sheridan. The Sheridan is so underutilized that on some days you can safely stand in the middle of the highway at rush hour. 

With the highway gone, 28 acres of newly available space could be put to use as badly needed affordable housing or parkland. The Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance’s community-based plan would replace the highway with 1,000 units of housing and a greenway along the river, creating an estimated 700 jobs.

sheridan_drawing.jpgThe Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance plan to replace the Sheridan with housing, retail, and open space.

Last night, the state DOT released one of its two traffic analyses of each proposal (the second may not be made public at all, according to Mosseri). According to their numbers, traffic in the area is expected to skyrocket by 2030. If the Sheridan is removed, DOT’s model shows a chunk of that traffic being pushed onto local roads, a finding that potentially impedes efforts to tear down the highway.

That analysis may not stand, however. "We’re going to get the underlying data and pick it apart," said Kyle Wiswall. "The last time we did that, we found errors in both the inputs and the outputs." Coding errors and faulty assumptions about how traffic would grow marred earlier traffic predictions, he said.

Though activists haven’t yet had a chance to look at the DOT’s model, Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development pressed DOT representatives last night about "the meta-assumption that traffic will increase no matter what."

Mosseri responded that the department was using the model recommended by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (the region’s federally designated planning body), which assumes that traffic will increase with population. 

The DOT now begins preparing an environmental impact statement for each proposal, with drafts expected to be released in early 2011. Because the EIS includes categories like "visual resources," "land-use and social conditions," and "environmental justice," you might expect that document to look more favorably on park space and housing than on a highway. That’s not what the EIS is likely to do, however.

Claiming that there isn’t any official plan for what would replace the Sheridan, the DOT and their environmental consultant argued that they can’t factor in any benefits of what would replace the highway. "You just lose the Sheridan," said Guy Lamonaca, the project engineer with DOT. "Maybe you put up a barrier, you put up a fence."

In other words, said Wiswall, in the analysis, "the removal isn’t a removal. It’s a highway left to rot." 

By not assessing any benefits of highway removal, DOT is putting a finger on the scales, argued Byron. She worried that keeping the Sheridan will end up the department’s preferred alternative because DOT’s assumptions will lead to the conclusion that "having a highway is better than not having a highway."

Byron called on the New York City agencies which would have authority over the freed-up land if the Sheridan is torn down — City Planning, Parks, DOT, and the Economic Development Corporation — to intercede with the state DOT and assure them that the land wouldn’t be allowed to lie fallow. "It’s their prerogative to insert themselves into this debate," she said.

  • Is there any plan for alternative transportation to be provided instead?

  • Danny G

    How can this project be cast as a High Line for the middle class? What kind of star power can be tapped? Has there been / will there be an architectural competition?

  • Larry Littlefield

    What about freight. Is the possibility of upgrading the Bronx River Parkway south of the Cross Bronx to accomodate trucks included? I’ve never seen a crowd on that stretch of road.

    That and the interchange over the river (designed with the Sheridan as the main route) are the real issues.

  • Danny G

    Larry,

    Good points. Whoever determines what the ‘real’ issues are, we need the policy wonks, the visionaries, the local community, the rich, the powerful, and the politically connected all on the same page for anything worthwhile to happen. Which isn’t impossible, but the stars needs to be aligned.

  • AlexB

    Would you rather have increased local traffic, bike lines, and a park by a river or somewhat less local traffic, a busy nasty highway, and no park. In my opinion, I can’t really imagine any level of increased local traffic that would make me want to give up a nice park on the banks of a river.

    I don’t see why the Bronx River Parkway can’t handle the traffic. It’s practically right next to the Sheridan.

    The choice here just seems obvious. Why is DOT fighting this so hard when they could make so many friends by just tearing it down?

  • Mook

    Who is responsible for making the decision?

  • Claiming that there isn’t any official plan for what would replace the Sheridan, the DOT and their environmental consultant argued that they can’t factor in any benefits of what would replace the highway. “You just lose the Sheridan,” said Guy Lamonaca, the project engineer with DOT. “Maybe you put up a barrier, you put up a fence.”

    What a bunch of garbage. They can factor in the value of the land that has been freed up for development, even if they don’t know what will be developed there.

  • AlexB on reply #5, the concern of the Bronx River Parkway handling the truck traffic coming from the Sheridan is that the truck traffic is going from a semi-residential/industrial area north of Hunts Point to a fully residential area in Soundview. The trucks can and will increase asthma rates in points east of the Bronx River to levels that are found west of the river.

    As for the housing and parkland, many agencies would fight for that land and it could result in becoming a plot of empty land for years due to politics and community opposition. Besides, the area already has highway-friendly stuff, such as auto shops and a hotel.

    As for DannyG on Reply #2, this wouldn’t be a middle-class High Line for anything since the middle class is mostly located east of the river and far away from Soundview (in Westchester Square and Morris Park and Throggs Neck). They wouldn’t set foot into the South Bronx, unless driving through it, which can bring them into opposing the tearing down of the Sheridan Expressway.

    But with this proposal, I do like the ideas of adding new exits at Longwood Avenue (to serve Melrose and Morrisania, thus bypassing the infamous Hunts Point Av/Southern Blvd intersection) and at Oak Point Av (taking trucks off points west of the highway completely and giving Melrose, Morrisania, Longwood, and the Hub drivers an even better alternative to both Longwood and Hunts Point Avs). This would spread the cars and traffic on East 163rd street and place them onto other streets like Longwood Av, Leggett Av, and East 156th St.

    I’d prefer leaving the Sheridan and adding the new exits for the Bruckner, mainly due to the population boom, which can result in more cars traveling around the Bronx and more trucks doing business in Hunts Point.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The Sheridan was supposed to be the main route from the Triboro to the New England Thruway. It was supposed to be extended through the East Bronx. When it wasn’t, it sort of became useless, except for trucks that can’t use the Bronx River Parkway.

  • Traffic models always show “unacceptable levels” of traffic 10, 20 years out. Engineers are using fluid dynamics to predict human behavior. It’s a losing game for everyone accept the engineers and highway contractors. Tear the thing down and I guarantee traffic won’t be nearly as bad as the models suggest. Look at other examples in San Fran, Portland, or Seoul SK.

  • To borrow a phrase from Bruce Ratner’s shock troops, who were wont to chant about Daniel Goldstein’s former home at 636 Pacific Street: “Tear it Down, Tear it Down, Tear it….”

  • vnm

    Why can’t they just beef up the small stretch of Bronx River Parkway to allow for trucks?

  • How about closing the thing for 30 days for construction (aka, testing out new traffic cones) and see what happens?

  • A temporary closure might not be a good idea, because in the short run, traffic would redistribute to other streets. It would take some time, potentially more than 30 days, for the increased congestion to discourage traffic.

  • Jay

    There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what the Sheridan actually does as part of the broader network.

    As the advocates have noted, it does not really add much in terms of throughput capacity. What it does is provide storage space once peak-period queues build, and distribute traffic better.

    Currently, drivers waiting to get on the Cross-Bronx line up for a mile on the Sheridan Expressway, and idle there… significantly removed from people’s homes and the intersections where kids are trying to cross the street:
    http://urbanresidue.com/Sheridan

    It also helps relieve some of the backups on cross-moving local streets where traffic queues waiting to get onto the Cross-Bronx impact local intersections by distributing the traffic over a broader area. That means fewer pedestrians dodging drivers forcing their way through the red late, that means less honking, and that means less overall idling.

    Since removing the Sheridan wouldn’t significantly reduce throughput capacity in the system, there is little potential impact to trip-making decisions. If travel time is not significantly impaired, there really is no reason someone would decide to stop driving.

    The impact of removing the grade-separated queue, segregated from the local street network, however, can have enormous local impacts.

    There is also the matter of flexibility and redundancy in the network. The Sheridan does not get much use every day, but it does play a vital role for periods when there is some type of incident. If everything is congested all the time, there is no room to recover when there’s even a minor incident. And the air quality suffers when a small breakdown on the Cross-Bronx floods half the Bronx with backed-up traffic. Let’s consider one specific, current example – construction on the Alexander Hamilton Bridge.

    To fix up the aging structure, they have to close all/part of the ramps connecting from the Alexander Hamilton Bridge to the Major Deegan Expressway. This requires detouring trucks bound to Hunts Point. Without the Sheridan, the detour would require using local streets, which frankly is unacceptable from any community standpoint. Keeping them out of the neighborhoods on the Sheridan is clearly preferable.

    There is a lot of potential benefit of reclaiming roadway space, but you have to make sure you’ve addressed the transportation issues first. Producing fancier renderings and animated flyovers of a redeveloped area, without providing a set of transportation options that work, can only lead to frustration. Unfortunately, some of the advocates behind this project went for the flashy campaigning, instead of attending to the basic planning work first.

    I want to like the proposal, but the concept just doesn’t look like it works. And I get tired of its proponents attacking anyone who isn’t convinced, instead of doing the work to show they actually have a feasible idea!

  • AlexB

    This is purely hypothetical, but if the cross harbor freight tunnel got built, freight trains could travel from New Jersey, through Brooklyn and Queens, over the Hells Gate and into Hunts Point. In such a scenario, could/would this reduce truck travel to Hunts Point? Is the Hunts Point Market the source of all these trucks everyone is so worried about or are there many different light industry type businesses in the area that also generate this traffic? It just seems like a better way to deal with trucks would be to remove them instead of blighting a bunch of river side property. At the very least, they should be able to stagger the pickups/deliveries to lessen the effect at any given moment.

  • lic lovr

    why not draw more parallels to the west side highway or even the proposed lower manhattan expressway? i’m sure articles and studies could be found from that time claiming that there would be out of control traffic…

  • Boris

    Lennin,

    The ongoing population increase in New York City has been almost entirely absorbed by public transportation, not by increases in car use or ownership. It’s unreasonable to say that suddenly thousands of South Bronx residents would change their incomes and lifestyles and start buying cars. And if you are talking about increases in driving due to increases in suburbanites taking advantage of the free roads to drive through the South Bronx, that outcome is clearly undesirable for the city and I don’t understand why you would support it.

    NYSDOT is an example of orthodoxy trumping reality, like the Catholic Church’s old belief that the Earth is at the center of the universe or the denial of genetics in 1930’s Soviet Russia. Neither the perpetual growth of car use nor the belief that every trip made by car today must be made by car tomorrow are valid facts; they are simply doctrines of an outdated pro-car ideology.

  • “hey are simply doctrines of an outdated pro-car ideology.”

    Railroad CARS, trolley CARS, automobiles, etc.

    Unless it is by bicycle, airplane (fuselage) or boat (hull), yes, travel will be via CAR.

    It is always fun to reveal the thoughtlessness of the anti car people.

    Likewise with the Sheridan, deck it over for access to the new riverside park (actually an excellent idea) and fix the northbound connection:

    http://cos-mobile.blogspot.com/2010/01/northbound-sheridan-pinch.html

  • Ian Turner

    Quibbling over definitions is the last refuge of a failure.

  • There is an obvious mitigation for the spill-over traffic: speed humps on the local streets that would be impacted. If you slow down traffic on the local streets, fewer drivers would use them as a shortcut, and those drivers who do use them as a shortcut would not endanger pedestrians.

    The environmental process is supposed to identify impacts and propose mitigations for those impacts. Why hasn’t it identified this obvious mitigation?

  • Incidentally, I would appreciate it if articles about the Sheridan would tell us how to comment: where the EIR is available, where comments should be sent, and when comments are due.

    I would write a letter criticizing the obvious inadequacies of the analysis.

  • Ian- USING the improper terminology is the markings of the failure.

    So is ignoring the realities of that northern connection.

    But when you believe that white is black and black is white, you have to twist things cleverly. You must believe that no liquid can ever replace petroleum, and that anything electric must be plugged in because we will never have better technologies- its simply easier to guilt out the masses to presume that technology is static, and current markets are safe.

  • Alex:

    This is purely hypothetical, but if the cross harbor freight tunnel got built, freight trains could travel from New Jersey, through Brooklyn and Queens, over the Hells Gate and into Hunts Point. In such a scenario, could/would this reduce truck travel to Hunts Point?

    Yes, by a little bit. However, nobody has the money for it. The projected cost is $7.4 billion, which doesn’t justify the benefit, which is projected to be a 10% cut in cross-Hudson truck traffic. The basic problem is that for much less money, the MTA and NJT could electrify the entire regional network, including the sidings, and then run electric freight trains. This would also have a large benefit for commuter rail.

  • The impact of removing the grade-separated queue, segregated from the local street network, however, can have enormous local impacts.

    Sure, if it’s not managed properly.

  • Jay

    That’s interesting Cap’n Transit.
    I’d be interested to see ideas on how that might be done… it’s a challenging location. So far that’s the sort of critical detail that really seems to be missing.

  • Red

    So far that’s the sort of critical detail that really seems to be missing.

    Not to put this all on the state, but if we had an enlightened state DOT, that’s the kind of detail they would commit to exploring in the no-Sheridan alternative. Or they would reach out to whatever agency they need to so that they could study this in a reasonable way (City DOT? City Planning?). But it looks as if they just want to get this over with, conclude that fencing off the Sheridan is worse than not fencing it off, and build their highway improvements.

  • Guest

    @0c6a1ba3c059e75968ce271f4ea79d78:disqus – would you really propose a speed hump on a street that was converted into a truck route with heavy volumes of 18-wheelers very early in the morning, if it were your bedroom window right above?

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