Construction Industry Objections to Sheridan Teardown Don’t Stand Up

Is it really more important to keep this empty highway -- shown at rush hour -- than to build much-needed housing and parks? Photo: TSTC

The fight over the future of the Sheridan Expressway, a stub of a highway that Robert Moses built but never finished, heated up this week. The construction industry announced its opposition to any Sheridan teardown in a Crain’s op-ed this Sunday, days before experts at a Municipal Art Society panel forcefully made the case for replacing the underused roadway with housing and park space.

“I don’t think that grade-separated highways really have a place in the city,” said John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, at the MAS panel.

Norquist pointed to the revitalization of his city when it tore down the 0.8 mile Park East Freeway — Fortune 500 company now has its headquarters one block from the former elevated highway — and recounted how the predicted traffic woes never materialized. In neighboring Madison, he noted, the major job centers of the state capital and the University of Wisconsin both sit on a narrow isthmus. “There’s no freeway there, and somehow they get home,” said Norquist. “They make it.”

Joan Byron, who has worked with the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance on its plans for the Sheridan for years, offered some local context. Right now, the Sheridan is so lightly used that you can safely stand in its middle lane during the evening rush hour. State DOT plans to build new ramps connecting the Bruckner Expressway directly to the busy Hunts Point market — which has 11,000 truck trips in and out each day — will happen regardless of whether the Sheridan is torn down or remains, she pointed out, making the Sheridan that much more superfluous.

Instead of searching for ways to get more value out of the land that the little-used highway occupies, those who are fighting to keep it in place “are determined to make the Sheridan useful, come what may,” Byron said.

The opposition to the teardown added to their ranks this week, however, as Denise Richardson, the head of the powerful General Contractors Association, took to the pages of Crain’s to press her case for keeping the Sheridan. Richardson’s column assumed that the Sheridan is essential the keeping Hunts Point market, an important job center, in New York City. “The Bronx and the city cannot afford to lose more blue-collar jobs,” she wrote. “Instead of spending limited capital dollars to tear down the Sheridan, let’s allocate adequate resources to maintain the state’s transportation network and the jobs it supports.”

Curiously, Richardson did not mention construction spending or construction jobs — the top issues for her members — in either her column or in an interview with Streetsblog.

Richardson’s argument is based on the presumption that without the Sheridan, increased congestion will make trucking through the Bronx unaffordable. “There’s a very significant concern that the truck traffic that will be created will make the costs significant,” said Richardson.

However, there is no reason to think that such congestion fears would actually materialize. First of all, previous highway removals simply haven’t had that effect. When New York’s West Side Highway or San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway were removed, for example, there weren’t any long-term negative traffic impacts.

In the case of the Sheridan, a State DOT analysis did find that removing the Sheridan would snarl traffic in the area. But subsequent analysis showed that the study was riddled with errors. Half of the alleged benefit of keeping the Sheridan, it turned out, was due to mistakes in entering the data.

To really have a sense of what effect tearing down the Sheridan will have, we’ll have to wait for New York City’s study of the area to be complete, which should happen around February 2012, according to Byron. That study, a holistic look at both transportation and land use funded by a federal TIGER grant, will gather new traffic data and hopefully provide a more reliable picture of how traffic moves through the area.

Byron also pointed out that the bulk of Hunts Point market truck traffic are smaller vehicles delivering food to bodegas or restaurants across the city. “They need to get to Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx,” said Byron. “The Sheridan doesn’t benefit them at all.”

  • Albert

    “Denise Richardson, the head of the powerful General Contractors Association…did not mention construction spending or construction jobs”

    I assume that she and her ilk oppose tearing out even a little-used highway solely so as not to set a precedent for even *more* highway removal, which might eventually lead to (shudder) removal of other highways, and one day (God forbid) less highway *building* altogether. And there goes the neighborhood.

  • afraid of irrational anger

    While I appreciate creative ideas, I wish this campaign were more honest. There may be some merit to the idea, but they refuse to acknowledge that there was a Columbia planning studio that proposed more realistic options, like a boulevard. Instead, they’re using this bogus photo again and again.

    And it is most certainly bogus. That is not rush hour on the Sheridan. It was taken on the Sheridan… but not during rush hour.

    This is rush hour on the Sheridan:
    http://www.urbanresidue.com/Sheridan/

    I get tired of the moral superiority replacing real details and honest discussion. They tell us we need to get rid of a highway because there is so much air pollution from all the cars that they say aren’t there. They tell us they’ll improve transit with a rail station to the south at Hunts Point so the people traveling the corridor (from the north) won’t have to drive. If you ask questions, there are no answers, just anger and accusations.

    If they’ve got a real project that would make the Bronx better, great! Tell us the truth about the tradeoffs, what benefits and impacts it would really have, and why we should support it. But it is hard not to suspect that they rely on the bogus picture because they lack real arguments based on facts.

  • Anonymous

    The Sheridan is the perfect example of the worst excesses of the urban destruction and highway building era.

    Its a bypass that saves an insignificant amount of time for any cars already on the freeway. As for businesses next to it, they will still be close to the many other freeways in the area. Is a business going to move 40 minutes up the road into the suburbs because the freeway is now 15 minutes from them rather than 5?

  • J

    You say that removing the Sheridan will cause traffic to back up elsewhere. What evidence do you have of this besides a few photos? What assumptions are you basing your opinions on? It appears that you believe that everyone currently driving will continue to do so regardless of the existence of the Sheridan. I think that as someone arguing for honest debate, you should disclose such assumptions as well.

    The photo you dislike does not claim that there is never traffic on the road. It merely shows that there are times when the highway is so empty that it is possible to pose for a photo on it in broad daylight. Compared to almost any other highway in an urban area, that is very unique and dramatic, and it shows an incredibly low usage. The amount of space the highway takes up, blocking access to parks and waterfront does not seem to be justified by traffic.

  • afraid of irrational anger

    Good questions, J.
    This discussion has been going on for years, with this campaign ignoring many points. I didn’t want to post too long, but you raise some excellent points.

    Why expect traffic to back up elsewhere? A number of reasons.
    1) The modeling by NYSDOT indicated that it would (it appears the worst errors were made by their critics and not by NYSDOT. See comments on a prior Streetsblog post: http://www.streetsblog.org/2010/07/14/advocates-state-dot-analysis-engineered-to-preclude-sheridan-teardown/).
    2) Traffic is already backing up, as shown in the photos. Demand exceeds capacity of the Cross-Bronx, and drivers are willing to wait for the delays. The only reasonable assumption is that the drivers would still be willing to wait for delays at another location, if the amount of the delay is not too much greater. The critics seem correct in their assertions that the Sheridan doesn’t save that much time, so the result would be that these drivers would be willing to idle on local streets, impacting the neighborhoods.
    Put another way, the impact to drivers doesn’t appear that severe, but the impact on the neighborhoods, and pedestrian safety in particular, could be very significant. I have never seen a location with heavy traffic backed up from a highway that was a safe and comfortable pedestrian environment.

    Do I believe that everyone currently driving will continue to do so? Not everyone, but almost certainly the vast majority of them in this case. As described above, the time penalty from removing the Sheridan does not seem severe enough to motivate a major change in behavior for drivers. Familiarize yourself with the context, and it looks like most of the trips using the Sheridan do not have a good transit alternative for the origins and destinations they are connecting. In addition, the Sheridan is currently used as a route by several express buses that constitute the only real transit connection for the catchment area they serve. Worsening of the only transit option for that area could actually result in a few trips shifting from transit to private automobiles.

    The photo I dislike is fine – as a photo. It is the consistently dishonest description that is the problem. If they described it in the terms you do, that would be one matter. Continually stating that it is “rush hour,” even after the facts have been exposed, is another matter entirely. Their explicit intent is to suggest that it shows the heaviest use. Let’s be clear – that is a lie.

    Now let me ask you a question – is the congestion on the Cross-Bronx and the Bruckner the standard we should expect? If a highway doesn’t operate that badly, it’s not busy enough?

    Let me ask another – is traffic volume our only criteria? What about redundancy and reliability? Is it really wise to restrict access to Hunts Point to just the Bruckner, as these advocates insist? What would happen then when there’s an accident? Isn’t there a certain benefit to having some flexibility in the network, even if it isn’t used at full capacity every day?

    Whether the space taken up by the highway could be better used is an intriguing question. But again, I fear the advocates are misleading in their claims. The surrounding land uses – light industrial and auto repair shops – are as big an obstacle to creating their new urban village. Yet they refuse to talk about the tradeoffs between jobs and housing, they ignore the cost issues of environmental remediation, and they try to discourage any notion that other strategies for improving the park and increasing access might be possible, even though there are plans moving forward for the greenway, which does not require removing the Sheridan. The suggestion you can’t use the waterfront without removing the Sheridan is another, um… exaggeration.

  • Ex-driver

    This doesn’t have to be a big mystery with arguments over hypothetical numbers. You don’t have to actually rip out the highway to find out the impacts of removal. Do a trial. Shut it down for two weeks and see what happens.

  • afraid of irrational anger

    Good idea.

  • Barneytd

    The General Contractors have a long history of supporting the transit system, which is arguably the most critical infrastructure in making NYC and the region livable and prosperous.

  • Dougwill2001

    Build ATOP the Sheridan, that retains the freeway for the bulk of the traffic while allowing the parallel access road to be redeveloped as a boulevard for this new development that would face the restored waterfront.

  • Ashwin

    In response to some of the comments in this stream – the Columbia students’ proposed boulevard doesn’t address either of the major problems that both the NYSDOT and the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA) are trying to solve. It wouldn’t provide access to Hunts Point – we and NYSDOT are in agreement that the best way to do that is with flyover ramps from the Bruckner Expressway to Oak Point Avenue. And the boulevard doesn’t address the interchange between the Bruckner and the Sheridan, which is a danger to anyone who walks, drives, or breathes in the area. The Sheridan needs more than a cosmetic makeover – it needs a solution that fully addresses the land use, transportation, and environmental justice issues its current configuration creates, which is what we believe the City’s TIGER planning process will identify.

  • Adam

    I am one of the people in that photo. It was taken July 15, 2009, between 5-5:30pm, I don’t remember the exact time. That may not be peak time for trucks entering Hunts Point, but for most people in NYC that would qualify as “rush hour”.

  • Adam

    The problem is you cannot have a true trial of replacing the Sheridan by simply removing the Sheridan. The plan does not call for simply shutting down the Sheridan, we all agree that would not help trucks move through the region. The plan calls for replacing the Sheridan with improvements to other key areas, such as the Oak Point ramps, the improved Bruckner bottleneck, and the GWB-Deegan interchange. Just shutting the Sheridan without these improvements would show an unrealistically negative consequence.

  • General

    Afraid of irrational anger,
    the campaign to remove the Sheridan is simply trying to get real, accurate numbers about impacts of the highway’s removal. Unfortunately, the numbers coming out of NYS DOT for years have failed in this regard. They basically assume unlimited traffic growth, even though highways have fixed capacities and people are rational actors who can make decisions that allow them to avoid congestion.

  • afraid of irrational anger

    I wish that were true.

    Unfortunately, they keep representing this photo as “rush hour,” which demonstrates that they really don’t want to talk about real facts and conditions on the Sheridan.

    NYSDOT’s analysis also did not “assume unlimited traffic growth” that ignored that “people are rational actors who can make decisions that allow them to avoid congestion.” This, unfortunately, is a misconception that the advocates should already know is not true. Unfortunately, they leverage the misconception instead of having an honest discussion.

    NYSDOT used the BPM – a microsimulation that specifically reacts to people being rational actors. The simulation allows individuals to choose among different modes, different routes, and different destinations on the basis of many factors, including congestion and cost.

    There are certainly aspects of the modeling effort that could be criticized, including the choice of a regional model to look at a relatively small corridor. But let’s keep the discussion and criticism grounded in the facts.

    The fact is that the analysis did not ignore the potential for drivers to respond to congestion or choose alternatives.

  • Dougwill2001

    Improving the I-95/I-87 interchange is commendable.

    But chocking I-87 and the waterfront to the south, locking in the existing devisive I-87 for the sake of eletively quick waterfront development, (instead of a comprehensive program of recostructing I-87 in a fashion where it is better for all, ala Cincinatti’s Fort Washington Way- below grade designed to be covered), is very bad. Yet that is what Streetsblog, TSC, etc. push for Mott Haven.

  • afraid of irrational anger

    As discussed on another thread, 5:00 – 5:30 is early for this location. It is early for queuing to have built at any location.
    At 5:00 on the Sheridan what you have is local traffic just beginning to build. It is certainly too early for traffic from the City to have arrived this far north.
    And how, exactly, did you take this photo? You found a location where the local traffic is signal controlled. You jumped out there while the red light was holding traffic, right? And with no real traffic coming off the Bruckner yet, you could find some gaps when the red light was holding the local traffic. This was all pointed on that previous thread.
    Like they said there, somebody could pull the same stunt in Midtown. Pick the right place for the signal timing and you could stand in the middle of an avenue and show mostly empty pavement behind you. Would that be an honest representation of traffic conditions in Midtown?

  • afraid of irrational anger

    See, there’s no traffic on 6th Avenue during rush hour either.
    Just look, this photo was taken at 5:39 pm on a Monday! It took a whole 45 seconds to go take, too.

    And we all know just how little traffic we have on the avenues in Manhattan. The only thing we ever see is a few people wandering among the tumbleweeds, right?

  • afraid of irrational anger

    Compare:

    You can make Sixth Avenue in Manhattan look completely empty during rush hour, just like they did with the Sheridan.

    But you can’t fake the traffic that actually does use the Sheridan.

  • Planning Student

    “the Columbia students’ proposed boulevard doesn’t address either of the major problems that both the NYSDOT and the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA) are trying to solve. It wouldn’t provide access to Hunts Point”

    Just more misrepresentations!  

    The boulevard was just as consistent with the ramps as the no-Sheridan concept.

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