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De Blasio Can Still Stop State DOT From Building Highway Ramps By the Bronx River

The state DOT plan calls for highway ramps on Edgewater Road abutting the Bronx River and flying over part of Concrete Plant Park.

New York State DOT wants to build highway ramps between the Hunts Point neighborhood and the Bronx River waterfront, and the last best chance to get the state to change course rests with Bill de Blasio.

The mayor has multiple veto points at his disposal to check the state DOT and steer the project toward the ramp placement that neighborhood advocates prefer, which would channel truck traffic away from the residential heart of Hunts Point. But so far City Hall says only that the mayor is evaluating his options.

At issue are ramps to connect the Bruckner Expressway to the massive Hunts Point Food Market. As part of a broader plan to turn the Sheridan Expressway into a surface street, the state DOT has proposed Bruckner ramps on Edgewater Road to maintain truck access to the market.

Image: Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance
Neighborhood advocates prefer placing the Bruckner ramps by Oak Point Avenue to prevent truck traffic from cutting off access between the residential blocks of Hunts Point and the Bronx River waterfront. Image: Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance
Image: Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance

The neighborhood organizations that fought for the Sheridan teardown are opposed to the state DOT's Bruckner ramp plan. By placing new ramps on Edgewater in tandem with the Sheridan removal, the state would essentially be trading one imposing, dangerous barrier to waterfront access for another. And the state DOT's own environmental analysis concluded that the Edgewater ramps would make particulate pollution worse in one of the city's most asthma-plagued neighborhoods [PDF]. When the state first revealed its preferred ramp alignment, Maria Torres, executive director of The Point CDC, told Streetsblog that it "omitted everything the community had inputted to the plan."

Neighborhood advocates have a better idea -- place the Bruckner access ramps on Oak Point Avenue and Leggett Avenue, so truck traffic to the food market largely bypasses the residential blocks of Hunts Point and doesn't threaten people walking to and from the Bronx River.

That ramp configuration was endorsed by a joint NYC DOT/Department of City Planning study released in 2013. The city's report was funded with a $1.5 million TIGER grant from the federal Department of Transportation, where current NYC Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was then a senior policymaker.

The 2013 TIGER-funded study recommended adding three pedestrian crosswalks to the Sheridan, and building new off-ramps connecting the Bruckner Expressway to the Hunts Point Produce Market. Image: DCP
A schematic of the Sheridan removal and Bruckner ramp plan from the city's 2013 TIGER-funded study. Image: DCP
The 2013 TIGER-funded study recommended adding three pedestrian crosswalks to the Sheridan, and building new off-ramps connecting the Bruckner Expressway to the Hunts Point Produce Market. Image: DCP

The state DOT never closely evaluated the Oak Point Avenue option, however, rejecting it in favor of the Edgewater ramps. The least laughable excuse given by state DOT is that the Oak Point ramps would require building support structures in a railyard used by CSX and Amtrak. Putting the ramps on Edgewater avoids those negotiations.

But the state should have to account for City Hall's wishes as well. By law, the state DOT can't build projects within New York City without the leave of city government. If the mayor wants to negotiate for a Bruckner ramp plan that reduces the impact of truck traffic on Hunts Point and improves access to the riverfront, he can. The question is whether de Blasio, who has passively watched the state's Sheridan/Bruckner plan unfold until this moment, cares enough to use the leverage available to him.

One veto belongs to Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. In order to build the Edgewater ramps, the state DOT needs to acquire a 13,191-square-foot parcel of Concrete Plant Park from the Parks Department.

The Edgewater ramps would cast a permanent shadow over a portion of the park. Nevertheless, last October, the Parks Department sent a letter to the state DOT supporting the transfer of this parcel in exchange for improvements to nearby Garrison Park.

It's not too late for the city to change its mind. To date, no official action "has been taken by the City to transfer the parcel," according to a Parks Department spokesperson.

Another veto belongs to Trottenberg. Before the state DOT can proceed with any project inside city limits, the New York City Transportation Commissioner has to sign off on the engineering documents. A spokesperson for NYC DOT said that "options are still being reviewed as part of the ongoing process and we’ve shared comments on the plan with the State."

Even though the city has yet to sign off on these key approvals, state DOT has advanced far enough that some de Blasio officials believe their window to exert leverage has closed, according to a source briefed on City Hall’s thinking.

Streetsblog asked the mayor's office whether City Hall has a position on the state's Bruckner ramp plans, and if city officials are taking steps to advance the community-supported plan that the city released in 2013. Mayoral spokesperson Seth Stein said, "We are reviewing the State’s proposal."

As for de Blasio himself, he told reporters last week that the Sheridan Expressway removal is a "smart idea" to diminish the "isolating effects" of urban highways, and that he's asked NYC DOT officials to flag any concerns. "I think for anybody in a community where their community is made whole and they can more comfortably get around to the waterfront, to parks, and not feel like a highway divides them it’s a better way to live, obviously," de Blasio said.

The mayor was speaking about the Sheridan coming down, apparently unaware of the new highway ramp the state DOT wants to build along the riverfront immediately to the south.

There's still time for de Blasio to avoid saddling the South Bronx with another slab of oppressive highway infrastructure. But sometime soon, the mayor will have to stop reviewing the state DOT's plan and start driving a hard bargain on behalf of the residents of Hunts Point.

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