Boogie Down Biden: Pols, City DOT Hail Fed Funds for Capping the Cross Bronx Expressway
Go down, Moses.
Bronx politicians, environmentalists, academics who have long sought to cap the fuming Cross Bronx Expressway gathered next to the roadway on Tuesday, bolstered by the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, which includes a small amount of money — $1 billion — to begin the process of repairing the environmental, social and public health damage of one of Robert Moses’s signature projects.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Ritchie Torres and Assembly Member Karines Reyes hailed the passage of the $1.2-trillion federal infrastructure bill, and singled out the pilot “Reconnecting Communities” fund which will give grants of up to $2 million to “study the feasibility and impacts of removing, retro-fitting, or mitigating” a highway that “creates a barrier to community connectivity, including barriers to mobility, access, or economic development.”
“The [Transportation] Secretary shall give priority to an application from a community that is economically disadvantaged,” the bill, which is expected to be signed by President Biden in the coming days, states.
Torres told Streetsblog on Tuesday afternoon that the initial funding will start the process, and was hopeful that the federal government or a combination of state, local and federal agencies, could fund the entire $757-million price tag and heal his community.
“The Cross Bronx Expressway … is both literally and metaphorically a product of system racism, with diesel truck traffic polluting the air black and brown kids breathe everyday,” said Torres. “As Faulkner said, the past is not even past. And that’s especially true in The Bronx. We are haunted by this Moses legacy.”
The press conference came one day after U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg shared his support for efforts such as capping the notorious Bronx roadway — and was roundly criticized for doing so by the right-learning press. At a news conference on Monday, Buttigieg expressed surprise that he continues to have to explain to racism deniers why he wants to target federal money towards repairing the damage inflicted by systemic racism in the decision-making processes of generations ago — such as when such roads as the Cross Bronx Expressway were built in the first place, displacing hundreds of Black families and severing thriving communities.
Transportation @SecretaryPete: " If an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, […] in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices." pic.twitter.com/0XWkDZehYM
— The Hill (@thehill) November 8, 2021
“As to where we target those dollars, I’m still surprised that some people were suprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a … neighborhood … that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” he said. “I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality and I think we have everything to gain by acknowledging it and then dealing with it, which is why the reconnecting communities that billion dollars is something we want to get to work right away.”
Torres agreed that step one is getting past partisan bickering about the fact of the systemic racism of Moses.
“When I met with Secretary Buttigieg a era months ago, I told him he had a historic opportunity to be the Transportation secretary who dismantles the legacy of Robert Moses,” Torres said. “If I have to, I will send a copy of ‘The Power Broker’ to all my Republican colleagues.”
When it was first discussed in 1929, the Cross Bronx Expressway was seen as “a distinct forward step” for the metropolitan region. The then-retrograde Regional Plan Association pitched it in earnest in 1936, and Robert Moses took up the call in the 1940s, and referred to the Cross Bronx Expressway in his seminal 1945 Times op-ed “New Highways for a Better New York.”
“The great need,” Moses wrote, “is for mixed traffic expressways right through town.” He predicted that such roads could be completed in just three years — if “obstructionists” could be defeated quickly — though the Cross Bronx Expressway wasn’t truly completed until 1972, 24 years after it was begun.
Years later, Robert Caro’s celebrated biography of Moses pointed out that the master builder intentionally routed the highway through poor Black neighborhoods, which were impoverished for decades as a result of the roadway’s affect on area property values and residents’ health.
Now, the roadway carries more than 200,000 vehicles a day, all but a few spewing toxic fumes and nitric oxide into the air. As a result, asthma rates in the Bronx are among the worst in the nation. And Torres’s district is the poorest.
So will the Cross Bronx Expressway ever actually be capped, with new parks and pollution-scrubbing technology to heal the wound across the middle of the city’s only mainland borough? Don’t hold your breath.
A 2018 study by Columbia professor Peter Muennig, who was also on hand in The Bronx on Tuesday, priced the project at around $750 million, though he pointed out that the long-term health and economic benefits would far exceed that price tag.
Each of the 226,608 people living near the highway would benefit monetarily by $1,629 per capita, plus a capped highway would add nearly two months of “quality-adjusted life years, a combined measure of health and longevity,” the study said. “The monetary gains, mainly from increased property values, more than made up for the project’s steep price tag, estimated at $757 million. Improved health and longevity resulted from fewer pedestrian accidents, reduced pollution, as well as more opportunities for exercise.”
“It is extremely rare for social policy investments to save both money and lives,” Muennig said at the time. “Examples include vaccines and basic automobile safety measures like seatbelts. Turning a highway into a park is a bit like a seatbelt or vaccine for a whole neighborhood.”
The DOT press office trumpeted Gutman’s support for fixing Moses’s mistake, but the city Health Department was not on the scene. The agency also skipped last month’s City Council Vision Zero oversight committee, despite the presence of two other Vision Zero agencies, the DOT and NYPD.
“We are in regular touch around Vision Zero,” Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi told Streetsblog on Tuesday when asked about his agency’s commitment to the ongoing public health crisis caused by the automobile. “The Health Department stands ready to play our part.”
In fact, the agency has not conducted a systematic study of pedestrian deaths since 2014 and even the agency’s review of automobile traffic has not been updated since 2009. The agency did not provide Streetsblog with a date for the last time Chokshi and Gutman met to discuss Vision Zero.