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Congestion Pricing

Opinion: The Bronx Had Air Quality Issues Long Before Congestion Pricing

The MTA forecasts additional trucks traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway — but the solutions to the Bronx's air quality challenges lie elsewhere.

Writer Austin Celestin puts this in perspective.

Let’s be blunt — most arguments against congestion pricing are flimsy, but one is worthy of attention: The MTA’s forecast for more trucks on the Cross Bronx Expressway. But toll opponents who cite this concern fail to acknowledge that the borough’s air quality concerns pre-date congestion pricing and will persist if detractors successfully block the toll.

The solution is not to stop congestion pricing and its expected reduction in car traffic, but to revolutionize the Bronx’s transportation ecosystem with fewer highways and better transit.

Officials plan to pump $310 million into the borough to finance mitigation efforts to offset any adverse impacts of congestion pricing on the Bronx. These include freight electrification, green space upgrades, air filtration modernization, and pushing more truck traffic to overnight hours. This is no place to stop. Policymakers must deliver even more transportation and environmental justice to the Bronx.

Increase Bus Frequency and Priority

Sixty percent of Bronx commuters rely on public transit, and of those, one quarter, rely solely on the buses. Buses are critical for serving areas in the borough not served by rail, but crawl at an average speed of less than 8 mph in the Bronx — barely twice the speed of walking. These paltry speeds create a death spiral — pushing people out of transit and into cars, adding congestion that slows buses down even more. Mayor Adams hasn’t helped by bowing to the borough’s car-driving business interests to kill bus lane improvements on busy Fordham Road.

Prioritizing buses on streets across the Bronx would bring commuters back to buses. High-ridership corridors like Fordham Road, Tremont Avenue and East 180th Street should get more red paint and even busways. When buses gets priority, as on 14th Street in Manhattan and Main Street in Queens, ridership and speeds increase.

City and state leaders should also create more priority lanes for express bus service. Those routes, which connect the borough to Manhattan, better mimic vehicular commuter patterns into the Central Business District, and thus likely to benefit from congestion pricing’s impact on traffic. Rush-hour, bus-only lanes along segments of the Major Deegan and Bruckner expressways would improve the reliability and speed of these buses, further luring drivers out of their cars. The Bronx express buses already benefit from dedicated lanes along Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue in Midtown. Brooklyn and Staten Island express buses are sped up by similar dedicated lanes along Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Those benefits should be replicated in the Bronx.

Decking the Cross Bronx Expressway

Politicians have bandied about the idea of decking portions of the Cross Bronx Expressway for years, with federal leaders like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Ritchie Torres backing the endeavor. These pols propose covering up the depressed portions of the interstate and building new parks and housing on top. Under the most ambitious plan, the highway between Castle Hill and Rosedale Avenues, Boston Road to Arthur Avenue, and Clay to University Avenues would all get decked. The plan already has some momentum — the Adams administration kick-started an engagement process to reimagine the highway in December 2022. The city also received federal funding to explore the plan.

A 2018 Columbia University study found that decking the Cross Bronx would decrease noise and air pollution, vastly increase access to green space, improve mental and physical health, boost property values, and open up opportunities for new businesses and additional housing.

Of course, covering the highway won’t improve traffic conditions on the road itself. And while new green space would improve air quality, filtration would also be necessary to clear air out from the tunnel into the air. The plan also costs a lot — the Columbia researchers estimated $750 million, while Schumer pegged the cost at around $1 billion. Experts believe that traffic diversions and delays would lead to the cost being much higher. Still — the projected benefits and the success of much grander, and similarly complex, endeavors like the Big Dig in Boston, mean the investment would be returned several times over.

Highway Teardowns

The Bronx is choked by dozens of miles of highways that primarily serve drivers from Queens, Westchester and New Jersey. It’s long past time the borough reclaizmed some of that land for itself for green space, bike lanes, housing, and other more productive uses.

The state already turned the Sheridan Expressway into a surface-level boulevard with crosswalks, bike lanes, and new greenspace along the Bronx River — demonstrating a taste and capacity for highway teardowns in the borough.

The over-saturation of highways criss-crossing the Bronx encourages drivers to use them, worsening traffic on local streets and compounding air pollution. Meanwhile, the Sheridan’s transformation hasn't caused a traffic nightmare in the area.

Cities that pursued more ambitious teardowns saw similar benefits. Several case studies around the United States show that highway teardowns stitch communities together, reduce traffic, improve air quality, bolster public transit, generate economic revenue, and encourage new businesses and residential development. Why not give the Bronx another turn?

The Bruckner Expressway — and Bruckner Boulevard, which runs underneath it — consist of up to a dozen lanes combined. The two roads slice through the south and east Bronx, providing a key route for distribution trucks headed to the Hunts Point Food Market. It is a critical route for trucks, but sheer amount of traffic lanes also encourages private vehicle use, leading to extreme congestion. The route is in close proximity to the 6 subway train and several local and express buses. Beween the Triborough Bridge to the Bruckner Interchange, the Bruckner Expressway could easily function as a surface-level, six-lane boulevard. That would reduce traffic, open up additional opportunities for bus improvements and speed up trucks to Hunts Point.

The Bronx River Parkway, meanwhile, a cars-only thoroughfare slicing through Soundview and Bronx Park, presents another strong candidate for removal. Running parallel to the Harlem Line from the Botanical Garden to Valhalla, the parkway dumps most of its car traffic onto major roadways. Because it lacks local access, the road primarily serves drivers cutting through the Bronx — funneling congestion into the large expressways and dividing Bronx Park in half.

South of Tremont Avenue, Bronx River Parkway could become another surface-level street with diverse transportation options and new housing or even a linear park. Cutting off access to the Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressway would open the door for lane reductions on the segment of the parkway within Bronx Park. Between East Tremont Avenue and Gun Hill Road, the parkway could be cut down to four lanes from six. New at-grade intersections at Pelham Parkway and Allerton Avenue would allow for safe bike connections through the park.

Invest in rail transit

But teardowns can’t be done in a vacuum. The most successful road diets and street transformations provide superior alternatives to driving. Without those alternatives, drivers will simply find other routes or adjust their travel times. Scaling this up to a highway teardown makes those supplementary upgrades absolutely critical. Bus priority and subway upgrades will help, but in this scenario, extra focus needs to be placed on the suburbs. Metro-North upgrades, particularly on the Harlem and New Haven lines, would be critical to provide suburban commuters an alternative to driving through the Bronx. The Penn Access project will also provide Bronx and Westchester residents faster access to Midtown without driving.

Suburban legislatures should also encourage new construction around Metro-North stations and other transportation hubs and job centers across the city, so that new and existing residents do not have to rely on cars, decreasing the demand for highways within the Bronx.

Freight trucks need alternatives, too. Reducing the presence of private vehicles will speed up trucks and cut down on idling emissions. But the environmental assessment forecasted an increase in truck traffic, which undermines the benefits of less idling. Recent efforts to capitalize on shipping and the city’s numerous port connections would be a good way to replace and reduce the number of freight deliveries conducted by trucks. On a local scale, city leaders should incentivize and embrace more compact delivery methods to replace truck trips throughout the city, like their recent pilot with cargo bikes.

It’s important to remember that opponents invoking forecasts of congestion pricing’s potential negative environmental impacts as means to reject the toll are being disingenuous about their concern for Bronx residents. Their commitment to the borough conveniently stops at congestion pricing, and their silence on and opposition to solutions to this decades-long issue speaks volumes. Abandoning congestion pricing is not justice for the Bronx. These projections highlight the need for legitimate solutions to decades of racist and regressive planning decisions. There are many proposals out there, but we need the political will to deliver on them.

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