The Queens Courier has an objective look at the controversy swirling around the building of ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway in order to accommodate the Willets Point development. As the paper points out, the ramps could prove to be the proverbial fly in the ointment-although as the Courier observes, both sides of the debate view the issue differently: "At issue is whether the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and State Department of Transportation (DOT) will approve two new highway ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway in order to help alleviate some of the additional traffic that is expected in the area. So, it’s not surprising that advocates from each side have very different views on the issue."
Here's Mike Gerrard for the good guys: “We think that the highways cannot physically handle the massive amount of traffic that the Willets Point project would dump on it,” said Michael Gerrard, a lawyer representing WPU. “Merely adding ramps doesn’t increase the mainline capacity of the Van Wyck that will remain a chokepoint.”
EDC's Confidence Man has an alternative perspective: "Dave Lombino, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is the lead agency working on the Willets Point project, said that the approval for the ramps is all part of the redevelopment process and that lobbyists for the WPU are trying to create a false impression of uncertainty around a critical project that will generate thousands of jobs and economic development for the city."
Huh? The lobbyists (kinda like the plural-makes it seem that we're in more than one place at a time) aren't trying to create the impression of uncertainty, but, on the contrary, are looking for ways to stop this turkey in its tracks-more certain you can't be on this side of the divide. And the question of the feasibility of the ramps is uncertain-and the fact that EDC Ulurped the Willets Point application before getting approval for ramps that are the linchpin of the development is its bad. Probably thought that with no one paying attention the NYSDOT/FHWA could be easily bamboozled by phony traffic data.
Why shouldn't they have thought this?-after all, the city council was clueless: "Back in 2008, while Willets Point was going through the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), many rallies, protests and public hearings took place, but the issue of ramp approval did not receive much attention. Even when the City Council approved the plan in November 2008, a reporter posed a question to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who was standing with former Councilmembers Eric Gioia, Melinda Katz and Hiram Monserrate, asking if the FHWA had to approve the additional ramps for the project to move forward, and they all responded no."
But Lombino, much too fixated on what the lobbyists are doing, can't stop spinning like a top: "But we’re hopeful there will not be any significant delay in the approvals, and we’re confident we will remain on target to complete the project on the timetable we’ve set forth,” Lombino said." But delay is already on the menu; and it would be nice if EDC became a bit more transparent and let the folks know exactly what their time table really is-just so we can see if there are any delays. Without transparency-and the quasi-agency is famous for opaqueness-King David can pontificate in any and all directions.
But listen to our own traffic guru-it will give great pause to the overly optimistic: "In February, the city submitted its preliminary draft environmental assessment to representatives from the two agencies, and Brian Ketcham, a traffic engineer hired by the WPU, said the report was fraught with errors. He believes that EDC is under-estimating the additional traffic that will result from the development of Willets Point and the nearby Flushing Commons development at downtown Municipal Lot 1. Ketcham said that the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for both projects conceded that in 2017 there would be gridlock traffic conditions on the highway, but the initial AMR projections for 2035 showed significantly less traffic. “I cannot imagine what goes through the minds of EDC when they have two projects that are reporting gridlock conditions, and then they turn around and they say there will be free-flowing traffic,” Ketcham said."
The city's attorney, however, is hoping that the new version of the ramp report gets better marks from the Pulitzer Committee than the first draft: "However, Steven Russo, an environmental attorney hired by the city, said that they were expecting to make changes to their preliminary draft because that is part of the process. He also said comparing the EIS to the AMR is not a fair comparison because the EIS focused more on local roads and intersections where the AMR specifically focuses on the highways.
But if it's an unfair comparison, why would NYSDOT ask for major revisions? And it's already six weeks and counting-with the EDC consultants finding it difficult to get their creative juices flowing. Russo, for his part, continues with his stand up comedy practice: "Russo did say that the preliminary draft report showed “that the highway would work better with the ramp, which is not surprising because you are giving the highway more access points,” and he believed that the final AMR would produce those same results."
You can't make this kind of thing up. More access points alleviates the Van Wyck, when the project is funneling thousands of more cars onto an already beleaguered roadway? We hope that Russo tries that argument in open court-or perhaps Comedy Central is looking for a summer replacement and he can do congestion humor.
But despite all of the seashells and balloons rhetoric from EDC, the Willets Point development has already been slowed to a crawl: "Currently, the city is working on a draft environmental assessment, which they believe will be finished in the next few months and then made available for public comment, and if necessary, more revisions. Then, it would be up to the FHWA and DOT to approve the environmental review and the access modifications for the ramps."
But,as Mike Gerrard tells the Courier, even if the agencies sign off on a revised work of fiction, Willets Point United is prepared to mount a legal challenge that will expose the agenies to ridicule-since we can't imagine that EDC can possibly square this circle jerk. We'll give WPU's Jake Bono the last word: "Jake Bono, a third generation owner of Bono Sawdust that has called Willets Point home for nearly 80 years, said that the city’s initial presentation to the FHWA and DOT was not surprising because they have been employing the same tactics from the beginning. “They are committed to doing whatever it takes to get the project done. If it’s illegal, if it’s immoral, it doesn’t matter,” Bono said. “At the end of the day they can never produce a report that will work.”