Monday, July 12, 2010

Is NYSDOT Tanking on Willets Point Ramps?

We have been chronicling the saga of the EDC proposal to build ramps off of the Van Wyck in order to accommodate the 80,000 daily car and truck trips that its Willets Point development will generate. To briefly recap, an access modification report (AMR) is required by the applicant so that NYSDOT-and the federal highway authority-can gauge what kind of impact the excess ramp traffic will have on the arterial under its authority. This process was stymied when Willets Point United-with its ace traffic guru Brian Ketcham-exposed the fallacious nature of the original report that was submitted.

As we said earlier in the year-and as what was similarly reported in Crain's: "The original environmental impact statement, or EIS, showed the massive Willets Point project would generate heavy traffic, but a recent report on the proposed ramps showed a much sunnier picture. The ramp study—an “access modification report,” or AMR, which is technical documentation to support federal and state decisions on whether to approve the ramps—is being redone after Mr. Ketcham used traffic data from the environmental impact statement to demonstrate that the ramps would make a bad situation worse. The entire redevelopment, with 9 million buildable square feet, is projected to generate 80,000 vehicle trips daily."

Put simply, EDC had commissioned two studies of Willets Point traffic. The first done for the ULURP application envisioned that 46% of those 80,000 vehicle trips would be diverted from local streets onto the Van Wyck-thereby minimizing the local road impacts that would understandably most concern city council members. The second study-and both studies were done under the purview of AKRF, a company that should be viewed as a wholly owned EDC subsidiary-contradicted the first and envisioned that only 16% of the Willets Point traffic would be diverted onto the highway. The difference is 1,900 car and truck trips in the PM peak hour that were unaccounted for-lost in the ether; vanished. Different audiences, different results.
Moreover, Ketcham reported on the results of his traffic simulation modeling of the Van Wyck using EDC data. What he found is that the Van Wyck in the evening peak commuter hours cannot even handle 10% of Willets Point traffic without full breakdown—i.e., gridlock. Shocked, FHWA forced EDC to withdraw its submission.
So, as a result of WPU's intercession, the AMR report was forced into a rehab facility for sobering up purposes-and a new report was promised by March, 15th. It is now July, and DOT still has no new report ready for public dissemination; and in the meantime has been blithely violating state FOIA laws by refusing to disclose to WPU and Ketcham what is transpiring in the recalled AMR review process that they had forced upon EDC and the DOT.
But the blatant contradictions in the two discrepant Willets Point traffic studies had caught the attention of the Natural Resources Defense Council-arguably New York's leading environmental group. In March, NRDC wrote to both NYSDOT and the FHWA calling for an independent review of the traffic going from Willets Point to the Van Wyck: "NRDC is not taking a position on advancing the Willets Point project or on constructing the ramps. But based on our preliminary review, we are concerned over the discrepancies in the study results, and also by the prospect that a project could impair regional mobility..."
NRDC went on to ask for an impartial review under the National Environmental Policy Act: "Thus consistent with our position on other large-scale regional development projects we believe that the stakes are high enough with the building of new access ramps for the Willets Point project to warrant a full environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)...By undertaking such independent review, the public can be satisfies that the proposal's impacts have been adequately assessed..."
That was last March-fast forward to July, and NYSDOT has finally responded to the NRDC request in a letter dated July, 2, 2010-but is claiming that there is no need for an independent review: "The NEPA documents that are being developed are an Environmental Assessment and a revised Access Modification Report....We understand the request for an independent review but believe that working closely with NYCEDC, we can assure that the data will be based on sound data."
This is, without a doubt, a simply breathtaking assertion in the light of the contradictory and fallacious submissions from the very development corp that is now been made a valued collaborator with the state agency empowered to render fair and accurate judgments in these kinds of matters. It is, at the same time, inexplicable in the light of the Ketcham findings that the Van Wyck Expressway cannot accommodate even a tiny fraction of Willets Point traffic. The only way to do so would be to widen the expressway to four lanes in each direction for several miles. NYSDOT simply does not have the money to do this and the cost of widening the elevated structures would total a billion of dollars or more, another subsidy to developers when critical transportation projects all over New York State are being shelved.
All of this implies a gross negligence by NYSDOT of its statutory oversight responsibility-and indicates that the agency, instead of clearing the air-as NRDC suggests-through an independent review, is actively colluding in a bag job; as its resistance to WPU's  freedom of information requests dramatizes quite well. The question now is where does the FHWA stand? Will they really rubber stamp this buffoonery or will they step up and kill what has already been demonstrated as an abject failure?
Finally, we have been awaiting state senate hearings that have been put off because of the ongoing and painstaking budget process. Given what we believe is NYSDOT's abdication of its oversight role, it is now incumbent on the legislature to disinfect the collusive process with a little sunlight-and thus pave the way for a truly independent review untainted by the mendaciousness of EDC.