Monday, November 23, 2009

Willets Point: Hide and Sneak

The effort of Willets Point United-the group of business owners trying to stave off eminent domain generated eviction over at the Iron Triangle-is being stonewalled by the city's Economic Development Corporation in its effort to have all of the relevant project traffic information publicly disclosed. Of particular urgency is the data that pertains to the proposed Van Wyck ramps-the linchpin of any ability that the city would have to mitigate the impact of the 80,000 cars/day that this massive redevelopment will generate.

What the city is doing here, is attempting to avoid any public scrutiny-a scrutiny that would reveal the extent to which the entire traffic study that lead to the project's initial approval at the city council fraudulently fails to disclose essential information that would, we believe, totally undermine the public support for this expensive venture.

Central to this unethical-and perhaps illegal-end run, is the withholding of the Access Modification Report (AMR); and all of the data that has been generated to come up with the report that is the key to getting both state and federal approval for the ramps. While the report itself may still be considered, "work product," the traffic information that has been utilized to make it up, certainly isn't.

What exactly is the city trying to hide? Huge costs and unmitigatible local and highway traffic. As Brian Ketcham, WPU's traffic expert points out: "...the project will generate 80,000 vehicle trips on an average weekday (of which 2,500 are truck trips) and about the same number of trips for weekend days, with peak hour impacts of between 6,000 and 7,000 vehicle trips."

And nowhere in the original environmental review is the impact of the ramps ever actually analyzed. Ketcham again:

"The project assumes the construction of new access ramps on and off the Van Wyck Expressway south of the Whitestone Expressway. The ramps do not exist but are assumed as part of the project. However, they are not included as mitigation nor are the impact of these proposed ramps included in the New York City’s Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS). The ramps are not mentioned in the Mitigation chapter of the FGEIS. Nor are they analyzed in the traffic and parking chapter although Plan trip assignments are clearly assumed to utilize these ramps (while the FGEIS fails to provide details it appears New York City is planning on diverting about 2,000 trips during the evening weekday peak hour to these ramps, about a third of total PM peak hour trips)."

This is a massive cover up. Although NYCEDC may be entitled to withhold records that are inter-agency/intra-agency communications, the portions of those records that consist purely of statistical or factual tabulations or data (such as traffic statistics) must be disclosed. FOIL explicitly says so. Therefore, NYCEDC has erroneously applied a claimed blanket exemption from disclosure to every element of the AMR, when no such blanket exemption is available. NYCEDC's denial is discretionary, not mandatory, and NYCEDC should not choose to deny access under the present circumstances.

Of course, the less the public knows about what kind of traffic the Willets Point development will generate, the less the hue and cry from local civic groups and elected officials. In addition, the greater the traffic mess, the greater the concomitant need to create extensive road infrastructure to mitigate-something that will be inordinately expensive for the city's strapped tax payers.

EDC's shucking and ducking should not come as a surprise. When the city employs-and funds-an illegal lobbying group to create the pretense of grass roots support for a project, camouflages actual traffic impacts in a fraudulent environmental review designed to obscure rather than enlighten the effected communities, and refuses to divulge the actual costs of the expensive adventure, you just have to know that the attempted fix is in.

Which is exactly why there is a compelling need for the intervention of the federal government under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The feds, in this case the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), need to do a full an unbiased traffic study and environmental review.

And we are calling on the FHWA to intervene. We are fully aware that USDOT/FHWA goes to great lengths to appropriately include the public in its decision making, especially a project that is as significant as the Willets Point Development Plan would have on this region. We are requesting that it open up the AMR to public scrutiny and that direct NYSDOT to provide all materials relevant to the AMR; including all modeling results demonstrating the effects of ramps on the region’s expressways and on the local roads in Queens accessing the Willets Point area. We are also asking that FHWA review the FGEIS for indications that this assessment violates NEPA requirements.

It's past time for this conspiracy of silence to be put to an end. This project's potential to damage local community quality of life is simply too great to allow a review process to be, not only advanced in the dark, but under conditions that suggest that the fix is in. Open the books up EDC-what are you afraid the public will find out?