Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Willets Point Ramp Questions-And the Need for Sunlight

With a promised hearing on the Willets Point ramp construction scheduled for next month, it is appropriate to look at where the proposal stands going into the hearing. It should be recalled that in order to build these ramps, a ramp report called an AMR is required by the applicant-in this case the NYC EDC. All through last year EDC's consultant AKRF, and its traffic subcontractor UBS, were working assiduously to garner a fast approval from the two oversight agencies-NYSDOT, and the FHWA. Owing to a series of e-mails that Willets Point United has obtained from DOT (under duress) through freedom of information, we are beginning to get a picture that the approval process was continuing swimmingly-and the agencies in question were getting ready to sign off on the AMR.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum-and the jest involved the intervention of WPU and its ace traffic consultant Brian Ketcham. After Ketcham got through analyzing the AMR--and comparing it to the original traffic report submitted by EDC in its land use application to City Planning-the report that looked so princely, was transformed into a frog; and the draft AMR was sent back to the drawing board. That was in February.

But let us digress for a moment here and make some salient points about the approval process-and what it says about proper due diligence in the public interest. In the first place, as the e-mails highlight, the normal third party vettor for these kinds of submissions to DOT is none other than our old friend AKRF. What a pity it was, however, that AKRF was unavailable for this rigorous duty since it was also the lead consultant to the submitter-EDC.

This turns out to be, as the lawyers are wont to say, a difference without distinction. Because if the DOT's favorite sun was the "consigliere" for the applicant than it was apparently presumed by DOT that the work submitted-and evaluated in-house-was beyond reproach. On the part of NYSDOT, the tone of the emails indicates an expectation and predisposition to approve some version of the proposed ramps, and to do so in compliance with NYCEDC’s schedule. There is no discussion of the possibility that the ramps will not merit approval, or that the ramps and the associated development will hinder the operation of the Van Wyck Expressway.

And the FHWA? The federal oversight agency also seemed unseemly eager to short circuit any lengthy review-and one of its minions said he, “did some digging” to assess whether it can approve the AMR at the local FHWA office, thereby helping NYCEDC by shortening the approval process by many months versus sending the AMR to FHWA headquarters in Washington, DC for approval there."

Phil Eng of NYSDOT emerges from this correspondence as a particularly eager accomplice of-not the mission to protect the public-but EDC's timeline for a quick approval. Here's a sample of Eng's exchanges:

* Philip Eng (NYSDOT) promised an expedited review of the draft AMR. See email dated 9/11/2009 at 4:02PM, forwarding other email dated 9/11/2009: “On August 5, 2009, a draft copy of the Access Modification Report (AMR) for the referenced project was sent to your office for review and comments. Please provide the status of the comments. A copy of the original transmittal memo is attached to this e-mail. The memo states the Regional Director P. Eng promised an expedited review of the report.”

* Phillip Eng (NYSDOT) is concerned with accommodating NYCEDC’s approval schedule. See email dated 9/24/2009 at 1:39PM, forwarding email dated 8/19/2009 at 11:55AM: “Ian, Where do we stand on the AMR and the schedule we have in place to meet EDC's timeline needs? Thanks.”

* Phillip Eng (NYSDOT) is again concerned with accommodating NYCEDC’s approval schedule. See email dated 9/24/2009 at 1:39PM, forwarding email dated 9/23/2009 at 11:38AM: “The scheduled [sic] showed that we wanted to submit comments to EDC by 9/15. Did we?”

* Philip Eng (NYSDOT) again prompts underlings to complete analyses of the draft AMR. See email dated 10/15/2009 at 9:26AM: “How is the schedule? Have we sent comments to EDC yet? The schedule shows them resubmitting the AMR to us by 11/1. Thanks.”

In all of the e-mails we have examined, there was only one discouraging word noted. One keen agency staffer asked: "Does this report supplement and is harmonious with any EDC impact statements for Willets Point? And: Are Citifield events factored in the traffic studies as well as future commercial developments in College Point?” 

The reply email, if any, has not been provided to WPU. But, even in the absence of such a reply, we know that the staffer's question was never seriously addressed because it was only when Ketcham did what the DOT staffer asked that the dead cat was let out of the DOT/EDC bag job. All of which raises enormously serious questions for the legislative oversight hearing-and beyond to the federal approval process.

In the short term-and this situation keeps rearing its ugly head on project after project-we are witnessing how the monopoly status of one consultant, as Norm Siegel demonstrated in the Columbia situation, corrupts the possibility for an open, honest, and transparent environmental review process. In the long run-and keep in mind the fact that the collusion is ongoing since DOT has shut Ketcham and WPU out from its re-review of the AMR-the collusive nature of the process dramatizes the compelling need, as NRDC has requested, for an independent review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

In a subsequent post we will outline what the federal guidelines under NEPA entail-and what should be done to insure that the fix isn't in. More and more civic groups-along with NRDC-have called for independent review, one that doesn't let the applicant EDC choose its favored (wholly owned subsidiary) consultant. This is a goal that should be endorsed by all civic, environmental, and good government groups-and every single elected official in Queens. Whether that actually happens-and the pols stand up for transparency and propriety-remains to be seen. As always, we will be giving them the opportunity to fail.