Friday, August 13, 2010

EDC's Off Ramps

In today's NY Times Fernanda Santos takes an in-depth look at the behind the scenes effort by EDC to get state approval for the building of crucial ramps on and off of the Van Wyck-crucial because it has argued in court papers that the massive Willets Point project cannot be built sans ramps. What she has discovered is that NYSDOT is profoundly skeptical of the EDC plan:  "Even as the Bloomberg administration promotes the $3 billion development of Willets Point in Queens as one of its signature projects, state officials whose approval is needed have privately raised concerns over highway ramps crucial to the proposal and have questioned whether the development will ever get off the ground."

But what is still lurking below the surface here, is how close the state agency was to approving EDC's defective plan before the intervention of Willets Point United-the whole purpose behind the group's push for state senate oversight hearings. But the Times does underscore that State DOT's Michael Bergman was one very honest overseer: "Michael Bergmann, a structural engineer for the State Department of Transportation who was part of the team reviewing the city’s application, wrote to the department’s regional director and other colleagues on Dec. 28: “Unless the preparers of this report start accepting the idea that it is seriously flawed, we are going nowhere.”

This was about the time that the inquiries of WPU's Brian Ketcham began to roil the policy makers at DOT-and the Times goes on to point out that one of these policy makers does seem to support the Bergman position: "About a month later, after pointing out a mistake in a document that put the development’s completion date as 2107 instead of 2017, Peter King, a project manager for the state, wrote to a colleague, “Perhaps that reference to 2107 may have been closer to the truth than anyone realizes.”

But, as other e-mails show, it was King who was trying to push the project forward at the end of lat year-seeking in essence to override the Bergman objections. Ketcham's blistering critique of EDC's defective traffic report, however, became the game changer that led to the King 180-and the Times acknowledges the WPU's role as well: "Several months later, state officials did not seem very optimistic about the project’s future. “If I were a betting man, I’d start dropping the odds regarding success for E.D.C. on this project,” Mr. King said in an e-mail to a state transportation analyst on May 11. “Resistance seems to be building.” He was reacting in part to a group of business and property owners in Willets Point who had organized an effort to try to derail the project. As part of that, the opponents had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the State Transportation Department seeking copies of all communications on the plan, hoping to pry open a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic process the public often knows very little about."

What does become clear is just how strenuous an effort has been mounted by EDC to get quick approval for its ramps-and haste makes waste if you review just how defective the EDC consultant's reports really were. Which raises serious questions about whether, if this review continues behind closed doors, an honest evaluation of the efficacy of the ramps will be forthcoming. But one thing is certain: EDC has been set back on its heels: "A spokesman for the development corporation, David Lombino, said those concerns were being addressed in a revised plan that the city intended to submit to the state by the end of the year. Mr. Lombino conceded, however, that the ramps’ approval “has been more time-consuming than originally planned.”

No kidding-but the Times highlights just how annoying the tawdry nature of the EDC work product was; and its supercilious attitude towards the regulators:

"The e-mails show state regulators raising various concerns. Do traffic projections account for simultaneous events at Citi Field stadium next to the development site and the nearby Billie Jean King National Tennis Center after Willets Point is fully occupied? Could one of the exit curves be too tight? Might the cluster of exits and merges confuse drivers and lead to accidents?

Such back and forth among different government agencies working together on a specific matter is certainly not uncommon — particularly on large, ambitious projects like Willets Point, which envisions the construction of 5,500 apartments, office buildings, retail stores and a hotel, replacing the auto repair shops, factories and junkyards that have operated there for decades.

What seems unusual is the annoyance state regulators expressed with the work of the consultants hired by the city to work on the ramps’ design. The consultants submitted numerous written responses and clarifications to questions and sat with the regulators in several meetings, but still failed to satisfy them, the messages show." (emphasis added)

But will mere annoyance be enough to insure true oversight and transparency? We're not sure-and why we have been calling for an independent review of the EDC proposals (as the Natural Resources Defense Council has advocated). Still, we are encouraged by the integrity of staffers like Mike Bergmann-and believe at the same time that an open process will embolden the honesty of staffers who can see how flawed this entire ramp project really is: "We have reviewed this whole package several times, and we keep seeing the same things,” Mr. Bergmann wrote to Mr. King and Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, a vice president at the development corporation, on Dec. 30. “Clarification is not our problem — we understand the design concepts. There are several key elements in the draft report that we are not willing to accept.”

But is the upcoming phases of the review process that are fraught with uncertainty-and that must be subject to the most rigorous oversight; particularly since this Willets Point project is so vital to the mayor's legacy (think Lola in Damn Yankees): "As part of the approval process for the project, the city is preparing an assessment of the ramps’ impact on the environment, which will be the subject of a public hearing next month. The assessment has to be reviewed by state transportation officials and the federal highway agency, which can approve it or request a more extensive review, an outcome that would further delay the project."

Which brings to mind the NRDC request: "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..: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..."

What EDC and the mayor will be doing-and pulling out all stops to do-is to forestall any further delay; and, even more so, any truly independent oversight of the ramps. For those elected officials concerned with, not only the integrity of the governmental review process, but also the colossal impact of the massive traffic influx that Willets Point's 80,000 vehicle trips a day will generate, the outcome of this fight will be a real test of will.

The roads and highways of Queens County, along with its fragile mass transit infrastructure, are hanging in the balance. Not to mention the basic property rights of small business owners that are being run roughshod over by a billionaire elitist whose only concern is his own legacy.