Thursday, August 12, 2010

Local Press Weighs-in on Cancellation of Willets Point Hearing

Conner Sheets continues his excellent reporting on Queens development issues in this week's Times-Ledger Gazette-and weighs in on the reasons for the cancellation of the state senate hearing: "The state Senate Transportation Committee has canceled an eagerly anticipated meeting to consider concerns about the traffic effects posed by the $3 billion development project slated for the 62-acre Willets Point site in northern Queens. Scheduled in response to concerns brought forward by a group lobbying on behalf of Willets Point small business owners, the meeting was canceled less than a week before it was slated to occur. The cancellation disappointed the group’s members and further tabled discussions on widespread community concerns about the traffic the massive project will bring to the region’s already-jammed roadways."

So, what happened? Here's his take: "The meeting was canceled due to an “unavoidable scheduling conflict that has arisen with [Transportation Committee Chairman] Senator [Martin] Dilan,” according to an e-mail sent Friday by Matthew Trapasso, Dilan’s policy and legislative director."

But the cancellation at the last minute was minus any sense that the hearing would be rescheduled-upsetting WPU and yours truly: "Lipsky, other representatives of the alliance and members of a coalition of area civic groups planned to testify before the Transportation Committee about the effects the project will have on traffic in the surrounding area.“Great deal of prep has gone into this, so we are greatly disappointed,” he said in an e-mail shortly after the meeting was canceled."

WPU was particularly upset because of the weighty issues that were being brought to the table: "Richard Lipsky, the lobbyist at the helm of the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, alleges that the city Economic Development Corp. and the state Department of Transportation have misrepresented the severe effects on traffic the project will have throughout eastern and northern Queens. He has urged the Senate to investigate the issue."

Shockingly, Dave Lombino of EDC disagrees with our assessment: "David Lombino, a spokesman for the city Economic Development Corp., vehemently disagreed with the assertion that there have been misrepresentations. “We’d like to deny those allegations,” he said. “There’s no truth to it whatsoever.”

The forced revision of the original EDC ramp report must have been an immaculate deception: "Lipsky contends an outside consultant should be hired to review city plans to build ramps to the Van Wyck Expressway to handle the added traffic the project would create. A consulting firm hired by the EDC reported to the Council that 46 percent of projected traffic from Willets Point would be diverted to the Van Wyck, Lipsky said. The same firm later reported to the state DOT that only 16 percent of that traffic would go to the Van Wyck.
“In the original report you could argue the interest is to downplay the impacts on local streets and in the second report, the interest is to downplay the impacts on state highways” Lipsky said. “It certainly is suggestive of that. Is it conclusive? No. What we do know and what is definitive is that the two reports don’t jive. Why not? Can the consultants be trusted?”

Lombino, really warming to the corporate task, counters with the following humorous aside: "Lombino said the numbers are subject to change until an official report is released and that the state DOT continues to work on its final traffic study. “We’ve been working with the regulators on a draft report, so it is to be expected that numbers will be revised and updated to make sure they are robust and accurate as possible,” he said via e-mail. “It will be released and subject to public review, and we expect that process to begin in September.”

Which is precisely why we requested the hearing-the ongoing process has not been transparent-even after WPU and its consultant pointed out how EDC's original report was as far from robust as possible without being totally fabricated: "Even if the Senate failed to conclude that it is necessary to look into the discrepancies between the two reports, Lipsky and traffic engineering consultant Brian Ketcham said the traffic will be too heavy to allow the Willets Point project to be built without a more significant investment in infrastructure than is currently planned. “Brian Ketcham’s belief is no matter how they slice it, they can’t approve these ramps without having a severe impact on the Van Wyck, and that would violate federal guidelines,” Lipsky said. “The hearing is about us presenting this body of evidence and calling on the state Senate to endorse our position that there should be an independent review.”

And Sheets, to his credit, raises the issue of the impact of all of the area's development-and is thus deserving of the last word: "The alliance also argues that officials need to look at the combined traffic effects of the 50 to 70 projects planned for that area of Queens — including Willets Point, the recently approved $850 million Flushing Commons mixed-use development and more — on traffic, not only that of individual projects in isolation."