Friday, September 10, 2010

Cover Up at NYSDOT?

It has been seven months since Willets Point United, and its traffic consultant Brian Ketcham, demonstrated the blatant deficiency of a Van Wyck ramp report submitted by NYC EDC to the NYSDOT. The state agency is responsible for initially approving these ramps-or not-with the Federal Highway Administration having the last word on their feasibility. So the question that we ask, is there a cover up at NYSDOT?

In this interim seven month period, EDC and its consultants, in apparent secrecy and collusion with the oversight agency, have been working feverishly-to address the gross defects of their original submission (a revised ramp report was first slated to be ready in March). But, the WPU and Ketcham, after having been the key actors in insuring that the original report was sent back for revision, (in spite of promises from NYSDOT that they would be included in the revision process) have been left out; leaving EDC's original axe to grind consultant as the sole interlocutor with the state on the ramps feasibility.

As a result of the agency's reneging on an open, professional review process, WPU has been forced to file numerous Freedom of Information requests just to obtain information that, if transparency was valued, would be shared collegially in the interest of insuring that the impact of the ramps on the entire Queens highway grid system would be honestly evaluated. Instead the EDC consultant, AKRF, whose work was not only deficient but, arguably deceptive, has been allowed to act as the sole provider of technical knowledge to the agency.

The compelling question is, why has NYSDOT circled the wagons and resisted the free and open exchange of information? This is the question that WPU's Ketcham has asked DOT Commissioner Stanley Gee in a letter to the agency head. In particular, Ketcham raises the issue of NYSDOT's accountability to the public: "Given your distinguished career at the Federal Highway Administration and more recently at New York State Department of Transportation, I am bringing to your attention current Departmental practices that undermine your objective of improving its performance, accountability and communication within and outside the agency."

Ketcham goes on to highlight the agency's curious stonewalling:

"Over the past year, I have been reviewing these projects and nearly 90 other new projects near the Willets Point site. I have generated numerous letters to your agency regarding these projects along with submitting a number of technical reports for your agency’s review... In addition, on February 19, 2010, I also presented much of these materials to representatives of Region 11 along with representatives of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). At that meeting we were promised a technical dialogue with NYSDOT along with an open process for the review of this project. However, no open process has occurred and all my submissions have been ignored. What is going on with NYSDOT? Recent FOILed documents suggest your agency appears to be inappropriately colluding with NYCEDC and the FHWA to approve a project which they know to be seriously flawed. I trust this is not the case."

And then Ketcham gets to the information that WPU has received-information that raises serious questions about NYSDOT's impartiality: "Over the last year, I have identified numerous problems with this project that have been publicly ignored by NYSDOT and by NYCEDC. Recently released internal memos obtained using the Freedom of Information Law suggest that the technical staff of NYSDOT shared many of these concerns but appear to have been overruled by policy makers that have been under pressure to facilitate the approval of the AMR and thus of the Willets Point Plan."

So, after acknowledging serious problems in the EDC ramp report, NYSDOT proceeded to shut off any public vetting of the data submissions-relying exclusively on AKRF. But was this prudent and in the public interest? It is even more questionable considering that AKRF has a prior consulting relationship with NYSDOT-and is in fact used by the agency for all or most of its third party reviews. It is the closeness of this relationship, in our view, militates against both transparency and thoroughness.

Concerns over AKRF's impartiality are certainly not new. In the environmental and eminent domain reviews surrounding the Columbia University expansion, AKRF represented both the university and the Empire State Development Corporation-and was excoriated by the Appellate Court for this conflict of interest. Arguably, in the case of the Van Wyck ramps, the relationship between the agency and this consultant could easily impair impartiality, given the fact that there would be an a priori assumption on the part of NYSDOT staff that AKRF's work didn't need to be fully vetted.

This, at least according to the e-mails that WPU obtained, appears to be exactly what did happen-and the, "Environmental Group," at NYSDOT was poised to green light what turned out to be a defective AKRF submission:

"Jimmy Lau (NYSDOT), 9/25/2009 at 12:48PM: "... I read through the Willets Point Draft Access Modification Report. ... In every aspect the report is complete and well documented through my cursor [sic] review.... After this review I have no major comments that would change the relevance of this submission and that they should finalize this report and submit for final design approval."

But this cursory and cavalier review was demonstrably inadequate-as the subsequent intervention by Brian Ketcham underscored fatal flaws in the ramp report. But the Ketcham critique should have triggered a red flag at NYSDOT concerning the integrity of its consultant contractor AKRF. Ketcham's letter to the commissioner makes the point that AKRF's ramp report thoroughly contradicted the original EIS traffic study that AKRF supervised in its role as lead consultant in the Willets Point land use review:

"The draft AMR assumed that, in contrast to the 50% of total Willets Point traffic reported in the FGEIS, just 16% would utilize the new ramps. This unexplained discrepancy leaves a third of the PM peak hour traffic, about 1,900 vehicles, unaccounted for in both the Willets Point FGEIS and in the AMR, presumably on local roads."

How could AKRF, given its dual role in the crafting of the two discrepant studies, submit the second report-if it were acting in good faith-with no reference to the original land use review? Here's the money quote from the Ketcham letter:

"AKRF was the lead consultant for both the FGEIS for the Willets Point Plan and the AMR for the Van Wyck ramps (as well as the FEIS for nearby Flushing Commons. They must have or should have been fully aware that these two reports present traffic projections that are hugely different. AKRF’s role was further compromised by their ongoing contractual relationships with NYCEDC and with NYSDOT which ordinarily relied on them to provide third party review of environmental analyses. Clearly, something is wrong with NYSDOT’s review process."

The existence of these discrepancies and the coziness of the relationship between NYSDOT and AKRF/EDC is why the state's leading environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote to the agency-and to the FHWA-advocating for a fully independent review of these Van Wyck ramps under the National Environmental Policy Act. The fact that NYSDOT blew NRDC off in its request dramatizes the suspicion that whatever is going on at the agency, isn't a fair and open review process.

The environmental impact of the massive Willets Point project-a development that will flood Queens roads and highways and severely challenge the inadequate mass transit infrastructure-needs to be reviewed impartially. What we have seen in the original land use review, and now in the ramp oversight as well, is a review process that is simply broken. The failure to analyze what this project's impact would be-along with an additional 20 million square feet of additional development-will have a profound, and severely negative, consequence for all of Queens County.

We'll give the persevering Ketcham the final word: "NYSDOT must undertake an independent review of the Willets Point FGEIS and the Van Wyck ramps AMR. Your agency does this routinely as is evident in your ongoing term contract with AKRF to review Region 11 EISs. A dozen groups representing Queens communities within two miles of the Willets Point site strongly support an independent engineering review. There is clearly precedent for taking this action. So, what is stopping you from hiring another consultant to undertake an independent review?"