New York City’s Sheridan Expressway Vital

My friends at Streetsblog are displeased that the Bloomberg administration has decided not to tear down the Sheridan Expressway.

According to Streetsblog:

At a meeting with South Bronx community groups on May 10, city officials unexpectedly announced that they would no longer consider the teardown option, according to advocates who attended.

Advocates today demanded that the city put the teardown option back on the table. “The city’s study so far falls extremely short of the purpose of this grant and it cannot prematurely remove options from the table before completing the comprehensive analysis,” said Jessica Clemente, executive director of We Stay/Nos Quedamos. “Reconsidering the option to remove the Sheridan Expressway will help the city ensure that the Hunts Point market — and local economy — continues to thrive and South Bronx residents can enjoy a safer, more vibrant community.”

The Department of City Planning has not responded to Streetsblog’s inquiries about the reasons behind its decision, why other factors besides traffic were apparently not considered, and whether the Hunts Point market negotiations influenced the city’s rejection of the teardown.

U.S. Representative Jose Serrano who helped land a $1.5 million federal TIGER grant to study removing the highway was also displeased.

“It destroys their dreams,” he said, referring to members of the community who worked for more than a decade on the project. “It destroys the study. It destroys any semblance of doing it right by immediately taking this option off the table.”

Before project supporters take their picket signs to city hall, let’s examine the facts.

The Sheridan Expressway is not the most attractive highway in the nation. The 1.25 mile road connects the Bruckner and Cross Bronx Expressways. Was this the best place to build a highway? Could other alternative roads have handled the traffic? Did Robert Moses who built the highway conduct cost-benefit analysis. No, probably and definitely no. Similar to many urban expressways across the country, the highway was built through a minority neighborhood with little political influence. Constructing highways through urban neighborhoods is not good transportation policy.

However, New York has this existing highway network. Before we tear down an existing highway, we need to consider its use. There are more negatives than positives involved in tearing down the Sheridan. The New York City DOT explained its decision on the same day that Streetsblog published its article:

Analysis for the study showed that complete removal of the Sheridan would result in significant impacts. Namely:

Trucks would be re-routed onto local streets, where schools and many other activities are occurring, throughout the day;

New routes for trucks, such as East Tremont, already have significant traffic congestion during the morning rush hour;

Trucks would need additional time for trips to the Hunts Point Markets; and

Cars being re-routed to the Bronx River Parkway and other parallel routes, and causing significant backup where the Parkway meets the Bruckner Boulevard, particularly during the morning rush hour.

Taken together, these impacts amount to a fatal flaw for the removal scenario, and it has been removed for further consideration. The two remaining scenarios, to retain and to modify the Expressway, will continue to undergo further analysis. The study will be completed in early 2013.”

It sounds like a logical analysis to me. Streetsblog’s claims might have more credibility if New York City had never torn down an expressway. When the Westside Expressway south of 57th street was decaying, local residents successfully prevented the city from rehabilitating or replacing the highway. While the parks that replaced the highway are certainly more beautiful than the concrete lanes, the lack of an expressway makes getting into Midtown Manhattan considerably more challenging, especially for freight traffic.

And freight transportation is important. Low freight costs keep consumer prices low. Everything from tomatoes to coats to brooms arrives by truck. The U.S. has built a successful economy in part by having some of the lowest transportation costs in the world. One reason New York City prices are so high is that transport costs are high. While the 1.25 mile expressway may have less traffic than other highways, it is needed during rush-hours so other area roads do not become even more congested.

Streetsblog has other complaints. According to the website the New York Department of Transportation fails to use analysis of the surrounding area and the options proposed during the community visioning process. NYCDOT also neglected to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of different options.

It appears that the city department of transportation did both. The surrounding area has a large amount of industrial land use. While some of the adjacent land is residential, the area has far more commercial and industrial land than other areas of the city. It is crucial to maintain good freight routes somewhere. Second, it is a very unusual cost-benefit analysis that recommends tearing down a highway and replacing it with a mixed-use development and parks. Mixed-use developments only generate tax dollars if they succeed. And many times they do not. While parks are more attractive, highways generate far more commerce.

This is not the first time a government has proposed demolishing the Sheridan. In 2010 the state DOT also recommended against a teardown. Project supporter shrieks and Rep. Serrano’s connections with President Obama helped the project get a second look.

And even if the ill-advised teardown were to proceed, I doubt that a mixed-use development is the best solution for this area. Jobs created by the project need to provide a skills match to residents living in the area. Many successful mixed-use developments including the flagship Atlantic Station in Atlanta failed to provide this match. Existing residents are typically unable to afford to live in new mixed-use developments because of the high home prices. A successful mixed-use development may also use eminent domain to tear down existing housing and raise other home prices to the extent that current residents can no longer afford to live in the area. I fail to see how either of these scenarios help area residents at all. The project seems designed to displace existing residents with higher disposable income individuals.

The Sheridan Expressway is a classic example of who has the power? Is it the few connected civic leaders who live in the immediate area or New York City residents as a whole? Area leaders do not see a large personal gain from the highway. They see an ugly stretch of highway that they believe should be a mixed-use development and a park. City residents as a whole benefit from the expressway, the lower cost of transportation and reduced congestion in other areas of the city. Whether a small area or the city as a whole should win the power struggle should be based on metrics not the strength of lobbying by outside interest groups. I am not sure that was the case with the Westside Expressway Teardown. But in this case it appears that both NYSDOT and NYCDOT made the right decision.