The environmental study of congestion pricing plans has Bronx residents wondering: What’s in it for us?
It wasn’t until years later that Martell realized how common the disease was in her neighborhood – and years later that she recognized the freeway outside her old window as a possible source.
When her adult son suffered from severe asthma attacks, she took him to a local medical center specializing in pediatric respiratory problems. And in her first week of elementary school a year, she took her pump to the nurse’s office in case he had a stroke. She said the nurse pulled out a storage bin that was nearly full of zip-lock bags with dozens of pumps, just like her son’s.
“I was like, how does it make sense that all these kids have asthma?” said Martelle.
She added, “I think all New Yorkers are the same. Until it affects you, you don’t care about the problem.”
Potential increases in traffic in some outlying boroughs, as detailed in the report, are fueling criticism from some who were already skeptical of a congestion pricing plan.
In a letter earlier this month, a group of New York City elected officials urged Governor Kathy Hochul – the Democrat who leads the local traffic council tasked with approving the plan – to withdraw her steadfast support . Roughly bipartisan lawmakers cited this will hurt low-income residents in the outer boroughs.
Among them was City Council Minority Leader Joe Borrelli, R-Staten Island, a longtime opponent of congestion pricing.
Meanwhile, some local environmentalists, like the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, argue that the overall environmental benefits are worth pursuing.
But Kevin Garcia, NYC-EJA’s transportation organizer, said he wants “not just net negative, but overall net positive” environmental impacts in the South Bronx.
During the MTA’s public comment period, it suggested a number of mitigation measures choice: covering the Cross Bronx Freeway with a concrete pad or park, to reduce the amount of truck pollution that seeps into the air nearby; targeting truck emissions at the Hunts Point produce market, creating a shipping zone to reduce truck deliveries, banning diesel storage units and installing curbside charging stations.
But none of these suggestions are in the latest environmental assessment. No mitigation action is required at the federal level to reduce local pollution, the report notes, although it does list some ways the agencies sponsoring the plan will improve air quality in areas of concern. For one, the local transportation department would add additional real-time PM2.5 sensors to monitor “priority locations.”
And after hearing community concerns, the MTA will now ship the next large set of zero-emission electric buses to Kingsbridge depot in Upper Manhattan and Gun Hill depot in the Bronx.
Some local Bronx advocacy groups, like South Bronx Unite, remain wary.
They call some proposed improvements insufficient band-aids. For example, they say additional air monitoring will not get rid of existing pollution from their roads, already studied by local public health researchers and community groups.
And the neighborhood has reportedly already received electric buses as part of an existing MTA plan to electrify its entire fleet, though the new move would speed up the timeline.
Mitigation efforts — should the agencies in charge of the toll plan consider or agree to them — should come before more trucks, says Martell, a Bronx resident.
“Congestion pricing is going to be an immediate problem and it’s going to have an immediate impact,” she said. “So unless we work with the government to make sure all of these things happen at the same time, the Bronx is going to be overwhelmed.”
But Martell doubts the calendar works that way. She is spearheading the current effort to cap the CBE, which requires federal government approval. Local agencies are conducting feasibility studies, which she says won’t be done for a few years.
When asked if the MTA would consider any of the above proposals, McCarthy said in a statement: “As part of the review and response to public comments, the need for mitigation measures or further improvement is under consideration.”
An ongoing cycle in the Bronx
Mychal Johnson, leader of the South Bronx Unite group, views the past decades of the South Bronx’s environmental history as a series of government-backed decisions to benefit the region at the cost of his community’s air and lungs.
He fears the toll plans are the next installment in this cycle.
“We still carry the burden,” he said. “We no longer have the means to buy trucks.
The current proposal reminds him in particular of the saga of the 100-acre Harlem River Yards along the borough’s south coast, a centerpiece of a 1970s state plan promised to reduce the city’s air pollution. The diesel-spitting trucks would be replaced by a stream of freight trains entering a new field yard – a stampede that never happened.
Instead, Johnson says he can hear a constant hum of revving engines and squealing brakes from the government-owned, privately leased complex. Trucks drive in and out of the facility regularly, hauling trash to a garbage transfer station, picking up mail from a FedEx shipping center and delivering groceries from the headquarters of Fresh Direct, which has opened its doors in 2018. bringing more noise and air pollution.
East in the 850 acres of the region seaside industrial zone – one of the largest in town – trucks drive in and out of the Hunts Point Peninsula, home to Hunts Point Market, which presents itself as “the largest in the world” food distribution center.
As part of the development of the environmental assessment, the MTA met with Johnson’s group and several others to solicit comments on the potential impacts on environmental justice communities. After those conversations, a seventh toll scenario was added that would send comparatively fewer trucks down the Cross Bronx Freeway each day — still 50 trucks too many, according to Johnson.
He expressed his concerns again in a public comment period that has been extended to Friday. Along with the environmental assessment, public comments and the MTA’s responses will help the Federal Highway Administration determine if the potential environmental impacts of the congestion plan are significant enough to require further study.
If the answer is no, the plan will be submitted to the governor-led Traffic Mobility Review Board, which will likely approve the plan and decide the details, choosing one of the seven scenarios studied or another option. In this case, the tolls could be operational by the end of next year.
Alternatively, the federal government might require a more comprehensive report called an environmental impact statement. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently called for this more rigorous scrutiny in a letter to US Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; his agency runs the FHWA. Murphy cited environmental equity concerns in his state.
Martell, meanwhile, doubts Bronxites’ concerns are preventing congestion pricing from moving forward. And she continues to worry about the health of her neighbours, especially the young ones.
“It just feels right to me,” she said, “like this ongoing cycle of respiratory issues among young children in the Bronx.”