Environmental study of congestion-pricing plans has Bronx residents asking: 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 more before she recognized the highway outside her old window as a possible source.

When her son, now an adult, suffered from severe asthma attacks, she’d take him to a local specialized medical center for pediatric respiratory problems. And in his first week of elementary school one year, she brought his pump to the nurse’s office in case he had an attack. She said the nurse pulled out a storage bin that was almost filled to the top with ziplock bags with scores of pumps just like her son’s.

“I was like, how does this even make sense, that all these kids have asthma?” Martell said.

She added: “I think all New Yorkers are the same. Until it impacts you, you just don’t care about the issue.”

Divided opinion

Potential upticks in traffic in some outer boroughs, as detailed in the report, are fueling criticisms 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 Gov. Kathy Hochul – the Democrat who leads the local traffic board tasked with approving the plan – to withdraw her unwavering support. The roughly bipartisan lawmakers cited it’ll harm to low-income, outer borough residents.

Among them was City Council Minority Leader Joe Borrelli, R-Staten Island, a longtime opponent of congestion pricing.

Meanwhile, some local environmentalists, like New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, argue the overall environmental benefits make the plan worth pursuing.

But Kevin Garcia, NYC-EJA’s transportation organizer, said he wants “not just net-zero negatives but net positive overall” environmental impacts in the South Bronx.

During the MTA’s public input period he suggested a number of mitigation options: capping the Cross Bronx Expressway with a concrete platform or park, to reduce the amount of truck pollution seeping into the nearby air; targeting truck emissions at the Hunts Point Produce Market, by creating a marine shipping area to cut down on truck deliveries, banning diesel storage units, and installing curbside charging stations.

But none of these suggestions is listed in the latest environmental assessment. No mitigation measures are federally required to curb local pollution, the report notes, though it lists a couple ways the agencies sponsoring the plan will improve air quality in areas of concern. For one, the local department of transportation would add extra, real-time PM2.5 sensors to monitor “priority locations.”

And after hearing community concerns, the MTA will now send the next major set of zero-emissions electric buses to the 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 enhancements insufficient Band-Aids. For example, they say extra air monitoring won’t get rid of the existing pollution by their roadways, studied already by local public health researchers and community groups.

And the neighborhood would have already received electric buses as part of an existing MTA plan to electrify its entire fleet, though the new decision would expedite the schedule.

Mitigation efforts – if the agencies in charge of the tolling plan considered or accepted them – would have to come before more trucks, Bronx resident Martell argues.

“The congestion pricing is going to be an immediate problem and it is going to have an immediate impact,” she said. “So unless we’re working together with the government to make sure that all of these things happen at the same time, the Bronx is going to be burdened.”

But Martell doubts the timeline will work out that way. She’s spearheading the current effort to cap the CBE, which requires federal government approval. Local agencies are conducting feasibility studies, which she said won’t be done for a couple years.

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 any additional mitigation or enhancement measures is being considered.”

An ongoing cycle in the Bronx

Mychal Johnson, leader of the South Bronx Unite group, sees the last several decades of South Bronx environmental history as a series of government-backed decisions to benefit the region at the price of his community’s air and lungs.

He worries the tolling plans will be the next episode in that cycle.

“We always shoulder the burden,” he said. “We can’t afford any more trucks.”

The current proposal reminds him especially of the saga over the 100-acre Harlem River Yards along the southern coast of the borough, the centerpiece of a 1970s state plan promised to lower the city’s air pollution. Diesel-spewing trucks would be replaced by a flood of freight trains pulling into a new railyard on the plot– a rush that never came.

Instead, Johnson says he can hear a constant hum of revving engines and squealing brakes by the government-owned, privately leased complex. Trucks regularly enter and exit the facility, hauling trash to a garbage transfer station, picking up mail at a FedEx shipping center, and delivering groceries from Fresh Direct headquarters, which opened in 2018 bringing more noise and air pollution.

Eastward in the region’s 850-acre waterfront industrial zone – one of the city’s largest – trucks funnel in and out of the Hunts Point peninsula, which is home to the Hunts Point Market, which bills itself as “the world’s largest” food distribution center.

As part of crafting the environmental assessment, the MTA met with Johnson’s group and several others to solicit feedback about potential impacts on environmental justice communities. After these conversations, a seventh tolling scenario was added that would send comparatively fewer trucks across the Cross Bronx Expressway daily– still 50 trucks too many, Johnson argues.

He voiced his concerns again in a public comment period that has been extended to Friday. Along with the environmental assessment, the public comments and the MTA’s responses will help the Federal Highway Administration determine if the congestion plan’s potential environmental impacts are significant enough to require more study.

If the answer is no, the plan will go to the governor-led Traffic Mobility Review Board, which will likely approve the plan and decide the details, choosing one of the seven studied scenarios or another option. In that case, the tolls could be up and running by the end of next year.

Alternatively, the federal government could demand a more comprehensive report called an Environmental Impact Statement. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently called for this more rigorous review in a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; his agency runs the FHWA. Murphy cited environmental equity concerns in his state.

Martell, meanwhile, doubts Bronxites’ concerns will keep congestion pricing from chugging ahead. And she continues to worry about the health of her neighbors, particularly the young.

“It just seems to me,” she said, “like this continuous cycle of respiratory issues in young kids in the Bronx.”

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