For most of its history, the Staten Island Expressway had six lanes, with three in each direction, and service roads that were interrupted rather than continuous. For much of the past decade it has been under construction with the publicly announced purpose of adding mass transit – a busway down the center. With “auxiliary lanes” added in the vicinity of Todt Hill, according to the announced plan.
“A design approval document was prepared in support of the CE determination. A review of the project indicates that the project will have no significant environmental impact. It does not individually nor cumulatively have a significant environmental impact, and is excluded from the requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or an Environmental Assessment (EA).”
During construction the traffic lanes were shifted first to one side of the road, and then to the other. Including all the lanes used at one time or another, the whole thing seemed to be 12 lanes wide. So what would the final product look like? Last Saturday, on a trip to New Jersey, I found out. It is a 10-lane road with two – one in each direction — in theory restricted to high occupancy vehicles (3+ people), but with limited compliance with that rule and no enforcement. The two additional general traffic “auxiliary lanes” extend from the Verrazano Bridge nearly to Victory Boulevard, almost the entire length of the island. Surprise!
Let it first be said that my objection is neither to the presence of a 10 lane Staten Island Expressway, nor to the absence of 20 years of delay and lawsuits before it was installed. Unlike many of those associated with organizations such as Streetsblog, to which I have contributed, and Transportation Alternatives, of which I am a member, I am not opposed to all highway and street improvements for motor vehicles.
Just as few are willing to make the sacrifices needed to end all fossil fuel use tomorrow, the U.S. is in no position to eliminate all automobile use tomorrow, regardless of the environmental situation. Just as natural gas is required as a transition fuel, the maintenance and improvement of existing roads in already developed areas is needed as a transition lifestyle. No road project on Staten Island is going to lead to farms and forests paved over while already-developed central areas are abandoned. The battle to have future generations’ needs and, increasingly, their preferences respected needs to be fought elsewhere.
When the highway building era ended in the Northeast, moreover, Staten Island was left with a disjointed network.
Should two highways have been built through the Greenbelt? No. But after the decision was made to not build them, Richmond Parkway was left ending with an “exit” onto Richmond Avenue rather than running directly into it (as does the Prospect Expressway into Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn). And on the other end, Route 440 dead ends at Victory Boulevard where it was supposed to connect with Richmond Parkway, rather than connecting directly into Richmond Avenue. The main north-south route through the populated part of western Staten Island thus involves two exits and travel on congested east-west roads.
Should an expressway have been built all along the South Shore? No. But when that plan was cancelled, Capodanno Bouleward should have extended the length of the island, allowing full public access to the shoreline rather than having the water left to a few custom homes. Or at least its connection to Hylan Boulevard should have been made better than it is.
It didn’t help that anytime anyone proposed any transportation improvements on Staten Island, a bunch of self-absorbed people would show up and chant “forgotten borough!” because they were being cheated out of what Staten Islanders “deserved.” Perhaps unlimited free limo rides for everyone on the island, perhaps funded by mass transit cuts in Brooklyn, might have satisfied them, but I’m not sure.
In the face of such reflexive whining about everything, the political play was to do nothing. Except, apparently, by stealth.
Frankly, it wouldn’t bother me if the “auxiliary lanes” were extended another mile, all the way to the West Shore Expressway, to provide a reduction in congestion for through traffic as well as for those living on the North Shore. Come to think of it, perhaps no benefit for those traveling between Brooklyn and New Jersey was exactly the point of having the fourth general traffic lane stop where it did, just before reaching Route 440.
Still, I’m not going to file a lawsuit to demand that the Staten Island Expressway be cut back to three lanes in each direction until an Environmental Impact Statement is done. So what is the problem?
While the ten-lane Staten Island Expressway, the ten-to-twelve lane Tappan Zee Bridge, and the pedestrian pens to prevent people from crossing Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, all sailed through with little or no public review at all. Like many improvements that favor those driving automobiles. Bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements have been mired in years of public reviews and lawsuits. On “progressive” and “environmental grounds.”
In fact we currently have a New York City mayor who, when running for office, accused the former mayor of “ramming through” pedestrian and bicycle improvements without properly consulting with all members of the community (instead of just their elected officials and designated community boards). Our current Mayor was the NYC Public Advocate when a 10-lane Staten Island Expressway was being built with zero public review at all. I don’t recall him complaining.
“Environmental” reviews, public reviews and lawsuits, and their delays, have contributed to the inflated cost of transit improvements. Given how low-cost bicycle and pedestrian improvements are, it is likely that more is spent on the review process than on the actual construction. No wonder there are more and more jobs for consultants and lawyers, relative to infrastructure construction workers.
Despite the fact that a subway had been approved for Second Avenue in the 1920s, and again in the 1960s, the revival of the project in 1996 required not one but two Environmental Impact Statements. All those delays, all that time, is one reason that all that will end up being built is merely a three-station extension of the BMT Broadway line. And even at that, lawyers were able to use the environmental review process as a hook to stall the construction of station entrances for years and years.
How much did that cost? Probably more than the extra lane on the Staten Island Expressway.
I guess we can be grateful that New York City’s bikelanes and Citibike, which are inherently good for the environment, have not been put through multi-million dollar, multi-year environmental reviews. Like those in San Francisco, following a lawsuit that may eventually lead to the NIMBY madness finally ending in California. But it isn’t for lack of trying.
Prior to the start of Citibike, the principals of an environmental consulting firm were commenting on transportation blogs with a claim that an environmental impact statement was legally required for the service to be implemented, and it would be mired in lawsuits for years without it. In reality if an environmental impact statement were done, at the cost of several years and $millions, Citibike would still be tied up in environmental litigation at a cost of further $millions, until the city pulled the plug. The judges, who are part of a political class trade drives everywhere and doesn’t think much of those who don’t, would have allowed the case to drag on for years.
After six years, in fact, a lawsuit against the Prospect Park West bike lane, trying to get it ripped out, is still underway. Among the lawsuit’s claims is that the extensive public discussion and review prior to the installation of that bike lane was not valid because there was no environmental impact statement.
Among those initially pushing for removal of the bike lanes on “environmental review” grounds was Iris Weinshall, who had been NYC Transportation Commissioner when the decision was made to ten-lane the State Island Expressway, install the pedestrian pens on Fifth Avenue, and make other changes to favor motor vehicles without any public review at all. Her name was later removed from the lawsuit and anti-bike lane advocacy group, for obvious reasons. Still, the difference between the Prospect Park West lawsuit and the Staten Island Expressway “public review” shows the contempt the political class has for ordinary New Yorkers, who were and are overwhelmingly in favor of the bike lane, and younger generations New Yorkers in particular.
In the past, the level of public review for public projects seems to have been subject to the political principle of oscillating stupidity. When you have a large, politically active, powerful interest group, such as unionized public employees, policies that favor them – such as repeated retroactive pension increases followed by cuts in pay and benefits for new hires – are permanent and can never be changed, regardless of the consequences. Since they own the government. Their world, we’re just living in it.
But when you have issues that are only paid attention to by small numbers of passionately committed people, the pendulum seems to swing from one extreme to the other. That’s why NIMBY activists, and bicycle transportation advocates, seem to be so powerful despite being small in numbers. The general public is generally on the sidelines.
So in New York we have gone from Robert Moses, with no procedural impediments at all to his version of the long-term regional interest, and zero consideration of the short-term local interest. To Jane Jacobs-inspired uber-NIMBYism, in which any small number of people (with connections) asserting their short-term local interest could halt any project or proposal serving broader long-term needs.
Compared with that past, I would say we have had a reasonable balance in New York City over the past 20 years or so. Whether this equilibrium holds will remain to be seen. But in transportation, we seem to have a very strange and contradictory equilibrium. Projects that benefit the environment, poorer younger generations and the future can be mired in years of “community review” and in some cases “environmental review” in which the demands of the better off minority can trump the needs of the rest. But projects to benefit those who drive can occur immediately with no public review at all.
The planning process is also being warped by two different ideas of “the environment.” Because it turns out that what is good for one person’s environment is the exact opposite of what is good for the global environment.
From the point of view of the global environment it is better for people to crowd together a high densities. They pave over less natural land, use less energy to heat and cool their buildings, can be served by environmental infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants more affordably, and have better access to more jobs, goods and services via walking, bicycle and transit rather than private automobiles.
At the same time, however, those living in more dense areas experience a greater environmental impact personally. With more garbage on the street on pick up days, more rats and roaches, more traffic, more difficult and expensive parking, and less green space.
This conflict is playing out across the country, as developers try to build mixed-use developments including multi-family housing in places where such housing had previously been excluded. There will be more affordability and less driving in total, the developers say. Some of those people will drive and get in the way of MY car, local “environmentalists” and their lawyers say – often in courty.
In New York, one sees this conflict in the public review of Mayor DeBlasio’s housing proposals. There is no question that if more housing is built near transit in New York City, those who occupy it will have less of a global environmental impact than if the same people live just about anywhere else in the developed world. For New York’s “progressive” politicians (current rather than historic definition), however, greenhouse emissions and affordable housing for the next generation of working taxpayers don’t matter as much as the ease of access to free parking for their campaign contributors’ SUVs.
This is far from the only example. A developer, it is said, wants to build an additional house in the woods while an “environmentalist” already has one. “Environmental” lawsuits have been used to try to stop offshore wind farms. A recent documentary exposed how “environmental” groups, to maintain popularity, refuse to discuss the environmental consequences of a lifestyle too many people would be unwilling to give up. Preferring instead to pretend that the only people who need to make any changes are the “big corporations” and “the rich.”
In the end, however, in New York the politics aren’t about what. They are about who.
Back on Staten Island, a state legislator managed to get the flashing lights that identified select bus service buses on Hylan Boulevard removed, on the grounds that drivers might confuse the buses with emergency vehicles. And yet when I drive on The Rock, I often find myself pulling over to allow cars and SUVs with flashing red and blue lights to pass. After they go by I ask myself “was that really a cop?” Like that “HOV lane” on the Staten Island Expressway, no one is enforcing rules about flashing lights against scofflaw drivers at all. Why? Because those in the SUVs don’t think of themselves as serfs, and neither do the other members of the placard holding political/union class. They think of those in buses and on bicycles as serfs.
A couple of years ago, I was bringing our car up to our daughter at college for her use there, with a bus ride back. In fact I’ve spent a lot of time on buses the past four years, particularly since the rental car companies took advantage of their oligopoly to increase rental car rates to the moon.
It was snowing hard on the way home, and the Utica to Binghamton Coach USA bus had to move very slowly to avoid running off the road. Eventually, the dispatcher decided that the last Binghamton to New York City bus could not be held, and booked those making the connection on a later Greyhound bus instead. That bus was also delayed.
At some point it was announced that the Binghamton bus station – perhaps the second most important in New York State, the place where most people transfer when traveling between Downstate and Upstate, was closing. Everybody out, wait at the curb.
It was dark, freezing and snowing. There was no way to know if the Greyhound Bus was still coming, and when. There was nowhere to go – everything in Downtown Binghamton was closed, except for a restaurant some distance away, and anyone going there to use the bathroom or get something to eat would risk missing the bus. We huddled together and tried to stay warm, for what turned out to be about a half hour.
People complain about LaGuardia. Could you imagine airline passengers being told the terminal was closing, and to wait out in the weather on the tarmac for the last airplane?
Evidently this happens all the time.
The temperature outside the Des Moines Greyhound bus terminal on a February morning fell to a dangerously frigid 17 degrees below zero. But the bus driver who dropped off Ankur Singh and 10 other passengers so that they could wait for a connecting motorcoach, knowing that it would be an hour before the terminal would open, didn’t seem to care.
Singh’s experience offers a glimpse into a corner of the travel industry that receives practically no coverage or concern from the travel media: the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of people who travel by bus.
Greyhound doesn’t care. The politicians responsible for the bus terminals don’t care.
Alex Slover told me about how he was locked out of a Greyhound station for nearly two hours during a recent snowstorm in Binghamton, N.Y. “There was a bus idling in the parking lot,” remembers Slover, who at the time was a college student. “I tried to go in there to stay warm, but someone came over and told me to get out, saying they were trying to keep the bus from freezing or something, and that I couldn’t be in there.”
Christine Pearl remembers a stopover in Buffalo during Thanksgiving when she was shut out of the station late one evening after her connecting bus was delayed. “The person who closed the bus station didn’t even tell us how late the bus would be, so we were just left standing outside wondering when the bus would show up,” she recalls. “It was miserably cold and snowing. The snow actually leaked through my backpack and got some of my textbooks wet.”
After half an hour, her bus arrived. Pearl, a first-year law student, sent a complaint to Greyhound but never heard back.
The press doesn’t care.
Travel journalists like me spill barrels of ink calling attention to the plight of airline passengers. We write about every little fee and frequent-flier offer, no matter how inconsequential, while ignoring the fate of the passengers who are freezing outside a decidedly less glamorous bus terminal.
The serfs. Who will be inheriting the debts and environmental damage from Generation Greed and paying for it their entire lives. And paying taxes for the pensions they will never receive, in lieu of the public services – such as bus terminals that are open until the last bus leaves – that they will never get.
I guess the only good news is that our 19-year-old car is back from Upstate, so for the moment I get a break from serfdom when driving from Brooklyn to New Jersey on the 10-lane Staten Island Expressway. With a bottleneck located a few miles west of where it once was.