A truck truth: The alternatives are worse than Canal

BY CARL ROSENSTEIN   |  Better late than never. It’s taken Councilmember Margaret Chin five years to address Downtown’s worst environmental issue, Canal St., but so much more than the lives of three elderly Chinese residents has been lost in those years — real opportunities for change have been squandered.

In the 1990s, my neighbors and I worked with the Soho Alliance and Councilmember Kathryn Freed to make illegal trucking across Downtown a visible issue. Our vigilance and diligence provided tangible results, reduced trucking, but we were also lucky.

The elephant in the room, as reported in Downtown Express, has always been the one-way Verrazano Bridge toll. As I have written on many occasions, the fault lies with elected Democrats who have blatantly failed their constituents in favor of Republican Staten Islanders.

It began in 1986 when Gov. Mario Cuomo changed the bridge toll in a “study.” A year later the toll was codified into federal highway legislation and to this day remains the only local bridge toll in the U.S.A. to be under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

It will take an act of Congress to reverse the toll back to two-way. This would remove the incentive for drivers heading to New Jersey to utilize the free East River bridges and free outbound tunnel, avoiding the current $15 one-way toll and $80 or more for tractor-trailers.

These crushing tolls are scheduled to rise early next year. Somewhere between 10,000-20,000 extra vehicular trips are made daily across Canal St. to avoid these exorbitant tolls. There is also a huge revenue loss to the M.T.A., well into several hundred million of dollars over the years —  every time the toll goes up more drivers avoid the Verrazano and opt for free passage across Downtown. The state or city comptroller should do an audit.

There was a golden moment of opportunity in 2009-2010 when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. As I wrote in The Villager two years ago, Congressman Nadler swore to Downtowners for a dozen years that when the Dems controlled Congress he would reverse the toll. We all know what his word is worth.

Sen. Schumer also blatantly lied to the Downtown Independent Democrats when he elicited our support when he ran against Pothole D’Amato, and then after being elected, claimed that restoring the two-way toll would somehow be unfair to Staten Islanders.

A sign at the corner of Broome and Lafayette Sts., installed after pressure by Soho activists.
A sign at the corner of Broome and Lafayette Sts., installed after pressure by Soho activists.

At a Community Board 2 hearing in 2010, shortly after Chin assumed power, the Soho Alliance urged her to pressure Nadler to work on the toll while Democrats controlled the House. Our pleas fell on deaf ears and this great window of opportunity slammed shut and will likely remain that way for several more election cycles.

At the time, Chin was devoting all of her energies towards expanding her power and making relationships with big real estate with the creations of the Chinatown and Soho BIDs and the N.Y.U. expansion.

Instead, Councilmember Chin has now called for a safety study on trucks. Study what? The three recent pedestrian deaths were not by trucks. Trucking is now a minor issue on Canal St. It is nothing like the 1990s when more than 1000 tractor-trailers were traversing Canal St. daily. The Soho Alliance’s concerted efforts during this period led to thousands of summonses and a significant reduction in truck traffic.

The lucky breakthrough was after 9/11, when for security reasons, the Holland Tunnel was completely closed to tractor-trailers, greatly reducing their presence on Canal. These huge trucks can still be seen coming off the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges but their numbers have been slashed enormously.

A study is not needed. The notion that the Dept. of Transportation will remove Canal St. from it Thru Truck Route system is pure fantasy. It will never happen, and calling for a study is simply political grandstanding and will accomplish nothing.

Legal trucks belong on Canal St., it is the natural commercial East-West corridor, and unless Robert Moses resurrects himself and his Lower Manhattan Expressway, there is no alternative, certainly not Broome St.

What is needed is just some conviction by Chin and our other elected officials to demand dedicated truck enforcement as we once had. With current technology, scanners and scales can be placed at the bridge plazas. This would keep out the most dangerous trucks such as the over-weight and out of control dump truck that slammed into a Fung Wah bus on Canal St. in Chinatown, killing one and injuring 20 shortly before Chin’s first inauguration or the illegal over-length tractor-trailer that killed Jessica Blue crushed two summers ago at the corner of Houston and 6th Ave.

With De Blasio putting Vision Zero high on his agenda now is the time for State Sen. Squadron, Assemblymember Glick, Assembly Speaker Silver, Councilmember Johnson, State Sen. Hoylman and Chin to demand zero tolerance for illegal trucks entering lower Manhattan or city wide for that matter.

As for box trucks and legally sized tractor-trailers, Canal St. is where they belong or on any of the other Thru Truck Routes in the intelligently designed system throughout the 5 boroughs.

Less intelligently-designed is the intersection of West Broadway and Canal, which was second only to Bowery and Canal in accidents. This is the result of boneheaded D.O.T. traffic engineering. In the 1990s Soho residents pointed out the idiocy of prohibiting traffic exiting the Holland Tunnel from making the natural uptown left turn at Canal onto 6th Ave. Instead drivers are forced into the narrower intersection at West Broadway that results in so many accidents. This pattern sends thousands of thru vehicles up West Broadway daily that all want to be on 6th Ave.  Changing this traffic pattern would immediately reduce the hazards at the West Broadway intersection and reduce traffic in Soho. This could be easily realized. It will take political will.

Lastly, overlooked is the controversial plan to toll the East River bridges in what has otherwise been called “Sam’s Plan,” after its principal author, Sam Schwartz. Leveling out tolls across the region is an interesting suggestion that merits consideration because it certainly would eliminate some of the incentive to travel across Canal, but at the same time it would officially turn Manhattan into a gated community for the privileged. The notion of tolling people to move freely about their own city is truly an onerous idea.

Clearly the easiest things to do are dedicated truck enforcement and the re-engineering of the intersection at Sixth Ave. and Canal. Longer crossing times for pedestrians, especially in Chinatown could be easily done too. Anything else is just posturing.  Of course the reversal of the one-way Verrazano Bridge toll would greatly reduce traffic Downtown but the ice caps will melt before that happens.

Carl Rosenstein, a Soho resident, has worked for many years with neighbors and officials on reducing illegal trucking on Broome and Canal Sts.