BY CARL ROSENSTEIN | Better late than never. It’s taken Councilmember Margaret Chin five years to address Downtown’s worst environmental issue, Canal St. On top of the tragedy of three elderly Chinese residents having lost their lives on Canal St. 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 by The Villager, has always been the one-way Verrazano Bridge toll. As I have written in this paper 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 Governor 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.
Reversing the toll would remove the incentive for New Jersey-bound drivers to use the free East River bridges and free outbound tunnel, by which they avoid 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 to 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 dollars over the years. And every time the toll goes up, more drivers avoid the Verrazano, opting 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 this paper two years ago, Congressmember Jerry Nadler swore to Downtowners for a dozen years that, when the Dems controlled Congress, he would reverse the toll. We all know now what Nadler’s word is worth.
Senator Schumer also blatantly lied to his constituents. At a 1998 Downtown Independent Democrats endorsement meeting, seeking the club’s support when he ran against Pothole D’Amato, Schumer swore to the 100 people present that his first priority would be to reverse the Verrazano Bridge toll.
However, a mere one week after being elected, Schumer reneged, screwed his Manhattan base, and claimed that restoring the two-way toll would somehow be unfair to Staten Islanders.
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.
Instead, Councilmember Chin has now called for a safety study on trucks. Study what? The three recent pedestrian deaths were not caused by trucks. Trucking is now a minor issue on Canal St. It is nothing like the 1990s when more than 1,000 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.
However, 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 St. These huge trucks can still be seen coming off the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges — but their numbers have been slashed enormously. Tractor-trailers (trucks with four or more axles) still can no longer use the Holland Tunnel.
A study is not needed. The notion that the Department of Transportation will remove Canal St. from its 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. 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 like 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 overweight and out-of-control dump truck that slammed into a bus on Canal St. in Chinatown, killing one and injuring 20, shortly before Chin’s first inauguration. The same applies to the illegal over-length tractor-trailer that killed Jessica Dworkin two summers ago at the corner of Houston St. and Sixth Ave. in Greenwich Village.
With Mayor de Blasio putting Vision Zero high on his agenda, now is the time for state Senators Squadron and Hoylman, Assemblymember Glick and Speaker Silver, and Councilmembers Johnson and Chin to demand zero tolerance for illegal trucks entering Lower Manhattan, or citywide 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 five boroughs.
As also reported in The Villager, the intersection of West Broadway and Canal St. was second only to Bowery and Canal in accidents. This is a result of boneheaded D.O.T. traffic engineering.
In the 1990s Soho residents pointed out the idiocy of prohibiting Uptown traffic exiting the Holland Tunnel from making the natural Uptown left turn at Canal St. onto Sixth Ave. Instead, drivers are forced into the narrower intersection at West Broadway, resulting in so many accidents. This pattern sends thousands of thru vehicles up West Broadway daily that all want to be on Sixth Ave.
Changing this traffic pattern would immediately reduce the hazards at the West Broadway intersection and reduce traffic in already-congested Soho. This could be easily realized. It will take political will but, since it would benefit Soho, I doubt Chin will utilize any of her political capital for our neighborhood, which she seems to despise.
Lastly, overlooked is the controversial plan to toll the East River Bridges in what has otherwise been called “Sam’s Plan.” Leveling out tolls across the region is an interesting suggestion that merits consideration. It certainly would eliminate some of the incentive to travel across Canal St.; 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 solutions are dedicated truck-enforcement and the re-engineering of the intersection at Sixth Ave. and Canal St. 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.