Construction Industry Objections to Sheridan Teardown Don’t Stand Up

Is it really more important to keep this empty highway -- shown at rush hour -- than to build much-needed housing and parks? Photo: TSTC

The fight over the future of the Sheridan Expressway, a stub of a highway that Robert Moses built but never finished, heated up this week. The construction industry announced its opposition to any Sheridan teardown in a Crain’s op-ed this Sunday, days before experts at a Municipal Art Society panel forcefully made the case for replacing the underused roadway with housing and park space.

“I don’t think that grade-separated highways really have a place in the city,” said John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, at the MAS panel.

Norquist pointed to the revitalization of his city when it tore down the 0.8 mile Park East Freeway — Fortune 500 company now has its headquarters one block from the former elevated highway — and recounted how the predicted traffic woes never materialized. In neighboring Madison, he noted, the major job centers of the state capital and the University of Wisconsin both sit on a narrow isthmus. “There’s no freeway there, and somehow they get home,” said Norquist. “They make it.”

Joan Byron, who has worked with the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance on its plans for the Sheridan for years, offered some local context. Right now, the Sheridan is so lightly used that you can safely stand in its middle lane during the evening rush hour. State DOT plans to build new ramps connecting the Bruckner Expressway directly to the busy Hunts Point market — which has 11,000 truck trips in and out each day — will happen regardless of whether the Sheridan is torn down or remains, she pointed out, making the Sheridan that much more superfluous.

Instead of searching for ways to get more value out of the land that the little-used highway occupies, those who are fighting to keep it in place “are determined to make the Sheridan useful, come what may,” Byron said.

The opposition to the teardown added to their ranks this week, however, as Denise Richardson, the head of the powerful General Contractors Association, took to the pages of Crain’s to press her case for keeping the Sheridan. Richardson’s column assumed that the Sheridan is essential the keeping Hunts Point market, an important job center, in New York City. “The Bronx and the city cannot afford to lose more blue-collar jobs,” she wrote. “Instead of spending limited capital dollars to tear down the Sheridan, let’s allocate adequate resources to maintain the state’s transportation network and the jobs it supports.”

Curiously, Richardson did not mention construction spending or construction jobs — the top issues for her members — in either her column or in an interview with Streetsblog.

Richardson’s argument is based on the presumption that without the Sheridan, increased congestion will make trucking through the Bronx unaffordable. “There’s a very significant concern that the truck traffic that will be created will make the costs significant,” said Richardson.

However, there is no reason to think that such congestion fears would actually materialize. First of all, previous highway removals simply haven’t had that effect. When New York’s West Side Highway or San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway were removed, for example, there weren’t any long-term negative traffic impacts.

In the case of the Sheridan, a State DOT analysis did find that removing the Sheridan would snarl traffic in the area. But subsequent analysis showed that the study was riddled with errors. Half of the alleged benefit of keeping the Sheridan, it turned out, was due to mistakes in entering the data.

To really have a sense of what effect tearing down the Sheridan will have, we’ll have to wait for New York City’s study of the area to be complete, which should happen around February 2012, according to Byron. That study, a holistic look at both transportation and land use funded by a federal TIGER grant, will gather new traffic data and hopefully provide a more reliable picture of how traffic moves through the area.

Byron also pointed out that the bulk of Hunts Point market truck traffic are smaller vehicles delivering food to bodegas or restaurants across the city. “They need to get to Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx,” said Byron. “The Sheridan doesn’t benefit them at all.”