Chris Ward: NYC Truck Traffic “an Economic and Environmental Crisis”

Truck traffic in Maspeth. Photo: slowpoke_taiwan via Flickr.

Speaking at the Municipal Art Society’s annual summit this afternoon, outgoing Port Authority chief Chris Ward said he wouldn’t be sending any parting shots at the New York region’s leaders, but he didn’t hold back from proposing some big and bold ideas. With only a few weeks left at the Port Authority, Ward issued a call for the construction of a cross-harbor freight tunnel and a rail freight distribution system for the city, as well as the abandonment of container shipping at the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn.

“The city is bedeviled by intraregional truck trips,” said Ward. Having large diesel trucks criss-crossing the dense, congested region 364 days a year, he said, “is an economic and environmental crisis.”

“We must, we must finally realize small-scale rail freight distribution within this city,” he declared, noting that under his leadership, the Port Authority had acquired facilities in New Jersey needed to eventually build a long-desired cross-harbor rail freight tunnel. Beyond that, said Ward, the region needs to develop small, clean vehicles capable of carrying freight the last mile from rail stations to final destinations.

Ward also argued for a rethinking of the Brooklyn waterfront, which he called the last great challenge for the city from a planning perspective. “[The] Red Hook [shipping terminal] has to move down to the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal,” Ward said. “Red Hook is the wrong location.” Container shipping there, he said, is both inefficient from a transportation perspective and standing in the way of the city’s other plans for the waterfront, including the eventual development of the southern portion of Governor’s Island. “You will not be able to get the needed amount of people, whatever the use is, to Governor’s Island as long as you have a container terminal there.” With the container port moved, he argued, new transportation infrastructure could connect Red Hook and Governor’s Island and spur major new development in the area.

Bold thinking about the future of Governor’s Island also came from Columbia professor Vishaan Chakrabarti, the former head of the Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office. In a speech laying out a vision for radically densifying New York City, Chakrabarti highlighted a project by some of his students that imagined connecting the Battery to Governor’s Island with landfill, extending the subways to the island and opening it up to new development. The amount of landfill needed, he said, was a tiny fraction of what’s currently being put down in Hong Kong or Tokyo Bay.

Chakrabarti put forward a number of proposals to spur major new development, along the lines of the Hudson Yards project he helped usher through. The buildings along Park Avenue, he said, were built once Grand Central transformed transit access to that part of Midtown. Once East Side Access is complete, Chakrabarti said, “we should really be thinking about whether this area needs to be rezoned, changed into taller, greener buildings.” New York should complete the full Second Avenue Subway and then explore intense densification on the Lower East Side along the new subway line.

Manhattan, Chakrabarti said, is one of the most dense, productive and desirable places in the entire world. “Right outside of that, we have the density of Los Angeles,” he said, flashing a photograph of Long Island City. “We have one and two story buildings 15 minutes outside of our urban core.”