BY KATHRYN FREED | Congestion pricing is coming. Most people either love it or hate it. Most of us acknowledge the need to reduce traffic and pollution, but are not sure the current proposal does that. This op-ed will examine the plan’s impacts on the Lower East Side, specifically the area next to the F.D.R. Drive from the Brooklyn Bridge to E. 10th Street.
Congestion pricing (CP) was passed by the New York State Legislature and signed into effect in April 2019. The intent was to raise money, about $1 billion per year, up to at least $15 billion, for the transit system, and devise a scheme to cut the number of vehicles in the Central Business District by tolling vehicles that enter it. The CBD is Manhattan from the Battery to 60th Street, minus the F.D.R. Drive, the West Side Highway and the Hugh Carey (Brooklyn-Battery) Tunnel.
In June, after fast-tracking by the Biden administration, New York State got the go-ahead to proceed with CP, after an Environmental Assessment rather than a more stringent Environmental Impact Statement. Several federal lawsuits have been filed contesting this determination, most notably by New Jersey. Several more are in the works. One group is actively exploring suing based on what it calls a tax on city residents, especially those living in or near the CBD. For more information on that group, check stopcongestionpricing.com.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, recognizing the projected additional pollution CP would cause in the South Bronx, has agreed to provide around $130 million in mitigation measures, including an asthma center, to try to reduce pollution or its impact on South Bronx residents. The M.T.A. has represented that it has about $20 million to deal with the effects of pollution in Manhattan, especially in the CBD.
But the M.T.A. has not indicated it’s willing to make any special efforts to reduce pollution on the Lower East Side, even though its own projections show CP will drastically increase traffic and pollution in parts of our community. The E.A. established seven alternative-pricing schemes and one “No Action” proposal. Each scheme, according to the M.T.A.’s own figures, would raise congestion and pollution amounts in the area — along the F.D.R. Drive, Brooklyn Bridge to 10th Street — at least 5 percent or greater. And, incredibly, in at least three alternatives, pollution and congestion in the F.D.R.’s southbound traffic would increase from 19 percent to 26 percent.
So, while the rest of the CBD will see fewer vehicles and less pollution, our area will get an increase. Even more outrageous, this area by the F.D.R. is an Environmental Justice Area (E.J.A.). An E.J.A. is defined as a place where at least 51 percent of the population is minority and at least 23.5 percent of that group has an income lower than the rest of the population. In fact, every census tract but one in this area is an E.J.A. According to Community Board 3, roughly 42 percent of the population in the C.B. 3 district is below the poverty level, 46 percent of seniors are below the poverty level, and about 44 percent are minorities, the latter comprising 81 percent of the population below the poverty level. (Normally, I would say “People of Color,” but the tables specifically use the term “minority.”)
We need fewer cars — not an asthma center.
There is an almost solid wall of limited-income or low-income buildings next to the F.D.R. Drive here, mostly New York City Housing Authority. The one census tract (including East River Houses co-ops) not considered an E.J.A. was built as limited-income, and today many of its original residents are on limited incomes. It’s also a NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), like much of the rest of the area. Finally, at least 18 percent of area residents have a disability.
Most appalling, this area already has among Manhattan’s highest levels of asthma and respiratory disease and heart disease. It also had an above-average rate of COVID and COVID deaths. Plus, a general medical study (not just for our area) released last month found there are greater premature births and low birth rates in highly polluted zones.
In other words, high pollution is not compatible with human health. So, you could hardly find a worse area on which to inflict more pollution, given residents’ already diminished health and welfare.
Making the situation worse, we are on track to lose 55 acres of mature parkland and well more than 1,000 trees due to the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan. We’ve already lost half of the park in the project’s phase one. It’s a cruel irony that residents next to this project are also being subjected to additional dust and pollution as that construction occurs.
I am totally outraged. Why is no one else screaming about this appalling situation? We need real mitigation — and I don’t mean an asthma center. We won’t accept additional pollution when the rest of the CBD is getting less. This will damage our health and our children’s health. The time to demand change is now, before the final plans are made.
We also should demand that more trees, specifically, more mature trees, be planted in the East River Park area. Right now, only saplings are proposed; it will take 20 to 30 years to get both pollution protection and shade from these saplings equal to that of the old East River Park. We also need more grass and natural surfaces for the park. Plants soak up water and capture carbon; they actually produce oxygen while lowering pollution and greenhouse gasses. Currently, park plans call for 62 percent hard and artificial surfaces, which do none of these things. (I could go on about artificial turf’s dangers and disadvantages, and why pro sports teams are demanding natural turf, or why many American cities are banning fake turf.)
Finally, here’s the best thing that could be done for this neighborhood: decking over portions of the F.D.R. Drive and installing air filters to remove the highway’s pollution — pollution that’s already too high. We could put playing fields on top, maybe even connect it to the reconstructed East River Park.
This deck could possibly even house surface mass transportation, like a Second Avenue subway extension. If you’re worried about your view next to the former park, remember, there will be a new floodwall there 8 feet to 10 feet tall anyway.
Also, as long as the F.D.R. Drive is subject to flooding, it is more and more likely that its infrastructure is eroding and will need replacement. Yet, the park coastal resiliency project does nothing to alleviate the impact of heavy rainfall.
After September’s downpour, three of four buildings in my co-op, which is right next to the F.D.R., flooded. It was worse than what happened during Hurricane Sandy. Adding larger catch basins next to and under the F.D.R. could help prevent flooding. Why not make real change? Just an idea.
Furthermore, our district is a “transit desert,” roughly described as any area where it takes more than 15 minutes to reach a bus or a subway. I can say from personal experience that it takes at least 15 minutes to get to a subway from my block next to the F.D.R. Drive. Although the bus stops are closer, a look at the Manhattan subway or bus maps, shows that we have far fewer buses, and the ones that we have tend to stick to the periphery of heavily populated areas. Most of us must walk to a bus to get to the subway. Not to mention, if you use the bus, you know how sporadic the service is. This does nothing to help the mobility disadvantaged. On top of which, we have absolutely no accessible subways. Were we promised them? Yes. Did we get it? No.
Freed is a retired State Supreme Court justice and former city councilmember representing Lower Manhattan’s District 1 from 1992 to 2001. She was co-counsel on a community lawsuit seeking to block East River Park’s destruction for the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan.