As published in Newsday, April 28, 2005

Mayor, get back on track with tunnel
Corey Bearak, an attorney, writes a weekly column for TimesLedger Newspapers in Queens and is executive vice president of the Queens Civic Congress.

A funny thing happened on the way to November's mayoral election.

Rather than repair a plan that resulted from the initiative of the administration that preceded his, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed course last month and opposed a rail freight tunnel New York City (and the region) desperately needs.

The mayor's apparent flip-flop followed Maspeth residents' raising legitimate concerns about the effect of a rail-to-truck transfer point in their community. But the public good certainly requires an effort to overcome the objections of Maspeth's concerned citizens that hizzoner embraced.

An enhanced rail freight system is vital to improving our economy and our environment. With a reduction in the numbers of trucks on roads, the economy gains: Alleviated roadway congestion speeds delivery time, helping businesses with greater efficiency. The city's budget benefits from reduced wear on roads and less stress on our public health system.
Diesel truck emissions significantly contribute to asthma, which afflicts one in eight New Yorkers, including some 500,000 children. Lower-income neighborhoods near congested major highways and interchanges as well as freight distribution centers suffer the highest child asthma rates - this includes Hunt's Point in the Bronx, Upper Manhattan and the Lower East Side. If trains replace trucks, decreased truck mileage and diesel fumes on local streets will improve air quality.

An enhanced rail freight system is vital to improving our economy and our environment.

Recognizing these overall benefits, the Queens Civic Congress, the borough's major community group, early and strongly supported the Cross Harbor Tunnel plan for its promise to reduce metropolitan-area truck traffic and road congestion, especially in Queens. But the Civic Congress said the transfer of rail freight to trucks should "be distributed evenly throughout Long Island" and that western Queens should not be the sole transfer point. Port Authority and City Economic Development Corp. planners paid little heed. The current plan "solves" truck traffic problems in one part of the region - at the Hudson River crossings - by steering it to Queens.

New Yorkers need their elected leaders to demonstrate the political will to get the tunnel done while ensuring a fair redistribution of rail freight. Rather than killing the project, Bloomberg should insist that transportation planners return to the drawing board to address the entire picture of freight movement within the five boroughs and determine how best to disperse the traffic east of the Hudson River.

The Cross Harbor Tunnel must be supplemented by barge connections that offer lower cost alternatives to address truck congestion. Barges make sense where rail inaccessibility or an inability to extend new or restore renovated rail lines would not reduce freight trucking within the five boroughs.

It could mean that freight to Manhattan and perhaps the Bronx would still be off-loaded across the Hudson, and that the Pilgrim State site would handle most Long Island-bound freight.

The new plan also should look at alternative connections to JFK Airport. This top air freight center loses business because of the excessive truck traffic delays on the Van Wyck Expressway. No rail-to-truck transfer point in Queens or farther east on Long Island alleviates traffic on the Van Wyck. Instead, the plan should explore direct rail barge service to JFK, which would remove trucks from the Van Wyck. This would make more sense than off-loading rail freight to trucks in Maspeth or eastern Long Island bound for the airport and also would make sense for freight intended for delivery within Brooklyn.

The status quo cannot work when New York remains the country's most truck-dependent large city. An election often means pandering. It also invites bold leadership. We need the latter.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.