Business / Government / Transportation

Highway studies cost $20 million

Zachary Korb licensed under Creative Commons

Under the Bruckner Expressway.

Consultants benefited most from canceled project

Taxpayers spent more than $20 million for studies of the Sheridan and Bruckner expressways before the State Department of Transportation pulled the plug on the project last year, new information obtained by The Hunts Point Express through the Freedom of Information Law shows.

The expenditure is 20 percent higher than the figure offered by a DOT spokesman last year in response to questions from The Express.

An Express news analysis

Although last June a spokesman for the state agency said the funds were not wasted because the studies would help a city task force studying land use around the Sheridan, spokesmen for the two city agencies involved in the Sheridan-Hunts Point Land Use and Transportation Study could not confirm that they found the state’s planning documents of any use.

Nearly $17 million of the $20,429,291 the state spent from 2002 to 2012 went to consultants who drew up plans and conducted traffic and environmental studies. Another $3.5 million went to pay the salaries of DOT employees, according to a year-by-year tabulation compiled in response to The Express inquiry.

The studies were intended to determine whether tearing down the Sheridan, as called for by a coalition of Hunts-Point-based organizations, would be feasible and to design new on- and off-ramps for the Bruckner to take truck traffic bound for the peninsula’s industrial zone off local streets.

Asked whether those studies had proved useful to the city task force on the Sheridan, the Department of City Planning referred questions to the city Department of Transportation whose spokesman initially promised an answer, then clammed up, refusing to respond to numerous requests for comment.

The state traffic department paid more than $7.2 million to the San Francisco-based URS Corporation, which managed the environmental impact study. Another $4.7 million went to Dewberry Goodkind, the engineering design firm based in Rochester that also serves as the civil engineer for the South Bronx Greenway. The rest went to subcontractors, including $1.7 million to the public relations firm Zeitlin Strategic Communications, which handled public outreach.

After 10 years of study, the DOT canceled the project last June, saying that the Bruckner Expressway was in such bad shape that every penny that would have been spent on the new ramps would have to be spent on repairs of the existing highway instead.

The DOT announced the termination of the program quietly, by posting a notice in the Federal Register on June 16, 2012. In fact though the year-by-year accounting shows the decision to abort the project was made in 2011, the year the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market’s lease with the city expired.

After spending between $1.5 million and $3 million on consultants in each of the preceding eight years, the DOT spent $212,000 in 2011.

According to DOT spokesman Adam Levine the agency was confronted with a choice between the need to repair and maintain existing highways and “a project that was predominantly providing operational improvements.” He pointed out that similar plans had been abandoned in Brooklyn and Queens.

But the future of the Hunts Point highways has long been intertwined with the future of the produce market. And with the end of its lease, negotiations to keep the market in Hunts Point reached a turning point.

With New Jersey offering incentives for the market to move across the Hudson River, in February 2011, the head of the state’s Empire State Development Corporation joined city negotiators for the first time in an effort to hammer out an agreement that would address the concerns of the 50-member cooperative of wholesale businesses.

Along with gaining a subsidy to modernize the facility, high on the produce market’s list was an end to talk of tearing down the Sheridan, which truckers use to travel between the George Washington Bridge and the Bruckner.

In March 2011, when the lease expired, the market agreed to continue talking, and that June it signed a new three-year agreement to give negotiators more time to reach a long-term agreement.

A year later, the city task force surprised local advocates when it announced that it would not consider the highway’s removal. The announcement came a day after Produce Market President Matthew D’Arrigo told Community Board 2 that the market would be more likely to move to New Jersey if the Sheridan were torn down.

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