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Debate over future of Sheridan rages on

Illustration courtesy of the NYS Dept of Transportation

The state unveiled one plan for retaining the Sheridan Expressway, and another for tearing it down.

State engineers warn traffic will increase if highway comes down

Without the Sheridan Expressway, rush hour traffic on some Hunts Point streets would nearly double over the next 20 years, state traffic engineers told an impatient and occasionally angry crowd of about 60 Hunts Point residents, community advocates and business leaders gathered at Casita Maria on Simpson Street on July 13.

The prediction met with skepticism from the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, the coalition that wants the Sheridan to be demolished and replaced with parks, housing and businesses.

The meeting, the first with stakeholders in a year, showed that reaching a consensus on whether the state’s most controversial highway should be retained or demolished remained elusive.

The split between the proprietors of businesses in the Hunts Point food distribution center and the Watershed Alliance is as wide as ever. And a Mott Haven-based advocacy organization weighed-in with the charge that Hunts Point’s gain would be their community’s loss, if trucks that now use the Sheridan were rerouted onto the Major Deegan Expressway, instead.

Furthermore, the state Department of Transportation insisted that its responsibility would end with the demolition of the Sheridan. The state would simply erect fences around the vacant lot created by removing the highway, and the land would remain derelict until other agencies decided what to do with it, said DOT engineer Gil Mosseri.

“We’re disappointed that land use and economic analysis is not going to be factored in,” said Veronica Vanterpool of the Watershed Alliance, which includes several South Bronx community groups, including Sustainable South Bronx, the Point CDC and Mothers on the Move.

When an environmental impact statement, scheduled to be unveiled next year, is completed, she said, “We’ll have to have a very critical eye.”

Local homeowner Jose Ortiz complained about the constant pollution from the traffic, and emphatically called for a park to be built where the highway now stands. Before the Sheridan was built in the early 1960s, “there was a park there and they took it off. The kids used to play there,” he said.

But truckers and the businesses they serve in the market want to see the Sheridan remain. Demolishing the route so many delivery trucks take from the George Washington Bridge to the market would hurt and cost South Bronx residents jobs, they contend.

“I find the whole thing to be about a land use and park choice, not traffic,” said Matthew D’Arrigo, president of the Hunts Point Produce Market. He charged that the groups advocating removal of the Sheridan “don’t represent the neighborhoods; they represent themselves.”

Those who want the highway to remain found an ally in Jaime Rivera of For a Better Bronx, an advocacy organization headquartered in Mott Haven. While the Watershed Alliance planners say trucks should reach Hunts Point by turning south from the George Washington and taking the Major Deegan to the Bruckner, Rivera said increased traffic on the Deegan would make asthma problems worse for residents.

“We can’t support something that takes from one neighborhood to serve another,” he said. “The Sheridan is key,” Rivera said, adding that his own father has worked as a trucker his entire life, including a stint at the Hunts Point market. He said, though, he would be supportive as long as truckers’ livelihoods are taken into consideration, “in a plan that’s not going to decrease their income.”

Whether the Sheridan is torn down or not, the planners want to create a new ramp from the Bruckner Expressway to speed traffic to the market. But each traffic projection the engineers displayed concluded that without the Sheridan, traffic would increase at peak hours in Hunts Point and Longwood, modestly in some areas but sharply in others.

Where Southern Boulevard meets Westchester Avenue and surrounding streets, the projections predict increases in both car and truck traffic, from 1,760 cars and 80 trucks per hour during the morning rush hour today, to 3,240 cars and 180 trucks per hour without the Sheridan.

If the Sheridan were retained traffic would still increase, the engineers said, but truck traffic would stay the same and the car traffic would rise less, to 2,070 cars an hour.

Expressing skepticism, some at the meeting called on the DOT to make public the factors it measured in arriving at its conclusions. “NYSDOT’s analysis probably overstates how much traffic,” wrote Joan Byron, a planner from the Watershed Alliance in an email message.

“But,” she continued, “if the decision is made based on the benefits (freeing the land for development, removing the barrier between existing neighborhoods and the river, and ultimately reducing overall through traffic), compared to the actual increase in traffic on local streets, the traffic alone shouldn’t be a deal breaker.”

The DOT officials continually insisted that the state was committed to gathering as much community input as possible before making a decision in 2012.

More workshops and public sessions are in store, the DOT brass assured people, via community board meetings.

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