Plans to reduce traffic and pollution in New York City, on the wish list of environmentalists since the early 20th century, could have the opposite effect in the Bronx, according to a long-awaited assessment of plans to toll vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street.
The Cross Bronx Expressway would experience more traffic – potentially upward of 700 extra trucks a day – under all of the seven scenarios of congestion pricing studied by researchers, according to a report released by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and being shared with communities. And the highway and borough could face more pollution, too.
The projected upticks in the Bronx are concerning to researchers and residents because of the borough’s notoriously high asthma rates and existing traffic and congestion woes. For them, the findings – key to an upcoming federal decision on the plan’s future – lend credence to long-standing complaints that the interests of Bronx residents are subordinate to those of wealthier communities.
Overall city traffic would decline under all scenarios, according to the findings, as more commuters ditch their vehicles for public transportation, especially in lower Manhattan. But toll-evading drivers would send even more vehicles cutting through outer boroughs including Staten Island, Northern Jersey, and the Bronx – and potentially parts of Queens near the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.
We’re just really tired in the Bronx of being that borough where you continually dump things on us.
The report also specifically studied so-called “environmental justice” areas – communities with high rates of poverty or significant nonwhite populations. Traffic in those communities across the city and region would shrink a fraction of a percent – though not always as much as in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Some environmental justice communities would face more traffic nearby while others would see less, the report says.
John J. McCarthy, head of MTA external relations, in a statement to Gothamist touted report findings that the region, city, and “large portions of the Bronx” will see drops in traffic and pollution when congestion pricing begins.
But the findings also lend ammunition to Bronx community leaders and environmentalists pressing for more investment in projects seen as further mitigating the projected harms, such as initiatives putting more clean-energy vehicles on the road, or even ambitious plans to “cap” highways, in effect paving over the traffic and pollution. Spokesman McCarthy said the MTA was still open to making additional fixes.
“The whole point of the environmental review is to identify risks so that we can do mitigation,” McCarthy said. “The success of the process so far has strengthened our determination to protect air quality in the Bronx as well as Manhattan and the rest of the region.”
The study will figure as well in some important upcoming decisions: It will inform the federal government’s crucial call in the coming weeks on whether to greenlight the toll plans, which could see new tolls implemented as soon as next year, or instead demand more research, possibly tacking on more years to a debate that has raged for decades.
Some turf is already being staked out.
“The Bronx cannot and will not be a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the Central Business District,” Bronx Congressman Ritchie Torres wrote earlier this month in a statement to the MTA and other agencies sponsoring the plan.
To date, some of the loudest pushback against congestion pricing, which already has won legislative support, concerns projected toll prices of up to $23. The possibility of even more truck traffic in the Bronx is gaining fresh notice.
Many environmental advocates, optimistic about the regional benefits of congestion pricing, continue to back the initiative, notwithstanding the report’s uneven findings for the Bronx. But they worry that key mitigation initiatives, such as incentives to put more electric vehicles on the road, will come too late – or not at all.
Nilka Martell, 47, lifelong Bronx resident and founder and director of the community group Loving the Bronx, said she sees the benefits of congestion pricing, the proceeds of which will help boost public transit. But she worries about the potential impact on low-income communities of color in her neighborhood.
“We’re just really tired in the Bronx of being that borough where you continually dump things on us,” Martell said.
Regional benefits, local controversies
All of the several congestion pricing options being considered would slightly shrink traffic across the city and region, the report found — with potential air quality benefits, too. For example, even in an analysis of a tolling scenario with the least overall traffic benefits, researchers found reductions of up to about 1 percent in hazardous air pollutants.
Those reductions are especially pronounced in the core Manhattan commercial zone, which would be encircled by tolls, according to the report by the MTA, other agencies sponsoring the plan, and private contractors. Truck traffic – a major source of pollution – could fall anywhere from 20% to 80%. In one option, traffic reductions in the area translated into pollutant reductions of up to about 12%.
But diverted traffic would increase in some other areas, including near some environmental justice census tracts.
In the Bronx – the most economically distressed of the New York City boroughs – truck traffic would increase in nearly all the scenarios, particularly on the seven-mile Cross Bronx Expressway bisecting the borough. The tolls could add anywhere from 170 to 704 extra trucks per day on the highway in those cases, a 0.2% to 2.6% uptick. Traffic on local streets and two major interstates, the Major Deegan and Bruckner, would decrease in all the seven scenarios, the report says.
Some congestion pricing proponents fear that the potential local harms might unravel a plan they see as vital for reducing pollution overall, combating climate change, and funding mass transit.
Small localized upticks in pollution would be outweighed by the regional benefits, one argument goes – particularly in the busy central Manhattan district, also home to environmental justice communities, and some of the worst air quality in the city. And the estimated $1 billion toll revenues would go to fixing public transit, used by a broad cross-section of city residents, including in the Bronx.
But environmental health professors at Columbia and New York University say marginal increases in pollution, even below federal standards, could cause community respiratory and cardiovascular harm. That could mean higher asthma rates and worse symptoms for people already diagnosed with lung diseases, they say.
Low-income neighborhoods may be especially vulnerable to extra pollution because of lack of access to healthcare, said Carlos Restrepo, a NYU civil engineering professor. Eight of the community districts with the highest poverty rates in the city are in the Bronx, according to data from the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity.
“If you're in an area that has significant sources of air pollution and other kinds of environmental impact, you would want to avoid pretty much any kind of increase,” said Restrepo, who has studied air quality in the South Bronx.
Kevin Ryan Cromar, director of the health, environment, and policy program at NYU's Marron Institute of Urban Management, says the impact may be especially profound in neighborhoods near highways slated for more trucks, where concentrations of particularly harmful diesel pollutants may be higher and more toxic.
“County-wide there may not be much impact, but for neighborhoods by highways with more trucks, there absolutely will be a meaningful increase in health risk for those communities,” he said.
Following public concerns raised last year about extra highway traffic in some neighborhoods, the MTA conducted an additional analysis of three potential local pollution hotspots: in Queens by the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, in Bergen County by the George Washington Bridge, and near the western part of the Cross Bronx Expressway called Macombs Road.
They studied a particularly dangerous class of pollutants labeled PM 2.5 – invisible particles smaller than 2.5 microns, like soot and smoke, that can penetrate deep into your lungs.
The study projected small local increases – from .01 to .5 micrograms per cubic meter – in the annual concentration of PM 2.5 in these environmental justice communities. The report concluded these results would have no adverse effects on air quality: the levels are below current federal standards.
But Cromar says even these marginal increases in the annual levels of those pollutants could lead to negative health effects. With the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency expected to tighten its PM 2.5 standards in the next few months, the hotspot projections in the report could exceed federal rules, he added.
'Sicky shade of blue'
For most of her lifetime living in the Bronx, local resident Martell didn’t consider how the highways could affect her lungs – even during the two years she lived in an apartment overlooking the Cross Bronx Expressway. How odd, she thought, that no amount of cleaning would keep a black film from collecting on the surface of her windows.
In the Bronx, historical land use decisions have situated many schools, parks, and homes near the region’s ring of highways. Nearly 1 in 5 children below 12 in the borough have asthma, and hospitalization rates for the condition are more than double the city average.
One day Martell noticed her infant son’s lips begin to tint a sickly shade of blue, so she rushed him to an emergency room. Doctors later diagnosed him with asthma, which mystified her, since no one else in her own family had the condition, and she had barely heard the word uttered in her social circles.
It wasn’t until years later that Martell realized how common the disease was in her neighborhood – and years more before she recognized the highway outside her old window as a possible source.
When her son, now an adult, suffered from severe asthma attacks, she’d take him to a local specialized medical center for pediatric respiratory problems. And in his first week of elementary school one year, she brought his pump to the nurse's office in case he had an attack. She said the nurse pulled out a storage bin that was almost filled to the top with ziplock bags with scores of pumps just like her son's.
“I was like, how does this even make sense, that all these kids have asthma?” Martell said.
She added: “I think all New Yorkers are the same. Until it impacts you, you just don't care about the issue."
Potential upticks in traffic in some outer boroughs, as detailed in the report, are fueling criticisms from some who were already skeptical of a congestion pricing plan.
In a letter earlier this month, a group of New York City elected officials urged Gov. Kathy Hochul – the Democrat who leads the local traffic board tasked with approving the plan – to withdraw her unwavering support. The roughly bipartisan lawmakers cited it’ll harm to low-income, outer borough residents.
Among them was City Council Minority Leader Joe Borrelli, R-Staten Island, a longtime opponent of congestion pricing.
Meanwhile, some local environmentalists, like New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, argue the overall environmental benefits make the plan worth pursuing.
But Kevin Garcia, NYC-EJA’s transportation organizer, said he wants “not just net-zero negatives but net positive overall” environmental impacts in the South Bronx.
During the MTA’s public input period he suggested a number of mitigation options: capping the Cross Bronx Expressway with a concrete platform or park, to reduce the amount of truck pollution seeping into the nearby air; targeting truck emissions at the Hunts Point Produce Market, by creating a marine shipping area to cut down on truck deliveries, banning diesel storage units, and installing curbside charging stations.
But none of these suggestions is listed in the latest environmental assessment. No mitigation measures are federally required to curb local pollution, the report notes, though it lists a couple ways the agencies sponsoring the plan will improve air quality in areas of concern. For one, the local department of transportation would add extra, real-time PM2.5 sensors to monitor “priority locations.”
And after hearing community concerns, the MTA will now send the next major set of zero-emissions electric buses to the Kingsbridge Depot in Upper Manhattan and Gun Hill Depot in the Bronx.
Some local Bronx advocacy groups, like South Bronx Unite, remain wary.
They call some proposed enhancements insufficient Band-Aids. For example, they say extra air monitoring won’t get rid of the existing pollution by their roadways, studied already by local public health researchers and community groups.
And the neighborhood would have already received electric buses as part of an existing MTA plan to electrify its entire fleet, though the new decision would expedite the schedule.
Mitigation efforts – if the agencies in charge of the tolling plan considered or accepted them - would have to come before more trucks, Bronx resident Martell argues.
“The congestion pricing is going to be an immediate problem and it is going to have an immediate impact,” she said. “So unless we’re working together with the government to make sure that all of these things happen at the same time, the Bronx is going to be burdened.”
But Martell doubts the timeline will work out that way. She’s spearheading the current effort to cap the CBE, which requires federal government approval. Local agencies are conducting feasibility studies, which she said won’t be done for a couple years.
Asked if the MTA would consider any of the above proposals, McCarthy said in a statement, “As part of the review and response to public comments, the need for any additional mitigation or enhancement measures is being considered.”
An ongoing cycle in the Bronx
Mychal Johnson, leader of the South Bronx Unite group, sees the last several decades of South Bronx environmental history as a series of government-backed decisions to benefit the region at the price of his community’s air and lungs.
He worries the tolling plans will be the next episode in that cycle.
“We always shoulder the burden,” he said. “We can’t afford any more trucks.”
The current proposal reminds him especially of the saga over the 100-acre Harlem River Yards along the southern coast of the borough, the centerpiece of a 1970s state plan promised to lower the city’s air pollution. Diesel-spewing trucks would be replaced by a flood of freight trains pulling into a new railyard on the plot– a rush that never came.
Instead, Johnson says he can hear a constant hum of revving engines and squealing brakes by the government-owned, privately leased complex. Trucks regularly enter and exit the facility, hauling trash to a garbage transfer station, picking up mail at a FedEx shipping center, and delivering groceries from Fresh Direct headquarters, which opened in 2018 bringing more noise and air pollution.
Eastward in the region’s 850-acre waterfront industrial zone – one of the city’s largest – trucks funnel in and out of the Hunts Point peninsula, which is home to the Hunts Point Market, which bills itself as “the world’s largest” food distribution center.
As part of crafting the environmental assessment, the MTA met with Johnson’s group and several others to solicit feedback about potential impacts on environmental justice communities. After these conversations, a seventh tolling scenario was added that would send comparatively fewer trucks across the Cross Bronx Expressway daily– still 50 trucks too many, Johnson argues.
He voiced his concerns again in a public comment period that has been extended to Friday. Along with the environmental assessment, the public comments and the MTA’s responses will help the Federal Highway Administration determine if the congestion plan’s potential environmental impacts are significant enough to require more study.
If the answer is no, the plan will go to the governor-led Traffic Mobility Review Board, which will likely approve the plan and decide the details, choosing one of the seven studied scenarios or another option. In that case, the tolls could be up and running by the end of next year.
Alternatively, the federal government could demand a more comprehensive report called an Environmental Impact Statement. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently called for this more rigorous review in a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; his agency runs the FHWA. Murphy cited environmental equity concerns in his state.
Martell, meanwhile, doubts Bronxites' concerns will keep congestion pricing from chugging ahead. And she continues to worry about the health of her neighbors, particularly the young.
"It just seems to me," she said, "like this continuous cycle of respiratory issues in young kids in the Bronx."