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BY TERENCE CONFINO | On Monday afternoon a small crowd assembled on a corner of Mercer and Broome Sts. to watch Borough President Scott Stringer share a podium with Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance.
The news conference was meant to call on the city’s Department of Transportation to address the long-running congestion problems plaguing Downtown Manhattan.
According to Sweeney, the Soho Alliance’s director, this fight has been going on 25 years, and is filled with the kind of political backstabbing that only hurts the community.
Stringer’s response comes on the heels of a number of complaints regarding westbound traffic toward the Holland Tunnel, including vehicles blocking intersections accompanied by floods of horn honking.
“This neighborhood, which is so vibrant and so exciting, is also being victimized by a traffic situation that is now out of control,” Stringer said. “We need to have traffic mitigation in this neighborhood and we need it now.”
He described a typical day during rush hour, and even during weekends, when the tunnel becomes so backed up that cars wind up blocking intersections, “creating noise pollution and dangerous situations for blocks and blocks at a time.”
When traffic congestion occurs and cars “block the box,” they basically slow down an entire community, Stringer said.
He called for the implementation of a three-point plan. First, he is asking for installation of additional cameras to aid enforcement of “Don’t Block the Box.” In addition, he wants improved signage to raise awareness of the “Don’t Block the Box” regulation. Finally, he’s demanding the immediate repair of deteriorating crosswalks along Mercer St. that endanger pedestrians.
“If you have more cameras, you’re able to give more tickets and you’re able to make it clear to people that blocking the box is not an acceptable way to travel around Manhattan,” Stringer said in defense of installing more cameras in the city.
With regard to improved signage, he called on D.O.T. to put up a new set of markers around the community instructing drivers that it’s not O.K. to block intersections and break traffic laws.
“When you hurt one community, you hurt all communities,” Stringer stated.
Finally, the B.P. explained the need to mitigate the deteriorating condition of the community’s streets. He briefly mentioned the crosswalks at Mercer and Greene Sts. by way of example.
Stringer is no stranger to the ongoing problem of congestion.
In 2006, his office released a survey that documented more than 3,000 blocking-the-box violations at 10 different Manhattan locations, all occurring during a nine-hour period. Not one driver received a ticket for these infractions.
Later, in 2008, in recognition of the ongoing problem, state legislation was passed upgrading blocking the box from a moving violation to a traffic violation and fines for such an infraction were raised from $50 to $115.
But at Monday’s conference it wasn’t just the seasoned politician who connected with the small assembly. When Stringer handed over the podium to Sweeney, the crowd got a more sobering version of the story.
“I just don’t understand how the D.O.T. thinks,” Sweeney began. “They remove the lane of traffic on Broadway without telling us and now we have congestion on Broadway. Then when we ask them to stripe the crosswalks and they won’t do that,” Sweeney said heatedly.
He also recalled D.O.T.’s proposal to put a pedestrian mall on Prince St. a few years ago, which he had strongly opposed. Sweeney said the Soho Alliance told D.O.T. to take its pedestrianization plans to Times Square and the tourists rather than intrude on Downtown residents’ lives.
Meanwhile, Sweeney continued, “They won’t give us a sign to warn the drivers not to block the box and they won’t fix the very crosswalks that people have to walk on.” He mentioned a pedestrian who had even broken her shoulder blade at the intersection on Mercer St. while trying to cross the street.
Speaking later, Sweeney said the cause of Soho’s congestion dates to 1986 when former Governor Mario Cuomo reversed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge’s toll. This was done at Staten Islanders’ request, the logic being it would decrease car pollution and backups at the Staten Island toll plazas.
“Within a week traffic tripled on Broome St.,” Sweeney said.
Nowadays, commuters would rather wait it out in gridlock and use the free Holland Tunnel than pay the nearly $15 toll to cross the bridge.
“As a result, the Port Authority is losing money and it hurts everybody,” Sweeney said.
When asked whether the congestion was indeed rooted in the Verrazano toll reversal, Josh Getlin, Stringer’s communications director, replied: “We don’t have a specific answer as to what’s causing backup. The point of the press conference was to urge an immediate exploration of all possible factors creating this problem and then take appropriate action.”
Sweeney noted that when U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer was elected in 1998, he said one of the first things he’d tackle was the Verrazano toll situation. Within two weeks, Schumer allegedly reneged, according to Sweeney. And when Sweeney later approached Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, he wouldn’t give a straight answer, either, according to the longtime Soho activist.
“We’ve been getting the runaround for 25 years,” Sweeney said. “If we can’t solve the problem, then what can we do to mitigate it?”