Volume 75, Number 14 | August 24 - 30, 2005

Talking Point

No light at the end of Nadler’s rail-freight tunnel

By Carl Rosenstein

Although Congressman Nadler is rarely on the wrong side of the tracks when it comes to a congressional vote, I have to take exception with his grandiose dream to build a rail freight tunnel at a cost of X billions of dollars. This scheme should be derailed before the first bucket of muck is scooped out from under the harbor.

Being something of a lay expert when it comes to trucks, having fought against illegal trucking in Lower Manhattan for many years, I am completely at a loss as to how this project will benefit anybody other than construction contractors.

The major contention is that there will be a lessening of truck traffic through Lower Manhattan. There actually has been a dramatic decrease in truck traffic along the Canal St. corridor, which includes Houston, Broome and Walker Sts., because of the Port Authority’s post-9/11 closure of the Holland Tunnel to tractor-trailers. Although there is still an inordinate amount of truck traffic using the corridor outbound due to the notorious one-way Verrazano Bridge toll, the removal of probably 1,000 daily tractor-trailer trips from the corridor has greatly improved our air quality of life.

The trucks that currently crisscross Lower Manhattan are basically box trucks that make local deliveries. With or without a freight tunnel, these trucks, which deliver goods to us all and are an inextricable part of our economy, will still be making the same trips back and forth in the year 2020 or whenever this, shall we call it Son of Big Dig, makes its debut.

Insofar as tractor trailer deliveries into the city go, starting at the George Washington Bridge, there is no problem with these monster trucks as long as they stay on the interstate system and disgorge their cargo according to local law that prohibits the beasts from entering Manhattan if they are over 55 feet in length.

I question whether local businesses will even bother to use the rail-freight system inbound. If you take time to observe what’s onboard freight trains that crisscross the country, it’s heavy industrial items, tanker cars, coal cars, etc. The goods that enter our city by big rig are basically consumer goods. Although it would make sense to ship food from California or Florida by rail, without a terminal market existing at the rail head, this could never happen. As it so happens, the Bloomberg administration is working feverishly to close the Bronx Terminal Market and to replace it with another sorely needed big-box mall.

So even if some goods are railroaded in, they will still be unloaded onto a truck that will deliver it to some destination within the city. So instead of trucks coming down from Upper Manhattan to Brooklyn, they will be going from Brooklyn to Upper Manhattan. Where’s the net gain? Am I missing something?

The other benefit of the tunnel, not really scrutinized in your article or editorial is that it would help revitalize the Brooklyn waterfront. I’m guessing this is where the rather less-than-credible number of “30,000 new permanent jobs” comes from. But think about it: Is this the best land-use decision for rapidly changing Brooklyn or the city? Although it seems unlikely that mammoth container ships requiring deep and wide berths would end up in Brooklyn, let’s say they did. Instead of unloading their cargo in Port Elizabeth, where the containers are shifted to flatbed tractor-trailers that have easy access to the Jersey Turnpike and points north, south and west on the connecting interstate highway system, the ships would unload their cargo in Brooklyn, where some of the containers would end up going outbound through the billion dollar harbor tunnel; but the rest would end up on the backs of flatbed tractor-trailers and on the B.Q.E., a road that is already paralyzed for most of the day. The tunnel will not “take as many as 1 million trucks a year off city streets,” as you report, but actually add trucks. It’s nuts.

You report that the project is funded as a “project of national and regional significance” and will not detract from other transportation priorities. That’s not good enough for a project whose main rationale is as leaky as Boston’s $14 billion Big Dig. What we need Congressman Nadler and the rest of our congressional delegation to do is to make the Second Ave. subway a “project of national and regional significance,” because it really is.

What would truly benefit us the most would be enactment of laws that lower the sulfur content in diesel fuel, equivalent catalytic converters for diesel engines and the use of alternative fuels — I understand diesel engines can run on kitchen grease. As big and ugly as tractor-trailers are, our enemy is not trucks (as long as they abide by the law) but fossil fuels.

Before we’re all railroaded, it’s time to have public hearings and flesh out the issues better.

Rosenstein is co-founder of Trees Not Trucks

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