Where Are The Cars?
Willets Point Foes, City EDC Square Off Over Ramp Data
By Joseph Orovic
The battle over Willets Point’s redevelopment reached its highest technical peak at a public hearing regarding the plan’s oft-lambasted ramps leading to and from the Van Wyck Expressway. The roadway additions have driven the case against the project for more than a year.
The hearing, held last Wednesday, was most notable for what it lacked: attendance was sparse, about 50 people in total; passions were tempered; and a somewhat subdued tone overtook most of the project’s adamant opponents. It was a far cry from last winter’s hearing regarding Phase 1 of the redevelopment, which brought out workers and landowners opposing the project with red-faced anger, damning the New York City Economic Development Corp. and its planned use of eminent domain.
Last weeks’ hearing, held in the Flushing Library, offered a second chance at more salvos against the NYCEDC and its plans. Yet most involved have seemingly resigned themselves to letting courtrooms, agency approvals and legal filings be the stage for the battle. The fate of Willets Point may ultimately, and without much fanfare, rest in the hands of number-crunching traffic gurus.
The Road To The Ramps
The lead-up to Wednesday’s hearing provides an abject lesson in the density, scope and epic mountain of red tape required to slap new ramps around Flushing Bay. It’s a three-year odyssey of competing reports, varying math formulas and legal gamesmanship. What emerges is a veritable chess match, with leading opposition group Willets Point United and the EDC playing an exhausting series of countermoves based on the ramps.
As the plan to redevelop Willets Point wound its way through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in 2008, the City Council’s ultimate stamp of approval included the plan’s Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS). The report mapped out the potential traffic impact of the project, as well as the ramps’ role in easing any congestion.
At the outset, WPU latched onto the ramps as the potential linchpin to any challenges of the project. The interchange between the Grand Central Parkway and the Whitestone and Van Wyck Expressways already presented a nightmare of congestion at peak rush hours. The City presented a bleak picture of the ramps’ ability to ease traffic in the surrounding local roads, WPU argued, with the added congestion of a planned monolithic mixed-use redevelopment of the 62-acre Iron Triangle. The City Council approved the plan regardless.
A subsequent legal challenge initiated by WPU lived a short life in court but still achieved some success. The EDC promised Judge Joan Madden it would not employ eminent domain until the ramp plan was fully approved, marrying the controversial land acquisition technique to the State Dept. of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration’s OK. It was as good an outcome as WPU could hope for. The group steadfastly believed the ramps were a fool’s errand, the EDC’s figures were flawed at best, and no state agency would ever approve the plan.
Initially, the gambit appeared to work. Emails acquired by WPU through freedom of information requests showed State DOT’s engineers were skeptical about the ramps’ traffic-saving ability. WPU felt assured the ramps’ lack of approval could keep the project tied up in agency offices and red tape, effectively leaving eminent domain off the table for the foreseeable future. But EDC screwed their hopes cross-eyed when it segmented the project into phases.
The first chunk to be redeveloped fell outside the auspices of the proposed ramps, the agency argued, and therefore did not require DOT approval. The 22-acre chunk of land, with nine landowners still not selling to the City, began a public review process required for the use of eminent domain.
WPU contended the fragmented approach was meant to sidestep EDC’s promises to Judge Madden while lending the redevelopment an air of inevitability. The agency said the switch was a byproduct of a rough financial climate, making a singular developer undertaking the entire mammoth project difficult, despite receiving 29 responses to its initial Request for Qualifications for the project.
The initiation of the public review process opened a door for legal challenges, and WPU charged through it, with two lawsuits aimed at halting the EDC’s march to redevelopment without the ramps’ approval, while also questioning the legality of the project as a whole.
WPU’s plans took a second hit when the ramps made it past the DOT. Though lacking the state agency’s final endorsement, the plan was sent out for public review. EDC welcomed the move as a signal of the ramps’ imminent approval. WPU contended the DOT’s new commissioner and former EDC Transportation Vice President Joan McDonald was returning favors to her former employer.
Part of the pending approval process requires an environmental assessment, a draft of which EDC put together in March. The report addresses the impact on surrounding highways. It concludes, “The proposed access modification project would be necessary to prevent significant congestion on these freeway segments within the study area.”
That draft EA, held alongside the FGEIS, provided a morphing depiction of the ramps’ impact, according to WPU. The group enlisted Brian Ketcham, a Brooklyn-based transportation engineer with a history of being a pain in the City’s backside (he effectively killed Westway, the Koch era’s massive West Side Highway proposal). Ketcham’s number crunching and colorful assertions have become the dogma behind WPU’s opposition. His reports, the most recent a 286-page rebuttal of the draft EA, amount to the group’s sacred text.
Same Math, Different Results
Should the redevelopment of Willets Point go through as planned, all roads within a two-mile radius would become a hellhole of steady brake lights, honking horns and an incapacitated mass transit system, according to Ketcham.
“They’re essentially proposing the largest shopping mall in the city,” he said. “The impact on the surrounding local access roads is so horrendous. They low-balled the traffic, they have overstated the impact of transit. These folks are playing games with the numbers.”
Ketcham’s point lies in the differences between gridlocked hell depicted in 2008’s FGEIS and smooth driving portrayed in the draft EA, both prepared by engineering firm AKRF. According to Ketcham’s submission, the latter hides many of the flaws laid bare in the FGEIS, underreporting the estimated car trips by as much as 100 percent.
The gulf between the FGEIS and draft EA can easily be explained by competing formulas, according to the EDC’s dense, three-paragraph response to Ketcham’s assertions.
“[The draft EA], which is more regional in its approach, and focused on highway systems, uses different modeling procedures for forecasting future traffic volumes,” the agency said. “In contrast, the FGEIS analysis conservatively assigned vehicles according to the most direct route between their origins and destinations. Both approaches are appropriate and represent industry-standard protocol for evaluating traffic.”
While the FGEIS states half of the Iron Triangle’s auto traffic would use the Van Wyck Expressway, the latest EA lowers the figure to one third. An estimated 2,000 cars were not reassigned to local roads in the report, according to Ketcham, showing “operating conditions on local roads that are better than reported in the FGEIS despite carrying 26 percent more Willets Point trips. More trips, lower impacts: it is mysterious why EDC thinks anyone will believe this.”
Ketcham claims the EDC’s reports willfully ignore the ongoing development within Downtown Flushing, with the likes of Flushing Commons, the RKO Keith’s, Skyview Parc and other big ticket projects adding to traffic congestion.
“They just don’t complete all the calculations,” he said. “My analysis does. The frustration for someone like me is where is the planning? Where is the upfront analysis? They will build it and nobody will come because they can’t get into or out of it. Or the whole area will be gridlocked.”
Ace Up Their Sleeve
Ketcham’s latest rebuttal to a City-produced report will play a major role in any lawsuits challenging the planned ramps, including a case returning to Judge Madden’s court.
“If the court rules [it] does have jurisdiction and that we should litigate the merits of the traffic impact, Ketcham’s report would definitely be integral,” said Michael Gerrard, WPU’s attorney for the case.
Gerrard also hopes Ketcham’s findings will encourage the Federal Highway Administration to undertake a Federal Environmental Impact Statement, which would most closely mirror WPU’s desire for a non-partisan third party to assess the traffic impact of the plan.
Meanwhile, the EDC is currently gathering responses to its recent Request For Proposals for Phase 1. It has consistently reiterated its belief that the ramps’ approval is coming.
The next move in the ongoing chess match appears to be the July 20 oral arguments both parties will present, once again, to Judge Madden.
Reach Deputy Editor Joseph Orovic at email@example.com or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127.