Volume 19 | Issue 29 | December 01 - 07, 2006

Downtowners tell Port to mind the gap

By Skye H. McFarlane

In making a case for its secured World Trade Center parking facility this week, the Port Authority garnered support for the project while simultaneously fueling fears that the garage will not arrive in time to prevent a host of traffic problems in Lower Manhattan.

On Nov. 28, the Port gave a visual presentation of the draft environmental assessment for its Vehicular Security Center and Tour Bus Parking Facility, planned for an underground site between Liberty and Cedar Sts., just south of the W.T.C. memorial. The presentation offered alarming statistics and photos of traffic jams to demonstrate the need for the facility.

Those same graphics, however, were used as evidence by critics who said that the Port needs to hurry up and create an interim plan for what has come to be known as “the gap” — the time between the opening of the memorial in 2009 and the projected opening of the garage in 2011.
“We clearly cannot allow a situation to emerge wherein hundreds of additional tour buses descend every day on Lower Manhattan and there is no place to put them,” said Paul Goldstein, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Lower Manhattan representative and the former district manager of Community Board 1.

In the environmental assessment, the Port predicts that 210 tour buses per day (with weekend spikes of as many as 280) will travel to the memorial during its first year of operation. That number will decline annually until it hits a steady flow of 130 buses per day by 2015. The decline in buses will be offset by an increase in delivery vehicles to W.T.C. offices, a number that will reach 1,700 per day by 2015. However, neither trucks nor buses will have a place to park until at least 2011.

In its assessment, the Port gave predictions of what Lower Manhattan would look like without the garage in 2015: Six of 11 intersections in the area would have delays of 55 seconds or longer; vehicle idling would cause higher rates of air pollutants like nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide; and street-level truck loading would frequently interrupt pedestrian flow. The predictions didn’t sit well with community members, who said that these problems are already occurring Downtown and that matters will only get worse if the Port does not create a comprehensive plan to police the traffic flow both before and after the construction of the vehicle center.

“There needs to be interim signage and planning, and serious enforcement,” said Battery Park City resident Joanne Cherow, who said that buses already use South End Ave. as a place to park and idle. “For those of us watching the progress — and I use that word facetiously — at the World Trade Center, the monitoring of traffic has been abysmal.”

Port officials answered individual questions after the presentation, but did not respond to the audience. Agency spokesperson Steve Coleman told Downtown Express that with nearly three years to go until the memorial opens, there is ample time to develop an interim plan for the tour buses.

“I think three years is plenty of time,” Coleman said, adding that the Port, the W.T.C. Memorial Foundation and the city have been meeting regularly to address the problem. “We’ll consider all the options and come up with a plan.”

In addition to the traffic concerns, both Goldstein and Community Board 1 vice chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes asked that the Port take measures, such as installing “scrubber” filters and additional air monitors, to mitigate the emissions of a proposed ventilation shaft at the corner of Greenwich and Cedar Sts. Hughes also suggested requiring tour buses in the area to use ultra low sulfur diesel.

A court reporter took down each speaker’s statement for the record and the public comment period will continue until Dec. 28. By spring, the Federal Transit Administration, which is financing the project, will prepare a formal response to community concerns. The Port plans to start utility work in the summer of 2007, but the rest of the construction will have to wait until the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty St. is removed — a project that has been plagued by delays and setbacks.

If it were up to some local residents, however, the vehicle center would be set back as well — set back across the river in New Jersey. Several speakers questioned the wisdom of putting a parking facility beneath such a high-profile site. The facility would be located under a public park, with an access tunnel that would connect to W.T.C. Towers 3 and 4 and an auxiliary parking garage beneath the Calatrava PATH station.

“I thought we had learned our lesson in 1993,” said John Jay College fire safety professor Glenn Corbett, referring to the car bomb that exploded in the North Tower’s underground parking garage, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

Though the parking facility plans to screen every vehicle before it can enter the garage, Corbett and others doubted that the security checks could be thorough enough to protect the site without stopping up traffic on Liberty St. They suggested that the parking be moved to the Garden State, with visitors coming in on PATH trains.

“The idea of putting it in New Jersey makes the most sense,” said Sally Regenhard, founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. “After all, the mayor has said he wants more people to use public transportation.”

Asked about the likelihood of a New Jersey move for the project, which is entering the final stages of design, Coleman coughed to hold back some other thought before responding carefully, “We will consider everyone’s comments.”

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