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New Yorkers Concerned about Plan to Build Freight Tunnel


One appropriation in that transportation bill sends $100 million to New York City. It's not for a bridge or a highway or even a subway line. It is for the design of a rail freight tunnel. This project made it into the bill even though some city and state leaders don't seem to want it. Fred Mogul reports from member station WNYC.

(Soundbite of traffic)

FRED MOGUL reporting:

Tens of thousands of trucks join commuters crossing the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan each day. Congressman Jerrold Nadler says too many goods are delivered to the city by these diesel-spewing tractor trailers and too few by rail.

Representative JERROLD NADLER (Democrat, New York): Well, the United States, as a whole, on average, 40 percent of intercity freight goes by rail. In the New York City region, about 1 percent goes by rail, about 98 percent goes by truck and that poisons our air, it congests our streets.

MOGUL: For the past several years, Nadler has been going full throttle to get the funds to design a rail freight tunnel. It would run from Jersey City, New Jersey, under the harbor, south of the Statue of Liberty to Brooklyn. From there, trains would continue on to Queens, where trucks would pick up cargo at a proposed 160-acre depot. Planners have kicked around versions of this project since the late 19th century. Nadler says the city can't wait any longer.

Rep. NADLER: We're expecting an 80 percent increase in volume in trade coming into the city in Long Island over the next 20 years. We will not be able to handle that on the highways, period. It just cannot be done.

MOGUL: This is one of the largest allocations in the $286 billion transportation bill. But the Port Authority, the joint New York-New Jersey agency that controls the river and harbor crossings, doesn't want it. Spokesman Steve Coleman.

Mr. STEVE COLEMAN (Port Authority Spokesman): The cross-harbor tunnel project is a $6 billion project of which a $100 million is a good start, but it's still $5.9 billion more needed from some source.

MOGUL: The Port Authority gets its marching orders from New York Governor George Pataki and acting New Jersey Governor Richard Codey. Both of them would rather invest in multibillion dollar tunnels to carry people, not freight. Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU, says Nadler should have lined up political support first.

Professor MITCHELL MOSS (New York University): The thing that we have to remember is that a congressman represents, you know, a small area and a governor represents a large area, and they have the capacity to execute. So although he may access to federal money, he doesn't have the power to implement it.

MOGUL: Moss has analyzed the impact of a cross-harbor tunnel. He shares the governor's opinion that other mass transit projects will do more to improve the flow of traffic and to reduce pollution.

(Soundbite of traffic)

MOGUL: Trucks roll down Grand Avenue in the Queens neighborhood of Maspeth. They take shortcuts between the interstate and the nearby industrial zone. Residents say Nadler's planned freight depot would make things even worse. Community leader Robert Holden was originally willing to suffer more traffic locally for the good of the city, but after studying the project's environmental review, he's changed his mind.

Mr. ROBERT HOLDEN (Community Leader): And if we can get the trucks off the road, I'd be all for it. But nobody's shown us yet that these trucks will be removed from our streets. It's going to take some of the trucks off of New Jersey roads but not off New York City roads. And it just adds to the congestion and the noise and the pollution that we already have.

MOGUL: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited these concerns when he came out against the project. But Nadler and his supporters say these traffic predictions are exaggerated. They say the vehicles coming out of the depot would mostly be smaller, box trucks, not tractor trailers, and that they would be making shorter trips. Despite the opposition, Nadler's looking down the road. Neither governor is running for re-election, so Nadler is waiting for new state leaders who might want to cash his $100 million check. For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Fred Mogul