Friday, June 17, 2011

Ramp Tramp

The last time we met Julissa Ferreras she was supposedly advocating for an oversight hearing on the proposed Van Wyck ramps-cognizant it seemed of the deficient EDC traffic estimates and worried about the potential impact that the increases in car and truck trips would mean for her Corona and East Elmhurst neighborhoods.

That, as we say was then, but this is now. As the Flushing Times reports from last week's ramp hearing, Ferreras has been elevated from her bench role into the EDC starting line up: "As the Council member who represents Willets Point, I am writing to express my support for the proposed ramp to be located off the Van Wyck Expressway,” Connell said, reading from a letter Ferreras wrote to EDC President Seth Pinsky. “This ramp is essential to mitigate the expected additional traffic as redevelopment of Willets Point moves forward.”

Ferreras has gone from wanting an oversight to being one-is it any wonder that she's on her fourth chief of staff? But the Queens Tribune, unlike the council member, captures all of the complexities surrounding this ramp controversy.

As the paper reports: "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."

The odyssey, as it were, began when it became clear that EDC was cooking the books: "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."

But the ramps were identified in the original EIS as the linchpin of mitigation-and at that point EDC decided to play its own version of Three Card Monte: "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."

Keep in mind, however, that SDOT originally sent EDC back to the drawing board based on the sacredness of the Ketcham critique-a skepticism that seems to not have survived the changing of the guard at SDOT: "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."

Indeed! But the Ketcham's work is impeccable which is why the state and EDC both dread an independent review-afraid of the chicanery that it would reveal:

"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.”

And they've altered their original evaluation-fraudulently tailored to the SDOT and the Van Wyck: "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."

EDC responds with gobbledygook, but the Tribune is alive to the agency's obfuscation: "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.”

Easy for them perhaps, but Ketcham remains incredulous: "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.”

Because EDC believes that in politics, clubs are trump-to wit the new SDOT commissioner, mysteriously elevated in the middle of this traffic storm. And perhaps, the witless Ferreras should pay attention to the full impact of Ketcham's critique: "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.”

Que lio!-as our Hispanic friends might say. But WPU is hopeful that the courts and the Feds will expose the state/EDC collusion: "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."

Where does leave the hapless Ferreras? As always, relegated to the servant class where she will remain as a beggar at the feast. It will, however, be her communities of Corona and East Elmurst that will be beggared if this project goes forward. As we warned almost two years ago, these neighborhoods will become the dirty door mats for the new development; and it is fitting that booth Ferreras and Queens BP Marshall live there so that their constituents can look at them see a daily reminder of their betrayal should this ill-conceived monstrosity go forward.