Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Truckers call for Cap on Fuel Prices

From NBC News, via Streetsblog:

The truckers said they want Congress to issue an immediate cap on gasoline, diesel and heating oil prices. They are demanding a $2 a gallon cap on all of the fuels.

Hm, aren't these the same "capitalists" who've been saying we shouldn't give any money to Amtrak because "it hasn't made a profit"?

BRT as a Means to an End

As I've written before, it's important to keep a broad perspective on things. While transit geeks like me get excited about the simple idea of creating more transit, that's not really enough reason. COMMUTE has a very good reason for promoting BRT: to serve underserved communities, particularly low-income people. In order to do that well, you need to not only know where the low-income people with shitty commutes live, but also where they need and want to go. I don't have that information, and if COMMUTE has it, they didn't share it with us. If someone can give me that information, I'll do what I can to help find good BRT routes to accommodate it.

I support the goal of serving underserved communities, and I have a few others, as described in this post:
  • Reducing pollution

  • Increasing transportation and land-use efficiency

  • Improving social interaction

  • Reducing carnage

These intermediate goals will also help low-income people, by improving their air quality, reducing the carnage on their streets, preserving jobs for them, and improving the social fabric of their neighborhoods. But in order to accomplish these goals, it's not enough to transport low income people. We need to get people out of their cars, and since car drivers in the New York area tend to be better-off, that means getting some middle-class and rich people out of their cars.

When it comes to getting people out of their cars, keep in mind that the rising cost of gasoline will accomplish much of this by itself. People who used to drive even though they're well-served by transit are now leaving the car at home, or even selling it, and taking that transit. If they couldn't get to their jobs and shopping easily by transit, they find other places to work and shop. Many people whose homes are not well-served by transit are moving to places that are.

Sprawly places like eastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn pose a problem for sustainability: the way they're set up now, it's very difficult for someone to live out there and get to work and shopping without a car. The people who live there now could all move to western Queens and South Brooklyn, but that wouldn't be a very efficient use of space, would it? We need to find a way to reshape the sprawl into transit-oriented development: clusters of dense housing, employment and shopping near transit, and less-dense housing and parkland in between. This is hard to do without transit, so the question becomes how best to extend transit to these sprawly areas.

This is where I see the biggest value for BRT - and hopefully light rail, and eventually maybe more subways. This is also good because this is where there are the largest number of wide boulevards and highways, that can more easily be converted to BRT. Many of these places were originally designed around streetcars to begin with, but if not, they can be redeveloped around this model.

What kind of trips should we be designing BRT for? Just as it doesn't make sense to drive for your daily shopping, it doesn't make much sense to rely on transit for that daily shopping. We should be aiming, through zoning and subsidies if necessary, to have everyone live within convenient walking distance of a decent supermarket (and not tear down historic structures to build parking for supermarkets). Plain old buses (with signal prioritization and other improvements wherever possible) can accommodate other kinds of shopping and socializing.

Rapid transit should be for special occasion shopping, entertainment and socializing, and for commuting. That means - you guessed it - connections to Manhattan. But, as Joan Byron pointed out, there are also job centers in the other boroughs, and making connections between the boroughs should be a secondary goal. I'll explore some of these possibilities in future posts.

We should also think about long-distance connections: how easy is it for someone from Baychester to get to Penn Station for an Amtrak train? For someone from College Point to get to the Port Authority for a Peter Pan bus? For a resident of Kingsbridge to get to any of the airports?

Monday, April 28, 2008

BRT Bait-and-Switch: the COMMUTE Plan

In the first post in this series, I identified a very serious bait-and-switch, often practiced by unscrupulous anti-transit people, where Bus Rapid Transit ("BRT") is set up as "just like subways, only cheaper!" in order to divide and conquer pro-transit forces. In the second post, I pointed out a much more benign one, where BRT was put forth as a solution for slow bus routes, even though the planned BRT would do nothing to speed the slow routes.

In this post I will discuss another well-intentioned bait-and-switch, but one that I also feel is not a good idea. This one comes from the Pratt University Center for Community Development, in support of the COMMUTE coalition. It's laid out in an article for the Gotham Gazette by the Pratt Center's Joan Byron. Byron unfortunately characterizes BRT as "a subway running above the ground on rubber tires," but otherwise she makes several good points. There are other flaws in her reasoning, however.

Byron's argument is essentially this: Even in New York, there are thousands of people who have long commutes to low-paying jobs. One of our top transportation priorities should be to shorten the commutes for these low-income workers, giving them more time to live their lives. Another should be to connect these workers with more opportunities, giving them more power in the job market. BRT can accomplish both these goals, for less money and less political hassle than digging a subway. She mentions the joint NYCDOT/MTA BRT effort, and links to a map of improved routes proposed by COMMUTE.

There's no question that Byron's goals are laudable. My concerns are whether BRT can accomplish them for significantly less money and hassle than rail, and whether the BRT routes that COMMUTE proposes would do much towards those goals.

The largest clusters of red dots on the low-income long-commute map are in Inwood/Washington Heights, Corona, Flushing, Flatbush and Sunset Park. All these areas are fairly well-served by transit, however: just about every dot in those clusters is within a fifteen-minute walk to a subway station. The main problem seems to be that the jobs require a long ride on those subways. You might say that the northern part of Corona/East Elmhurst, southern Flushing, and eastern Sunset Park are too far from the train, but of those, only Corona would be served by the proposed BRT routes.

It's important to remember that the non-grade-separated BRT that COMMUTE is advocating can almost never travel faster than a subway along the same route, because the subways are grade-separated. Any of the proposed BRT routes that parallel subways (such as those on Broadway in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn) will be slower, and will thus not shorten the commute times for these commuters.

The sad story of the Merrick Boulevard BRT line showed that many people will fight tooth and nail to preserve parking, and thus that BRT routes that involve removing parking will likely face more political opposition than ones that don't. This means that all the BRT routes proposed for four-lane or narrower corridors (such as Third Avenue in the Bronx, Sutphin and Parsons Boulevards in Queens, and Broadway and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn) will be very difficult to implement. How much more difficult would a subway be?

The BRT routes shown on the map do not seem to have much of a pattern to them. Byron criticizes the NYCDOT/MTA BRT plans for relying on transfers to subways and commuter rail, but for BRT to work without transfers it has to go to jobs. Byron put forth a great goal of connecting low-income workers to closer jobs that are currently difficult to get to by transit, but how do the COMMUTE routes help? They don't seem to go to very many obvious low-wage job centers. If they are in fact designed to do this, spelling that out is essential to winning the political support necessary to overcome the parking defenders.

The corridors where it is easiest to implement BRT are corridors where there is already a large number of lanes dedicated to moving cars. It's much easier to convert car lanes to BRT lanes than it is to convert parking lanes to BRT. This means six-lane or wider boulevards, and expressways. For this reason, COMMUTE's proposed routes along the Gowanus Expressway, LIE and Astoria Boulevard/Grand Central Parkway are the most likely to succeed - and they can be designed to serve populations in Sunset Park, Jamaica and Corona. Main Street and Northern Boulevard are other promising candidates. The DOT should give all of these a good look, and consider other corridors, but leave the other COMMUTE recommendations to a later stage.

Ever since I first saw that low-income commute density map, I've been wondering where these people all commute to, and how we can make their commutes shorter. I'd like to see that study. I also hope that some day, the Pratt Center or another organization will do a real study assessing the skills in these low-wage, long-commute neighborhoods, find jobs to match them, and plot routes to make the commutes easier. That would be very cool. This apparently random BRT wishlist - not so cool.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Another BRT Bait-and-Switch

In an earlier post, I talked about how Bus Rapid Transit ("BRT") can be used to deflect energy from rail transit: promise "a subway running above the ground on rubber tires" - but cheaper! - and some people will get behind that, while the rail transit diehards waste energy trying to win back the defectors. Well, there's another kind of bait-and-switch: highlighting a problem and then proposing a BRT "solution" that would do nothing for the problem.

I feel kinda bad singling these people out, since they're obviously dedicated transit advocates with a long history of supporting social justice, and I still think that the individual advocates, their organizations and goals are worthy of support. Still, I think this kind of tactic does nobody any favors, and I'm willing to go up against it.

You may have heard of the Pokey Awards. Every year, the Straphangers' Campaign releases a list of the slowest bus routes for each borough. Recently it has supplemented the Pokeys with Schleppie Awards for the most unreliable routes. Every year's press release includes a plug from Transportation Alternatives for BRT. So far so good: it's very important to draw attention to the slowness and unreliability of the bus system, and to get people to take action instead of just complaining.

The problem is that the BRT solutions that are pushed every year have very little to do with the routes that win the Pokeys and Schleppies. Here are the laureates for every year:


There's a lot that could be done to speed up travel on 14th, 23rd, 34th and 96th Streets, as well as the streets where the other Pokey recipients travel in the outer boroughs. But none of the Pokey Award press releases address them. Instead, each release mentions the MTA/NYCDOT BRT pilot program, which would do very little for these corridors. For Manhattan, the pilot site was First and Second Avenues, and each Pokey Award press release trumpets the potential improvements to the M15 corridor, despite the fact that the M15 is never on the list of slowest routes.

Incidentally, on April 17 Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced that the city planned to turn half of 34th Street into a dedicated busway. Now that would make sure that the M34 is never again on the Pokey list. If it works, hopefully she'll do the same for 14th, 23rd and 96th Streets.

I've written more about the Pokeys than I intended to. Like I said, both the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives are good organizations and deserve your support. Don't withhold it on account of this. All I'm asking is that for the '08 Pokey and Schleppie awards the press release include measures that would actually speed up the award winning bus routes.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reclaiming the Streets

Larry Littlefield writes that if motorists refuse to tax themselves to reduce congestion and pay for the road space they use, we'll just have to transfer their road space to uses that serve more taxpayers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Poisoning the Well

With the demise of congestion pricing, transit and livable streets advocates have encountered the dysfunction that is Albany politics. Many are understandably frustrated, and looking for something to do. Before the final non-vote, the League of Conservation Voters set up a political action committee funded at about $300,000 - with strong hints that lawmakers who failed to support congestion pricing would not receive money from the PAC, and challengers to those lawmakers probably would.

Streetsblog commenter JK had this interesting insight about the relationship between patronage and corruption:

The big reform would be banning earmarks/member items/pork/set asides. There are some interesting studies which suggest there is a relationship between the amount of pork/patronage and the competitiveness of elections. ( I'll see if I can find a famous one from Argentina.)

JK hasn't provided the study, but I did a little googling and came up with this one. I haven't yet read it to the end, but it looks pretty interesting. For now I'm going to take it as a given that the more pork, the less competitive the elections. Here's what I wrote in response:

JK, that is awesome! The machine is so entrenched and pulling it out by the roots would be really difficult. But if it feeds on patronage ... poison the patronage, and it dies!

Let's take a closer look at the pork in the state budget - something the Legislature doesn't want us to do, and succeeded for several years at preventing us from doing, which is baffling in itself. The State Budget page still doesn't have any details five days later, but some of the papers have information about this budget and previous ones. This 2007 list from Rockland is particularly interesting. It shows the level of patronage - i.e. the discrepancy between the favored and the less-favored. While in 2006 Silver took $7 million for his own district, in 2007 Rockland legislators got between $103,000 and $153,000 (I'm assuming that the "million" in the blog post is a mistake).

The thing that gets me is that the total $200 million per house is a big deal (it'd buy about 100 subway cars), but the amounts for each member are chump change, at least in Rockland. $153,000 is a lot more than I make in a year, but it's much less than the value of my apartment. Corporations and large nonprofits toss this kind of money around all the time.

So let's say you're a wealthy heir, dot-com whiz or good-government organization with a few million to spend on reforming state government. You fund a nonprofit group dedicated to community improvement. Then you pick a legislator who's pissed you off recently and find out the amount and recipient of each of their "member items." Your nonprofit offers them an identical grant - on the condition that they sign an agreement rejecting the legislator's member item. Knowing the speed of state government, you already have an advantage: they can get the money from you in their bank account tomorrow, or wait god knows how long for the state grant to come through.

Some may not be willing to reject the pork money right away. You could then offer them double the money, or triple, or ten times. For an individual legislator we know you can't spend more than $70 million doing that. The League of Conservation Voters expects to have $300,000, so they could do the double-your-money offer.

If you do that for two years, then the next election cycle the constituents will have received absolutely no pork from that legislator. The legislator gets no ribbon-cutting or check-delivery ceremonies - in fact there are none, because your organization quietly refuses to participate. The various organizations might still feel that the legislator was influential in determining what you gave them, so you might want to mix it up a bit, pull a Claire Zachanassian: say that if they vote for someone else - anyone, even the legislator's son - then you'll guarantee that there will be a fund of twice the district allocation available for the next ten years.

You might not even have to require them to refuse the member item. Just the fact of paying the exact same amount as the legislator might be enough to confuse things. I'm just throwing ideas out here, but the point is that for any individual legislator the totals are so small that it should be really easy to make an example of someone. A really wealthy person could easily buy the whole state. How crazy is that, selling your district's votes for $153,000?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Malthus, Grant Me ...

Some of you may be familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It's often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and related twelve-step programs, but according to an Atlantic Monthly article by Paul Elie, it was written by Reinhold Niebuhr in response to the escalation of the Cold War. It's such a succinct expression of a general insight about life that it's useful even if you're not an alcoholic or a politician, or a Christian, or even a theist. It goes like this:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

So here's my Supplement to the serenity prayer:

And God, protect us from those who lie about what they can and can't change, and give us the insight to see through their lies.

Have you ever been talking to an annoying customer service agent or bureaucrat and gotten this, "The computer won't let me do that," or "The computer needs me to put this information in"? Computers are tools. They do what we tell them to do. They go down, and any organization with any sense has a plan to make do without computers for a day or two. If the computer won't let our Customer Service Agent refund our money for an obvious mistake, it's because the Customer Service Agent's boss won't let him do that.

Have you ever been told that something is impossible, but you have the sneaking feeling that it's not actually impossible? That the real reason you can't do it is because the person telling you it's impossible doesn't want you to do it? But it's just a feeling; you don't know for sure whether they're telling you the truth. Or even whether they're telling themselves the truth. That's what the Insight Supplement is useful for.

I hate to say it, but sometimes I get that sneaking feeling when people are making population projections. I support congestion pricing, but not because "OMG! NYC will have a million more ppl in 2030!" but because it would be good for the nineteen million people we already have.

Fortunately, many environmentalists now understand the principle of induced demand as applied to roads, but unfortunately, many of them don't apply the same principle to population in general. We don't have complete control over population, but that doesn't mean we have to accommodate any population trends that have been observed without question.

The answer is not just to assume that the million people will come no matter what, but to question why they're coming, whether they'll still come in an economic downturn, whether there's any way to redirect at least some of them to other places that can accommodate them better, and whether there's any way to get those of them who do show up to settle in a sustainable way.

I'll be referring back to this in specific cases where population projections are used to justify bad planning.

Tappan Zee: DOT Behaving Badly

When the NY State DOT announced that they would split the alternatives study of the Tappan Zee Bridge project into a "road phase" and a "transit phase," my bullshit detector was activated. But it was tempered by a blog post from Tri-State Transportation Campaign intern Paul Murphy.

Now I think that Murphy was being too kind when he said that the decision was "predicated on reasons which seem sound" and there really was cause for alarm. I've been convinced by a series of articles and web pages put out by the Hudson Riverkeeper. Also, the fact that all of the options under consideration somehow include expanding the bridge's capacity from seven lanes to ten should worry anybody.

One issue of concern is that some transit activists, excited about the possibility of BRT on a replacement bridge, may be willing to turn a blind eye to the State DOT's road-widening agenda and accept a bridge that encourages more car trips than transit trips and is thus a net loss for transit - and thus for clean air, fighting global warming, economic efficiency and walkable communities.

There was an editorial in the Riverdale Press that summarized the issues fairly well: pay $14.5 billion for more sprawl, or pay $2 billion for the current level of sprawl. But if it's possible to maintain the bridge for $2 billion, then it should also be possible to retrofit it for BRT for not much more. After all, BRT is cheap, isn't it?

Here's something you can do today: sign Riverkeeper's petition to Governor Paterson asking him to ensure full public participation in the bridge process.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Curbside Parking: Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

Over on Streetsblog, commenter ChipSeal writes, "Why not eliminate curbside parking and open up the public space for all road users?"

Why not indeed! If cars are bad, why provide any space for them? If it's good to make it a little more difficult for people to drive, why not make it a lot more difficult?

In the long run, that's true. The less you accommodate cars, the better. The problem is that people often hit parked cars with their own cars. If the cars aren't there, they often go up on the sidewalk. It all depends on how fast the cars are going. Below 15 miles per hour, it's probably safe for pedestrians and cars to mix, but above that I think that curbside parking improves street safety.

Of course, there's still every reason to replace curbside parking with other uses, such as loading zones, bicycle parking and bus bulbs. And it's a good idea to reduce the overall amount of parking, which can be done by reducing off-street parking. But eliminating large amounts of curbside parking is not a good idea when cars are going fast.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Boondoggles: the State Budget

After rejecting congestion pricing, the New York State Legislature passed its budget yesterday. Details are still sketchy, but you can get some information on the Budget website. There's also some in the newspapers; for example, the Post reports that the state's contribution to the MTA was cut by $53 million.

Coincidentally, that $53 million is very close to the $50 million increase in the funding for the state's CHIPS program. What's CHIPS - not that '70s cop show? Nope, the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program uses State money to pay for local highway capital improvement. Eligible programs are highway resurfacing, highway reconstruction, traffic control devices, bridge/culvert rehabilitation, bridge/culvert replacement, and other.

New York City's share of the CHIPS program was increased by $7.1 million. The news reports don't say what the total amount will be, but I'm guessing that a fair amount of it will go to the Shore Parkway boondoggle.

The Assembly members who claimed to really really want to do something to fund transit? Oh well.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Perspective: Reducing the Relative Value of Driving

Douglas Adams wrote that "In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of perspective." Still, I feel that a certain amount of perspective would help with a post-mortem on congestion pricing.

Here's a revised version of the basic cycle of transportation. I fired up the ol' Microsoft Paint and replaced "relative transportation quality" with "relative transportation value"; I think that has a much bigger impact on choices than quality.

Congestion pricing was never the goal. Who devotes their life to something like that? The goals were, and still are: limiting pollution, increasing efficiency, improving the social structures of our neighborhoods, and furthering the cause of social justice.

The big point is the word relative. Increasing the value of transit, walking and cycling has no effect if you increase the value of driving at the same time (as is planned for the Tappan Zee). If you had a ton of money, you could increase the value of transit, but in places like Riverdale and Eastern Queens so much has been invested over the years in increasing the value of driving - and there's so much resistance to transit expansion - that even then it would be almost impossible to catch up.

Of course, we don't have a ton of money, so if we want to limit pollution, increase efficiency, and maybe limit the carnage as well, we've got no choice but to reduce the value of driving. Congestion pricing was the first measure I've seen that would have seriously reduced the value of driving and had the backing of the Mayor, the Governor, the City Council and the State Senate Majority.

It's time to move on to other things, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we can't have a meaningful impact on global warming, asthma, the economy and the safety of our families without making driving either more expensive or more difficult.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Shore Parkway: the Stealth Boondoggle

My most recent post about the $850 million plan to rebuild bridges on the Belt Parkway was featured on Streetsblog today. Streetsblog commenter Hilary, a long time parkway activist, had this to say about the project:

Cap'n Transit - You're the first voice of reason I've heard on the subject of this Shore parkway project - no doubt because it's been kept under wraps for the years in the making (I happened to hear about it at a Historic Roads Conference in Boston. Its consultants told of their strict instructions to keep it out of the public eye.) The replacement of the historic parkway bridges is ostensibly to allow "emergency vehicles," but agency people admit it is a backdoor to opening the parkway to trucks. The first people you need to persuade of the folly of this idea (and the wisdom of yours, to restore it to true waterfront PARKway)are those at Transportation Alternatives, who have the misguided idea that expanding truck capacity is the way to solve truck congestion, and at the expense of parks and greenways no less.

Hopefully Transportation Alternatives will clarify whether this is a general position they have, and whether it extends to the case of the Belt/Shore Parkway in particular.

It looks like Hilary is right about the stealth aspect of the plan. Apparently the City has already been spending millions of dollars to reconstruct other bridges on the Parkway. It's in the City budget, and these seven other bridges are in the TIP for the next five years.

The State budget is what's being negotiated now, but it's too obfuscated for me to figure out. Anyone who understands State budget stuff, please tell us if it's in there, and if there's something we can do to get that money reallocated.

The City budget will be negotiated in the next few months, though, and this will be our chance to ask the City to restore its contribution to the MTA to earlier levels. What we will likely hear is that it's a recession, revenues are down, we're cutting homeless services and CUNY and you want us to give the MTA more money? Just tell the Mayor and your city council member that there's hundreds of thousands of dollars going to bridges that promote sprawl.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Cut It Loose: the Shore Parkway Reconstruction

You may have heard that we're in a recession. Money is tight for both private and public projects. Many projects may not get built, or may be deferred for a long time.

This is not always a bad thing. The deferment or abandonment of developer-driven projects that would bring little or no benefit to the public at large is good. Your Cap'n, for one, won't miss Atlantic Yards, the JFK-Downtown rail link, the Syosset-Bridgeport tunnel and a host of other misbegotten schemes. It's too bad that the horrible awful Yankee Stadium replacement missed getting sucked into that black hole. There's still hope it could swallow up the Hudson Yards (including the #7 train extension), Moynihan West, Hunters Point South and Sunnyside Yards plans.

Unfortunately, it looks like it's not only the ill-conceived projects that are going down. The Second Avenue Subway is important because it has long been a blockage in the pipeline of new transit projects: as long as it's not built, it's been hard to propose any other new subways. Not only is that project now facing a funding gap, but there are similar ones for the Fulton Street Transit Center, the LIRR East Side Access, the pilot "Select Bus" programs, and the assortment of transit projects that the MTA announced last month. The planned ARC tunnel has shrunk to "THE Tunnel." Key expansions of the rail network in New Jersey - like the restoration of service on the Lackawanna Cut-Off, which could eventually lead to passenger service to Scranton and Binghamton - are unfunded.

In this climate it's important to do what we can to keep the sustainable projects from getting sunk while cutting the unsustainable ones loose. As I wrote a month ago:

Get public funding secured as much as possible for transit and livable streets, and get roads as defunded as possible. Then try to stall parking and associated sprawl projects until they run out of funding. Hopefully by the time anyone can afford to build anything again there'll be more of a public consensus, and more private money, for transit and livable streets.

In this spirit, when I see expensive projects that predominantly benefit drivers and contribute to sprawl, I'm going to point them out. This is money that could go towards better bus service or the Second Avenue Subway.

Today's candidate comes from Streetsblog's morning headlines. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the New York City DOT is planning to spend $850 million over the next seven years to replace seven bridges on the Belt (a.k.a. Shore) Parkway from Bay Ridge to Canarsie.

For those of you who've never experienced the Belt in all its glory, well, I can't say it's worth much. It was built by Bob Moses as a four-lane parkway like the Bronx River or Meadowbrook, but it's a sad excuse for a parkway now, after having been widened to a six-lane pit of noise and fumes. It has a bike and pedestrian path alongside for much of its length, but the path is very close to the highway and generally not very well maintained. When it's not closed without notice, it's often filled with road debris. Who knows what it's doing to the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay?

As for its current function, it facilitates sprawl in Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens by funneling traffic onto the Gowanus Expressway where it can plague Sunset Park and South Brooklyn. Every time I've seen the highway it's been packed bumper-to-bumper with cars each containing one or two miserable, enraged Brooklynites. I can't see anything of value that it contributes. If you know of anything, please feel free to bring it up in the comments.

Over the years there has been a freeway revolt movement that seeks to tear down - or simply not rebuild - wasteful highways. The most famous successes have been the West Side Highway in Manhattan and the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, and a dedicated group in the South Bronx is hoping to add the Sheridan Expressway to that list. Many of them are along rivers or bays, and when they are torn down it restores access to these long-neglected waterfronts.

The Belt Parkway is a similar barrier. In Bay Ridge, where it is redundant with the Gowanus, environmental groups have already asked for it to be removed. It's reasonable to maintain it while it's still in good shape, but spending $900 million to rebuild those bridges is another matter. Tearing it down would end the waste once and for all, but it would also be expensive. A small, two-lane road, or even a four-lane parkway that didn't overwhelm the pedestrian environment, would probably be appropriate for that corridor.

If we replaced the six-lane bridges with two- or four-lane bridges, how much could we save? How much less pollution would there be, how much less gas consumed, how many cars no longer driving through Manhattan and South Brooklyn? How much gentler would it be on the wildlife in Jamaica Bay? How much less impact on the neighborhoods it passes through?

The absolute most critical aspect is that this reconstruction facilitates sprawl. The low-density neighborhoods of southeastern Brooklyn and Queens are not set up as villages, they're set up as endless rows of tract houses where everyone has to drive to the big-box stores, and most people drive to work. The Belt Parkway enables this inefficient, non-human-scale infrastructure. Without it, the residents might support some effort to extend rapid transit to the area. With it keeping the cost of driving low (you can currently drive from Canarsie to Canal Street without paying a toll, all on limited-access highways), their backyards and driveways are heavily subsidized. By who? By you: the New York City taxpayer.

I'm happy to pay my taxes and help keep our city running. But I don't want that $900 million going to subsidize an Oldsmobile and a swimming pool for someone in Mill Basin. I want it going to efficient, sustainable transportation. I'd love for it to go to a big-deal item like the Second Avenue Subway, but you know what? Let's keep the money in that part of Brooklyn. Use it to extend the #2 train south to Kings Plaza, and build a light rail system on Kings Highway, Flatlands Avenue and Linden Boulevard, from Bensonhurst to Valley Stream.

BTW: says that some of these bridge replacements were due to be completed by 2006. I wonder what happened.