Summary of Deficiencies in DEIS for Cross Harbor Project & Impacts on Maspeth, NYC, Region & US

This article summarizes the deficiencies in the draft environmental impact statement (“DEIS”) prepared for the Cross Harbor Freight Movement Project (“Project”). It focuses on the five technical areas where the DEIS is clearly deficient: rail transportation, truck transportation, air quality, local conditions at the proposed Maspeth Yards and cost/benefit.

I. Transportation (Rail)
The DEIS concludes that there is a demonstrated demand for increased rail transportation of freight to the East-of-Hudson region. This conclusion is based on the implicit assumptions that (1) freight currently transported to this region by truck is amenable to rail transport; (2) rail transport can provide a reliable and economically competitive alternative to truck transport; and (3) current transport of freight into the East-of-Hudson region is by rail because of the lack of a direct Hudson River freight rail crossing (other than Selkirk).

The DEIS contains no analysis or data supporting these critical assumptions. In fact, much of the freight currently moving by truck into the East-of-Hudson region consists of perishable goods which, because of the slowness and unreliability of rail transport, will not be shifted from truck to rail transport if the proposed Cross Harbor tunnel is built. The DEIS ignores the fact that it is the slowness and unreliability of rail transport, not the lack of a New York-New Jersey tunnel, that makes rail less competitive with truck transport. The DEIS also fails to explain why CSX, the rail company which currently transports most of the rail freight into the East-of-Hudson region, would abandon its current Selkirk crossing, switching yard and tracks, which it owns, for a tunnel crossing using facilities for which it would have to pay a user fee. However, the DEIS concludes that the Project will reduce congestion and costs, and improve reliability and strategic redundancy of the freight system.

The DEIS does not explain how the available existing East-of-Hudson rail lines, which are heavily used by commuter and passenger lines, will be able to accommodate the massive increase in freight trains contemplated by the Project without significant disruptions in commuter and passenger service. The DEIS is also silent concerning the low clearances and limited availability of tracks and yards East-of-Hudson that will interfere with rail freight movements contemplated by the Project. The DEIS also fails to explain why the multi-million dollar upgrades to rail and highway infrastructure, which are either already underway or imminent, are inadequate to achieve the improvement in freight transport which is the Project’s stated goal. Nor does the DEIS explain why better management of existing transportation systems and expansion of freight movement by barge or other watercraft – far less costly alternatives than the multi-billion dollar Cross Harbor Project – are insufficient to achieve the Project’s stated goals.

II. Transportation (Truck)
The DEIS concludes that the existing highway system is inadequate to handle the current and projected future movement of freight by truck.

No analysis or data are provided to support this conclusion. Nor is there any explanation why adding substantial capacity to the Hudson River crossings will not solve the alleged inadequacy of the highway system.
As noted above, the assumptions in the DEIS concerning the amount of freight that will be diverted from truck to rail if the Project is built are simply not supported. The DEIS fails to explain why rail transport – which suffers from slowness and unreliability – will become economically competitive with truck transport, which is favored due to its speed and reliability, simply by the existence of a new tunnel crossing.

The analysis in the DEIS of truck traffic impacts from the Project is seriously flawed. The assumptions concerning background traffic growth rates for the Maspeth area are overstated and unrealistic, and tend to mask the true traffic impacts associated with the Project. Compounding this problem is the fact that projected truck traffic associated with the proposed Maspeth intermodal facility is grossly understated in the DEIS. As a result, the DEIS’s conclusions concerning the overall increases in East-of-Hudson truck traffic and traffic congestion from the Project are flawed, and significantly understate the true traffic impacts of the Project.

The DEIS fails to acknowledge that the road network surrounding the site of the proposed Maspeth intermodal facility is incapable of handling the massive increases in truck traffic associated with the Project. In fact, those increases will cause significantly accelerated deterioration of area streets, and an increased risk to pedestrians.

In contrast to the picture presented in the DEIS, the Project will result in massive increases in traffic congestion East-of-Hudson, with resulting adverse air quality, safety, and other quality of life impacts. In the face of these significant impacts, the sole mitigation measure proposed in the DEIS is to repaint some of the traffic lines on neighborhood streets in Maspeth. Needless to say, this “mitigation” falls far short of the measures needed to minimize or avoid adverse impacts associated with the massive increases in truck traffic that will be generated by the Project.

III. Air Quality
Significantly, the DEIS concedes that the Project will result in violations of the federal air quality standard for particulate matter, even based on the DEIS’s unrealistically low estimates of truck traffic that will be generated by the Project. Federal air quality standards exist to protect public health. Particulate pollution is known to cause increases in a variety of respiratory illnesses, and studies have shown that such pollution poses significantly greater health threats to children and the elderly.

Apart from the fact that it is based on unreasonably low estimates of increased truck traffic, the DEIS analysis of air quality impacts from the Project is based on (i) dubiously low assumptions concerning the amounts of particulate matter that will be emitted from locomotives and trucks at the proposed Maspeth intermodal facility; (ii) questionable assumptions concerning existing background concentrations of particulates; and (iii) air pollution modeling that fails to accurately reflect worst-case air pollution impacts from the Project on residential areas, schools, and hospitals.

In addition, the DEIS identifies no mitigation measures that will be implemented to minimize or avoid adverse air quality impacts from the Project. In fact, though it concedes that the Project will cause violations of air quality standards, the DEIS fails to identify a single proposed mitigation measure to address this critical public health issue. Instead, the DEIS simply assumes that future technological changes and new regulatory requirements will mitigate the air quality impacts of the Project. Again, as is the case with most of the conclusions it contains, the DEIS provides no analysis or data to support this conclusion.

IV. Cost/Benefit Analysis
Because many of the basic assumptions in the DEIS are unjustified, unsupported or simply wrong, the DEIS’s cost-benefit analysis for the Project is completely skewed. For example, much of the economic benefit assigned to the Project is based on the assumptions that there is sufficient demand for (i) the Single Tunnel System to generate 14 round-trip freight trains per day, transporting 13.3 million tons/year of freight by 2025, and (ii) the Double Tunnel System to generate 32 round-trip freight trains per day, averaging up to 19 million tons/year of freight. However, there is nothing in the DEIS to support these optimistic (and unrealistic) forecasts.

Likewise, the methodology for forecasting mode shift from truck to rail in response to construction of the Cross Harbor tunnel are unreasonable and unsupported. As noted above, there is no analysis in the DEIS of the various commodities currently moving by truck, or whether those commodities, particularly perishables, are amenable to movement by rail. There is also no analysis of the projected costs for moving freight by rail if the Project is built, and how that compares to the cost of moving freight by truck.

Moreover, because its assumptions concerning the projected decrease in truck traffic on Hudson River crossings are overstated and its assumptions concerning projected increases in truck traffic East-of-Hudson are understated, the DEIS’s conclusions concerning the purported air quality benefits of the Project are unrealistically high. In fact, more accurate analysis will probably demonstrate a net deterioration in air quality from the Project due to the significant increases in East-of-Hudson truck traffic it will generate.

The DEIS also vastly understates the costs of the Project. For example, the estimates of capital costs for the Single and Double Tunnel alternatives fail to include all Project components, such as associated rail infrastructure improvements, the massive storage facility proposed as part of the Double Tunnel alternative, and various other necessary components. The DEIS also fails to accurately factor in the costs associated with (i) the forced relocation of numerous businesses if the Project is built, (ii) adverse impacts on quality of life (such as local increases in traffic congestion), (iii) health care costs associated with increased local air pollution, and (iv) the loss of natural resources, such as the proposed filling of Maspeth and Newtown creeks as part of the Double Tunnel Alternative.

V. Proposed Maspeth Yards
The DEIS acknowledges that the areas outside the former Phelps Dodge property but within the proposed West Maspeth Yard (one hundred forty acres) have extensive regulatory listings related to soil and groundwater contamination. Phase II investigation reports were reviewed for the Phelps Dodge portion of the site, however, “no other soil or groundwater sampling data” for the Outside Areas were reviewed. Conclusions regarding potential contaminant levels at the Outside Areas were not discussed.

The January 2003, NYSDEC Record of Decision (ROD) of the Phelps Dodge Site concluded that the effect on the surrounding community would be far more negative if the contaminated soils were excavated as opposed to being capped (the remedy). The entire 140 additional acres are currently capped. However, a rail yard can’t be capped. Therefore, extensive excavation and soil remediation after demolition of existing facilities as well as 6,000 feet of Newtown Creek frontage for groundwater treatment would be necessary costing an additional 2 billion dollars. Airborne contamination from dust and further contamination of groundwater from extensive disturbance of the soil was not acceptable to NYSDEC. The proposed West Maspeth Yard would encompass an area 6 times larger than the Phelps Dodge portion of the proposed West Maspeth Yard. Since the entire area of West Maspeth has the same heavy metal content in the soil and shallow groundwater conditions as exists on the Phelps Dodge Site (all presently capped by existing buildings) the entire area that would be demolished and excavated would create a health and safety condition that would be contrary to protecting the health and safety of the general public. The Draft EIS also fails to include the Two Billion dollars that would be required for this cleanup including the groundwater treatment that would be needed. The Draft EIS also fails to include the 6 billion dollars that would be needed to build the 42 acre, 200 foot high building (which would be the largest building on the east coast). The Study states that this building will be designed in the future and the Draft EIS does not study the environmental impacts of this building if it is built. The effect of not studying these environmental impacts are a fatal flaw in the DEIS. The former Phelps Dodge Site is only 25 of the 160 acres required for the proposed Maspeth Rail Yards.

In summary, the DEIS includes assumptions that artificially inflate the projected benefits of the project, in terms of decreased traffic congestion, better air quality, and more efficient movement of freight. At the same time, the DEIS significantly underestimates the costs of the project, both in terms of direct capital costs and indirect costs of business relocations, quality of life impacts, heath care, and loss of natural resources. A more accurate cost/benefit analysis would reveal that the project is a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that will cause significant and long-lasting adverse economic and environmental impacts, while having little or no beneficial impacts.

The writer, Christopher Amato, is an Environmental Attorney based in Albany.

Cross Harbor Just Won’t Work
1. The study does not clearly identify why people would change back to rail from truck. The private benefit cost analysis totally misleading.
2. The rail lines servicing New York on the New York side don’t have the vertical clearances needed. This would create major disruptions to the local community.
3. The study specifically recognizes that the CSX traffic coming down from Selkirk will not be diverted through the tunnel (Currently all rail coming to NYC) which begs the questions about calculating the number of cars that will go through the tunnel, if any.
4. CSX has an exclusive freight line which comes down from the Bronx near the Triborough. In the Bronx, CSX has yards in Oak Point, Hunts Point and near the Harlem River. They have access to the Major Deegan, the Bruckner and the Cross Bronx. Why aren’t these yards being expanded and used for intermodal facilities? Additionally, they already have switching capabilities.
5. One large intermodal yard would place massive amounts of trucks on the highway in the local neighborhood. Disbursing that would be a much better idea; that is, having several small intermodal yards including at least one on Long Island. Placing all of this traffic in Maspeth will burden its highways and local roads with an incredible amount of traffic (i.e.,16,000 additional trucks a day).