Can 15,000 trucks be good neighbors?

Nearly a year and a half into negotiations for a long-term lease, the city and the wholesalers’ cooperative that runs Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market have yet to agree on the future of the hub, which supplies three-fifths of New York City’s fruits and vegetables.

Hanging in the balance is not only the fate of the market, which has threatened to move to New Jersey, but also a decade of plans developed by the city and local leaders to make the market a better neighbor if it does remain in the Bronx.

Area residents have held their breath for years for a solution to the scourge of trucks that rumble through their neighborhood — by the city’s estimates, 15,000 times a day. En route to the produce market and its neighbors, the Hunts Point Cooperative Meat Market, New Fulton Fish Market, and a handful of independent wholesalers, the rigs pose a constant threat to pedestrians and contribute to the area’s notoriously high asthma rates. Nearly 60 percent of South Bronx residents surveyed by the city Department of Health reported visiting an emergency room at least once in 2010 because of asthma.

Because of a space crunch, much of the produce at Hunts Point is chilled in diesel-engine trailers powered 24/7. Photo: Allison Maier

A decade ago, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff convened a Hunts Point Task Force to bring the 45-year-old market into the 21st century. What to do about the market’s sea of diesel-fueled trucks and their many impacts on the area was a crucial question for the group.

Some of the task force’s recommendations are now wending their way toward reality. This spring, the city is slated to begin converting the 1.25-mile Food Center Drive, the main road that runs by the markets, from a two-way street to a one-way corridor with a new bicycle and pedestrian lane — the first of its kind in the Bronx, according to Economic Development Corporation spokesperson Kyle Sklerov.

Construction of an alternative fueling station equipped with lower-emissions options like compressed natural gas, ethanol and biodiesel is also expected to begin next year, Sklerov said. The plans include a facility capable of converting and retrofitting diesel engines so they can use the alternative fuels.

NYW Food Map

Look up the origins and wholesale price of any item in the Hunts Point produce market on our interactive, seasonal map.

The city and vendors are still working out the exact details of the Hunts Point redevelopment plan, but Sklerov said it could also include new refrigerated warehouses that would replace the diesel-powered truck trailers scattered around the market grounds, which store and chill tons of produce that doesn’t fit in the market’s current facilities. It’s a move that would help reduce emissions in the area, since the trailers idle 24 hours a day.

In all, the city has secured $172.5 million in public funding to pay half the cost of modernizing the produce market and update the area’s transportation system. The other half of the funds would come from the market. But until the lease deal is done, any spending – including a $10 million contract approved by the city this summer for environmental and design work – is on hold.

The Hunts Point plans are not as ambitious as they could have been, say community environmental advocates who are keeping close watch on Hunts Point, and contend the city has forgone more stringent means of addressing traffic and emissions as it works through the delicate negotiations.

Angela Tovar, a community planner for Sustainable South Bronx, noted that the Port of Los Angeles had gone so far as to mandate retrofitting for trucks serving the facility — a move that reduced emissions an estimated 80 percent. Starting in 2008, trucks dated before 1989 were banned from the port. By the beginning of this year, only trucks that met 2007 federal clean truck emissions standards were allowed in.

Trucks, after all, are central to a wholesale merchant’s operations. According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 90 percent of the food and beverage items coming into New York arrive solely by truck.

Josephine Infante, executive director of the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation, said a citywide program would be needed to prompt widespread emissions-reducing upgrades to the trucks traveling through Hunts Point, which are a mix of local vehicles and those that have journeyed cross-country. 

The bottom line, she said, is that trucks are the foundation of the food delivery system and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

“That’s the nature of the business,” she said.

Many of those trucks stray off the highways onto neighborhood streets, like West Farms Road and Whitlock Avenue, on their way to the markets, said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which aims to reduce the number of cars traveling on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut streets.

The nonprofit is one of seven advocacy groups that joined together to form the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, a group that has pushed for traffic reforms in the Hunts Point area. The alliance had sought to persuade the state to remove the underutilized 1.25-mile Sheridan Expressway — which trucks access through neighborhood streets — and replace it with affordable housing and parks, while improving interchanges along the Bruckner Expressway.

With a $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Transportation, the city Department of Transportation and Economic Development Corporation have been considering multiple scenarios to address Hunts Point traffic — including, initially, the possibility of tearing the Sheridan down. But this summer, the city abruptly informed local residents that the teardown option would no longer be on the table, prompting outrage and widespread speculation that fear of losing the Hunts Point vendors influenced the decision.

“It is really disappointing that it was dropped,” Vanterpool said, but noted the alliance is still pushing for other changes in the area, like improving pedestrian access to the Bronx River and local parks, which are cut off from the community by the Sheridan. The group held a town hall meeting in the Bronx this month to discuss recommendations they are planning to take to the city, including ramps that would provide trucks direct access to the Hunts Point markets from the Bruckner Expressway and new parks and pedestrian connections.

With full removal no longer an option, the city’s study will explore either retaining the expressway as it is, or modifying it — perhaps by turning it into a boulevard. In June, the city received a second, $10 million federal grant that will help update rail facilities near the market, theoretically making it it easier to use rail for Hunts Point deliveries.

Infante noted that small improvements are already underway, thanks to federal mandates such as a 2007 emissions standard for truck engines. The EPA also announced last week that it is intensifying standards for soot pollution; communities out of compliance could risk federal transportation funding if their trucks and factories don’t decrease emissions levels by 2020.

Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Transportation launched a five-year program funded through a $24 million federal grant that offers financial incentives for Hunts Point truckers who replace or retrofit diesel trucks to lower emissions. (Think of it as “cash for clunkers,” but for trucks.) The goal is replace up to 500 trucks serving Hunts Point with newer, greener vehicles, according to Department of Transportation spokesperson Scott Gastel. At the moment, he said, almost 100 trucks are making their way through the application process, which takes between 60 and 90 days.

The city’s program is a “step in the right direction,” Tovar said, effective as long as truck owners decide it’s worth taking the plunge. Overall, she says she’s pleased with the ideas for the area coming from the city’s Economic Development Corporation, but is ready to see action.

“I do believe they genuinely have the best interest of the community in mind,” she said. “Now it’s just a matter of implementation.”

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