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January 6th, 2005

SoHo Deserves Better: a neighborhood choking in pollution

by Carlos Manzano

SoHo is recognized around the world as a microcosm of creative energy contained within a city renowned for this same quality. However, the SoHo of today is quite a changed neighborhood from thirty years ago. Much of this evolution has been stunningly positive – the area thrives with an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops, businesses and hotels, which makes it a must-see for tourists, as well as a destination for residents citywide.

Yet 1986 marks the year in which another, less welcomed change descended upon the narrow streets of SoHo: the elimination of the eastbound toll on the Verrazano Bridge. While achieving the goal of reducing the number of trucks idling in our least populated borough, it has also been blamed for a drastic traffic increase in Manhattan, our most densely populated borough, particularly in SoHo.

In the almost two decades since this change, truckers with time to spare and the will to avoid the one-way toll on the Verrazano, often choose to enter the city via Staten Island, which is free. They exit via the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels or the George Washington Bridge, all of which are free in the westbound direction. This is the only route by which one can enter the city from New Jersey and return to it without paying a toll.

Complaints emerged almost immediately as SoHo residents noticed bumper-to-bumper traffic, increased road wear and tear, and escalating air and noise pollution.

Numerous proposals to create a more viable arrangement have been brought forth over the years. As recently as 2001, citing congestion, safety issues and spikes in air pollution in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, legislation was brought before Congress that would reinstate two-way tolls on the Verrazano Bridge as well as create high-speed EZ-Pass lanes. Reports that were presented at the time of this legislation further stated that the losses to MTA Bridges and Tunnels from one-way tolls were approximately $10 million annually. Proposals such as these are often accompanied by (often controversial) calls to toll East River crossings, in order to reduce all incentives for drivers to seek alternative routes as cost-saving measures.

Despite the recommendations of traffic experts, ongoing pressure from citizen groups and watchdogs like Transportation Alternatives, no changes have been made to date. Understandably, the issue is politically sensitive, particularly to our recent Republican mayors who rely heavily on Staten Island support in election years.

Because the Verrazano Bridge is under federal oversight, we must ultimately appeal to our leaders in Washington, as well as to their counterparts in Albany. With such broad support for changes that would alleviate some of the burdensome SoHo traffic, it is lack of political will that has maintained this undesirable status quo for eighteen years. Looking forward, it is our responsibility to demand innovative leadership from our elected officials. We must insist that they work together with, not against, their colleagues to find solutions that will benefit the city as a whole, not merely shift traffic from one neighborhood to another – while the elimination of the Verrazano toll is not the only cause of traffic congestion, we must remember that SoHo is not the only neighborhood affected by traffic.

As elected officials count the damage in uncollected dollars, SoHo residents measure it, sadly, in noise and dirty air and in rising asthma cases. Certainly, we can agree that this is no way to treat one of the city’s cultural and architectural treasures. Now, I ask you, what are we going to do about it?

Carlos Manzano

Editor’s Note: Carlos Manzano is a State Committeeman and currently is running for the office of Borough President of Manhattan in 2005.

Filed Under: Articles | New York | Politics

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