Questions Remain on Cornell’s Commitment On Barging vs Trucking

by Briana Warsing

With weather predictions in mind, Cornell NYC Tech cancelled the scheduled groundbreaking for its Roosevelt Island campus this week – a step that, when taken, will mark the start of construction.

To date, all the work on the site south of the Queensboro Bridge has been demolition, with most of the debris removed by barge, limiting the number of trucks using Main Street. But, according to the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC), the group advocating for Island organizations and residents, there are still unresolved issues of how heavy the future truck traffic will be – how many trucks we should expect and when we should expect them.

Scheduling Trucks

At a Cornell Town Hall Meeting in December, Roosevelt Island Disabled Association President Jim Bates raised the issue: “We have a lot of kids on the Island. They all cross the street many times a day, and they don’t look both ways. We have one [crossing guard] trying to monitor that. But not all children cross the street where the [crossing guard] is. Between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning, you have 700 or 800 kids coming up and down Main Street.”

For Cornell, construction coordinator Andrew Winters answered with a restatement of planned construction hours – 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. He said that Cornell is trying to work with its builders to reduce the number of trucks. Winters spoke of a general intent to reduce truck trips, but did not offer to discuss Bates’ suggestion to pay for an additional crossing guard or explain why a set schedule could not be coordinated with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.

The WIRE followed up. Through Jeremy Soffin and Jovanna Rizzo at political public relations firm BerlinRosen, Winters said, “We have not yet worked out a detailed schedule for the timing of deliveries. We will take community concerns into account as we work with our builders to minimize the impact of truck trips on the community. As for residents staying off Main Street, during the peak quarter of truck deliveries (Q3 2015) with an average of 67 trucks per day, that works out to an average of one truck every eight minutes during a nine-hour day, before a reduction for barging is factored in.”

But questions remain. RICC Co-Chair Judy Buck says that her organization has raised Bates’ question before, but Cornell has never committed to an answer.

Cornell’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) says, “Material deliveries to the site [will] be regimented and scheduled. Because of the level of construction activity involved..., unscheduled or haphazard deliveries would not be allowed.” It appears, then, that a rigid schedule will be followed. As the FEIS puts it:

• “During excavation, each delivery truck would be assigned a specific block of time during which it must arrive on the site. If a truck is late for its turn, it would be accommodated if possible, but if not, the truck would be assigned to a later time.”

• “A similar regimen would be instituted for concrete deliveries, but the schedule would be stricter.”

• “During the finishing of the building interiors, individual deliveries would be scheduled to the maximum extent possible.”

• “The available time for subcontractors’ use of the hoists would be tightly scheduled. Each trade, such as the drywall subcontractor, would be assigned a specific time to have its materials delivered and hoisted onto the building.”

The FEIS goes into great detail about many different parts of the process. One of them is the schedule. It’s hard to imagine, based on the planning that is memorialized in the FEIS, and has been kept so far, to Cornell’s credit, that they have not ascertained which trucks are coming at what time.

How Many Trucks?

At the December Town Hall session, Buck asked the other key question: How many vehicles will be on Main Street every day?

She used a table (20-4) in the FEIS to cite numbers as high as 376 trips a day in the first quarter of 2015 – that is, now. She added that, by the fourth quarter of 2015 (next winter), the FEIS says there will be 1,092 trips per day.

Winters said, “I will have to look into those numbers. They don’t sound right to me. There are two types of vehicles. There are delivery vehicles and then there are construction worker and management vehicles. The FEIS gives numbers for both of these. Cars are capped at 100, period. Those numbers sound very high.”

As to why Andrew Winters doesn’t know the numbers cold, Buck told The WIRE, “Nobody looks at this stuff [the FEIS] except us.” But she also explained that responses like this have been typical. She says, “We have been given zero detail, so we keep asking.”

Through BerlinRosen, Winters got back to The WIRE regarding that question. He breaks down the question using a different part of the FEIS. “The busiest quarter for trucks is anticipated to be Q3 [July-September] of 2015, which was projected in the FEIS (Table 20-3) to have an average of 67 trucks per day. Each truck makes two trips on Main Street (to the site, and away from the site), so that’s a maximum daily average of 134 truck trips (2 x 67).”

This number is much lower than the one cited by Buck, because hers includes all vehicles – both trucks and construction workers driving their cars to work. Winters’ figure covers only construction vehicles.

The number of workers on site is predicted to be highest in the fourth quarter of this year [October-December] – 839 shown in a table identified as 20-3. In another table, that translates to Buck’s number – 1,092 vehicle trips per day.

According to Winters, “The FEIS estimates that there will be a maximum daily parking demand of up to 430 spaces. However, it goes on to note that there will only be up to 100 parking spaces provided on site, and no long-term parking on the street, so the remaining 330 spaces would be accommodated at Motorgate, which has the capacity to do so.”

He says, “We have written this 100-space restriction into all of our contracts, so we do not anticipate more than 100 worker-vehicles traveling down Main Street each day to the Cornell project site; the majority (more than 75%) would be going to Motorgate, and therefore not traversing the streets of Roosevelt Island.”

Winters says this represents a net reduction in daily vehicles on Main Street. He says, “The maximum trips we would expect to see on Main Street in a single day would be 67 trucks and 100 cars heading to the site, and the same number leaving the site. Given the number of daily vehicles parked at the former Goldwater Hospital (in excess of 300), this represents a net reduction in daily vehicles on Main Street.”

What RICC Wants

Buck says RICC wants specifics. The numbers in the FEIS are worst-case numbers, and RICC wants the actual numbers. Buck says, “We need to know on a continual basis what to expect... What might we expect and when? – written in English. We need to be able to bring trucking news to the community.”

She acknowledges that “There are going to be changes here. We’re not going to stop Cornell from building, but we have to make it as humane as possible, and do everything we can to direct Cornell to do the right thing. There is a right thing, and I think Andrew Winters is aware of that.”

Air Pollution

About this upcoming period in Roosevelt Island history, RICC Board Co-Chairs Judy Buck and Ellen Polivy predict, “There will be trucks. There will be construction-related SUVs and there will be cars at an extremely high level in the fourth quarter of 2015. There will be a new intensity of noise and congestion. But for many residents, the greatest fear is that there will be increased air pollution.”

One of the reasons that RICC wants to know what to expect about trucking is to help the community protect itself. Buck says, “Air pollution is the terrible twin of all of these trucks. We need an expert to measure air pollution where it’s going to be the worst. This is about protection. We want to guard the wellbeing of the community, particularly the most vulnerable.”

The most vulnerable to health impacts stemming from air pollution are children, older adults, people who are active outdoors, and people with heart or lung disease.

RICC has been asking for air quality monitoring on Main Street since its earliest days, but monitoring is limited to the construction site. RICC has a meeting with RIOC scheduled to discuss pollution concerns. The organizations hopes to partner with the Roosevelt Island Residents Association to get expert advice.

One problem is that not all trucks on the Island are Cornell trucks, or attributable to the campus construction. Buck says, “We’re going to be facing Cornell trucks, Hudson/Related trucks, plus our usual trucks. We [Islanders] are going to be getting the brunt of it. The deck is badly stacked, but we can get some standards and some transparency [from Cornell]. We’re not concerned with Hudson/Related [trucking], but I hope someone is.”

State of RICC

Buck thinks some new blood on RICC might help generate some new ideas. She says, “I hope we get new members. We got two new board members recently (Erin Olavesen of the PTA and Steven White of RIRA). I want this to become a concern where more younger people like them are drawn in and start to talk about it with other younger people.”

She doesn’t feel that the community at large understands the issues. She says, “The assumption is, It’s Cornell, it’s got to be good. I think there’s a certain trust and also a certain laziness. These issues are not simple. The more you learn, the more complex they become.” Buck feels its important for the community to be fully aware, and explains, “We have to be alert. I don’t know how much we can change. But the more that people understand, the better shape we’ll be in.”

What about Barging?

Cornell used barging for almost all of the demolition. Winters said, “Cornell is undertaking the most voluntary use of barging in United States history.” Cornell had promised a 40% reduction in truck trips, overall, but that 40% may have been covered during demolition. Buck says, “As construction begins, I don’t think we’re going to be as happy. There are going to be a lot of trucks. The question is – How many?

Access to the Island by truck requires use of the Roosevelt Island Bridge, which has a 36-ton gross vehicle weight restriction. All trucks used for construction of the project have to meet this weight requirement. Anything heavier than that must be transported by barge.

A Community and Construction Task Force Meeting that was to be held this week, cancelled based on anticipated weather, was to address some of the trucking and air quality concerns. The meeting will be rescheduled. According to RICC Co-Chairs Buck and Polivy, Winters will present an update on the number of diesel trucks estimated to use Main Street for this first phase of the build, the corporate co-location building, estimated at 36 months.

But, say Buck and Polivy, “Naturally, we push for barging.”

Tags: Cornell construction

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