Buses and Foes


East Harlem residents continue to oppose the projected renovation and reopening of a bus depot in a community with the city’s highest asthma hospitalization rate.

The city council’s transportation committee heard arguments at the end of March from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and community and environmental organizations about the renovation and reuse of the 100th Street bus depot on Lexington Avenue, which closed in March 1998.

Millard Seay, senior vice president of the MTA’s New York City Transit (NYCT) Department of Buses, testified that the $90 million renovation is part of a 1993 bus-depot plan to allow the MTA to eventually close the Hudson and Amsterdam depots in lower and upper Manhattan respectively.

According to Seay, the 100th Street depot will consist of four floors, totaling approximately 300,000 square feet. Two of the floors will be used exclusively to house buses and will eliminate the need for cold-weather idling outside the facility, which releases noxious fumes. (Seay said that the New York Transit bus fleet accounts for only .2 percent of particulate emissions.) Renovation will increase the depot’s capacity by 50 percent, allowing space for 133 new, articulated buses.

Councilmember Philip Reed, who requested the hearing, opposes the bus depot because his constituents believe the resultant air pollution will contribute to an increase in the community’s already high asthma rate. Bill Perkins, councilmember for Manhattan’s 9th District, argued that East Harlem residents “are experiencing environmental racism.” Another councilmember, Kathryn E. Freed, questioned the MTA’s resistance to investing in compressed natural gas (CNG) technology. She said that the MTA claims that CNG bus depots are dangerous because they have a history of explosions caused by poor ventilation. Freed cited the MTA Long Island bus division’s continued use of CNG bus depots. “As far as I know, there are no known problems with CNG technology in the Long Island bus division,” she said.

Margarita Lopez, a Manhattan councilmember, said that the MTA should convert the 100th Street bus depot into a CNG facility if it will not shut it down. Committee chair Noach Dear asked, “How can the MTA build this depot in good conscience?”

Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, pointed out that a majority of the MTA’s Manhattan bus depots are located in low-income areas and communities of color. She said East Harlem residents who live near the depot have complained about black soot on their windows. “The MTA may not be a major polluter [in the city] but is a major polluter in Manhattan,” Shepard said, after saying the agency should have done an environmental-impact statement to assess possible hazards to the community.

Steve Weber of the Regional Plan Association said the transportation agency should adopt a “no new diesel” buses policy. “A no-diesel depot policy is the logical and necessary companion to phasing out diesel buses.

“We, therefore, have called upon the New York City Transit to make all of their depot construction CNG-compatible and have further called upon them to retrofit their existing depots to accommodate CNG buses.”

Michael McCally, M.D., vice-chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explained that the diesel exhaust from the depot will deteriorate the respiratory health of East Harlem. McCally said that diesel exhaust is a toxic lung irritant capable of triggering asthma attacks. He stated that children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to diesel exhaust. McCally cited a 1999 Mount Sinai study that shows East Harlem has an asthma hospitalization rate almost five times higher than the city’s average. David Givens, chair of Community Board 11 in Manhattan, said that the board is against the depot. “The MTA is not a good neighbor. [East Harlem residents] are environmentally under assault by the MTA.”

Joanna Underwood, president of INFORM, Inc., a national environmental research organization based in New York City, blasted the MTA for its reluctance to use CNG technology: “It is absolutely unconscionable for the president of the Transit Authority to be proposing to worsen the East Harlem community’s air pollution conditions when an alternative to diesel buses is readily available.” She said that the MTA has one of the worst records in the nation for converting to CNG technology.

A final decision has not been made and another hearing will be scheduled to determine if the issue should be brought before the full City Council. Dear expressed his support for the East Harlem community. Questioning the MTA’s inadequate planning, he said, “This is not an issue [just] for Harlem, but for the city as well.”