September 7 was a busy day for New York City Transit (NYCT), the branch of the MTA that runs the city’s buses. One bus depot, in an industrial area downtown on Hudson Street, closed, while another, in a densely populated neighborhood in East Harlem, reopened.
The return of the Harlem depot to East 100th Street, after five years of reconstruction, was, to say the least, unwelcome. Outraged residents cited health hazards posed by buses spewing diesel exhaust, and protested that six of the borough’s seven depots are now in northern Manhattan, where asthma rates soar above the city average.
Bus depots are one of many environmental culprits, along with lead and sewage treatment facilities, that contribute to health problems in the area. A study released by the EPA in September 2002 concluded that diesel fuel is “a chronic respiratory hazard” and “likely to be carcinogenic to humans by inhalation.” In an ongoing study conducted by the Harlem Hospital Center and Harlem Children’s Zone, startled researchers have found that 28 percent of the kids tested in Harlem suffer from asthma, one of the highest rates ever documented. (Though not believed to cause asthma, diesel fuel’s fine particles irritate lungs and trigger asthma attacks.)
In 2000, the nonprofit West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), founded in 1988 to combat environmental racism, filed a complaint against the MTA with the US Department of Transportation (DOT). Citing the disproportionate impact of the bus depots on communities of color, WE ACT charged the agency with violating the civil rights of northern Manhattan residents. The MTA responded that site choices are based on “legitimate business necessities” such as property value, zoning and available space.
WE ACT fired back with a map suggesting alternative locations for bus depots, which shows that empty lots abound in suitably zoned areas in certain parts of midtown. (Current plans for lower Manhattan redevelopment even include a depot for commercial charter and tour buses; WE ACT advocates turning that space over for public transportation use.)
WE ACT’s complaint is currently under investigation. The DOT will not release any information on the pending case, but WE ACT hopes for a settlement as early as this fall. They believe the likeliest outcome is conflict mediation, which would entail meetings between community members and the MTA. Such negotiations would probably not result in the closing of any depots, but could lead to measures to temper their impact.
Beyond the health hazards, the presence of bus depots degrades everyday life in smaller ways. Community members voice concern about the constant noise and parking problems. Former bus driver Augustine Melendez, who lives near the 126th Street depot, says the air and noise pollution worsen in the winter, when the buses need to warm up before their routes. “Any time the weather goes below 32 degrees, they start the buses at about 1, 1:30 in the morning.” And of course, a large bus depot plopped in the middle of the neighborhood is a blot on the landscape no affluent community would tolerate. As Harlem Councilman Philip Reed, who noted that the new depot not only reopened but also doubled in height, said, “It tends to loom as one of the pre-eminent sites in the neighborhood.”
Under the leadership of Councilman Reed, residents near the 100th Street depot have held numerous protests over the past few years, culminating in a high-profile demonstration on September 6 that drew supporters including New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer. Although the protests failed to defeat plans for the depot, Reed chalks up certain concessions from the MTA, such as the addition of a roof onto the building, to the “great amount of clamor” raised by the community. That clamor has been spreading to other affected neighborhoods, where residents have begun to organize with the goal of forming a coalition.
In addition to more equitable distribution of the depots, activists are urging the use of cleaner fuels. This goal has met with more success. The MTA says that in response to a gubernatorial directive, it has completely phased in the use of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, and purchased 300 compressed-natural-gas (CNG) buses in New York City. But activists argue that full conversion to CNG buses is critical–there are 4,600 buses in the city’s fleet–and are calling on the MTA to phase out diesel fuel entirely.
Meanwhile, the uptown communities are hashing out their agendas. For now, the depots seem unlikely to close, and activists are focusing on more achievable goals. They want anti-idling laws–which prohibit buses from standing with their engines running on the street–to be enforced. They want ventilation systems installed at the bus depots. They want to establish an advisory board made up of community leaders to communicate directly with the MTA, which residents have found reluctant to notify, let alone consult, them about decisions.
At a recent meeting near the 126th Street depot, residents discussed such demands as community health benefits and an air-monitoring program. The meeting demonstrated the residents’ resolve as well as the hurdles they face. One woman arrived late. “I was pumping myself,” she explained, and left soon after to take her asthmatic daughter to the hospital. An asthma attack also forced the member taking minutes to leave the meeting early.