Written and Submitted by Leon Tulton An East Harlem bus depot that reopened after five years of renovation was greeted by residents Sunday opposing the facility's presence in their community.
Donning filter masks and carrying signs with statements such as "No More Buses", "Queremos Aire Limpio (We Want Clean Air)", and "Gov. Pataki: Have A Heart", protesters expressed their outrage to the reopening of the 100th Street bus depot. The demonstrators wore filter masks to symbolize their concern about the pollution emitted from the buses. Shouts of protests such as "What do we want? Clean air! When do we want it? Now!" and "Hey hey! Ho ho! This bus depot has got to go!" filled the air as staff from the bus depot watched through the closed gated entrance across the street.
Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE-ACT), a community-based environmental organization, explained the reason for coordinating the demonstration stating, "We organized the protest to keep the issue [of the bus depot] alive, to call on the governor to get the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] to begin to address the public health, civil rights, and environmental concerns [of Harlem residents]." She explained that residents are concerned with quality of life problems such as excessive noise, light, and pollution that will be produced from the 24-hour operating facility. Shepard stated that a coalition of 12 local environmental groups and four state legislators signed a letter to Governor George Pataki last week to pressure the MTA to be more accountable to the community's concerns.
According to the MTA's website, the state transportation agency is governed by a 17-member board. Six members are appointed by the governor, with four recommended by New York City's mayor and one each by the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties (the members representing the latter four cast one collective vote). Pataki's majority appointees include Peter Kalikow, the chair of the MTA board.
Shepard questioned the MTA's decision to reopen the 100th Street bus station in a residential area while closing down the Hudson depot, located in a non-residential area on 16th Street. She stated that the reasons for the Hudson depot closure were "not business necessities, they're political reasons." Shepard added that the MTA has a history of placing a disproportionate amount of buses in communities above 96th Street, many of which are mostly low income and/or minority. She cited that the MTA moved buses from the Walnut depot in the Bronx to Northern Manhattan in 1998 because the state transportation agency sold the facility to the New York Post.
Elected officials were present at the demonstration in support of the East Harlem community. Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Field described the MTA's action as "unconscionable" and questioned the reason six of Manhattan's seven bus depots are located in Northern Manhattan. "Here we are today, with government opening a facility, a bus depot, where diesel fuel will be used," she said. "We want to stop asthma from increasing in this community."
East Harlem has the highest children asthma hospitalization rates in New York City. Exposure to diesel exhaust is harmful to human health because tiny particles in the pollutant can irritate the lungs and trigger an asthma attacks in asthmatics, especially in children.
NYS Senator Olga Mendez of the 28th State Senate District also commented about the high concentration of bus depots in Northern Manhattan. "This is the greatest example of public policy discrimination that ever existed," she said. The state senator stated that her office will put pressure on the MTA to not close down the Hudson bus depot and invest in the establishment of air monitors on and near the 100th Street bus depot to determine if the facility's presence is having an adverse effect on the community's air quality.
East Harlem residents also blasted the presence of the bus depot. Gloria Quinones described the facility as "a monster" because it's an enormous entity that breathes out toxic fumes. "It angers me that they [MTA] got away with building this [bus depot]." Gwen Goodwin, who lives across the street from the bus depot and founder of East Harlem Bus Stop, a community organization, told the crowd that they must continue the fight against the MTA. "The MTA is not coming our way," Goodwin said, manipulating the agency's "Going Your Way" ad campaign slogan to make her point. "We're not going to let the MTA gang come into our neighborhood and murder our children." Melissa Mark Viverito, a resident and Democratic challenger for the 8th City Council district seat, explained that the MTA should look at non-residential industrial areas outside Manhattan to house their buses instead of communities like East Harlem. "There's no need to continue to dump on this community which is a disenfranchised community. It [bus depot] could have been placed elsewhere," Viverito said. "What's at stake here is the health of a community and that's more important and should outweigh anything else."
The MTA was contacted to respond to protesters' allegations that the bus facility would deteriorate the area's quality of life. In a statement released by Charles Seaton, a representative from the transportation agency, it stated that "the 100th Street Depot is a state-of-the-art bus maintenance and storage facility designed to have as little impact as possible on the surrounding community, far less impact, in fact, than the cramped, 108-year-old streetcar barn it replaces." It also stated that the MTA's New York City Transit (NYCT) division has been addressing environmental concerns, such as bus emissions, by introducing and perfecting new technologies. These technologies include hybrid-electric propulsion, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), advanced exhaust filter devices, and the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. NYCT claims that the combined use of the aforementioned technologies has benefited the city's environment by making bus exhaust 65 percent cleaner. "More than 2.5 million daily riders depend on MTA New York City Transit buses," the statement said. "It is a reality of life that these vehicles must be stored and maintained in locations convenient to the routes and customers they serve."
However, Swati Prakash, WE-ACT's environmental health director, strongly disagreed with the MTA. "If depots are meant to be close to the customers they serve, why are there no depots downtown and only one in Midtown?" Prakash said. She also criticized the transportation agency's claim that ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel is cleaner. "The new diesel buses may be less dirty, but they are still emitting particles that people with asthma are extremely susceptible to, and making all the buses less dirty does nothing to address the disproportionate impact we're talking about," Prakash said. "These buses are also still not as clean as Compressed Natural Gas buses, and the MTA's commitment to CNG has been weak."