The plan to transform one of New York City’s dirtiest freeways into green space

It’s an appalling freeway. It’s loud, congested, and contributes to some of the nation’s highest asthma rates.

Ma ora, after years of organizing from community groups and state lawmakers, there’s federal funding to develop a plan: cover portions of the highway with green space and reconnect neighborhoods separated by the structure.

Six lanes wide, the Cross Bronx Expressway is one of the busiest and most polluting freeways in New York City. Residents and activists have long described it as a form of environmental racism that effectively splits the Bronx in two. Adesso the Department of Transportation has allocated $2m for a feasibility study and to come up with the plan for capping the expressway. The funding for the estimated $1bn project would come from the recently passed infrastructure package.

“This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity that has the potential of completely transforming the Bronx,” said Nilka Martell, founder of the community group Loving the Bronx.

The funding will allow state and city officials to devise a community-driven plan to cap parts of the 6.5-mile expressway with structures that could reduce traffic noise and contain green space, pedestrian walkways and air filtration systems. The researchers aim to target two miles of the highway that are below ground, converting them into tunnels.

“The Cross Bronx has long been a structure of environmental racism,” said the US representative Ritchie Torres. “We have as good of an opportunity as any to reverse the legacy of Robert Moses in the South Bronx.”

Devised by Moses and built between 1948 e 1972, the expressway produces noise and air pollution that puts roughly 250,000 people living in the South Bronx at the highest risk for asthma in the country.

“Everyone here knows a person who has asthma,” said Jasmine Peña, as her classmate Juan Grullon nodded in agreement.

They, along with others at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom high school, put together prototypes of the Cross Bronx cap as part of an 11th grade project. Grullon said “the idea that we gain agency in our community” resonated with their peers and teachers.

Community organizers and local legislators have been advocating for the capping initiative for years, with the state assemblymember Karines Reyes sending a letter to the US transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, in April. In a recent White House briefing, Buttigieg spoke about the racist legacy of the Bronx highway.

At Columbia University, another group of students are working on developing prototypes for the expressway cap. “The Bronx has been othered so many times,” said Stephanie McMorran, a third-year architecture master’s student whose mother grew up in the South Bronx. The course is taught by Peter Muennig, who has been studying the Cross Bronx capping since 2017.

“I spent my whole life writing papers and to see something happen is really powerful,” Muennig said.

Muennig and his team researched the cost effectiveness of capping the Cross Bronx, and by their estimates, it would save each resident living close to the highway roughly $317 in future health costs and would gain about a month and half of life lived in perfect health.

According to Muennig, one of the ways that the project could mitigate pollution is through installing air purifiers along the capped area. These systems are already used in the city, such as in the Hudson tunnel, where pipes filter vehicle exhaust.

Another solution would be to incorporate materials – like carbon fibers and titanium dioxide coating that can trap toxic chemicals like nitrous oxide. Calcestruzzo, fiberglass and other porous materials could help reduce traffic noise.

The actual design and the materials to build the cap depend on the results of the feasibility study.

“This project is going to reconnect people,” Muennig added. He recalled meeting a resident who lives across the road from her aunt but rarely gets to see her. “Even though she’s right there, there’s no way to get across,” Muennig said.

The same is true for Martell. She grew up four blocks away from a friend from school. But her parents wouldn’t let Martell visit her friend from the opposite side of the expressway.

The perception of distance creates a mental barrier, residents say, when in reality it’s the highway, not the distance, that divides them.

“You can live in New York your whole life, and just accept the living environment for what it is and not question it,” Martell said. “But in this case, the city followed a plan that strategically built the highway there, to keep people out and leave neighborhoods severed. To me that is environmental racism.”

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