A plan to raise the Bayonne Bridge that is expected to dramatically increase the amount of cargo traffic into Port Newark has won the support of labor organizations, shippers and elected officials who believe the thousands of additional tons of goods will be a huge boost to the region’s economy.
But environmental and social justice activists, while not flatly opposed to the project, say that more must be done to mitigate the potential environmental impact in Newark, a city where the rates of respiratory illness are far higher than the state average. Activists also want to see agreements with the Port Authority that will place more Newarkers in port jobs.
Both sides were present at a hearing attended by a few hundred people at the LeRoy Smith Public Safety Building Wednesday night to weigh in on a plan proposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Overseeing the hearing were representatives from the United States Coast Guard, which must sign off on the project. In making its decision, the Coast Guard will consider the testimony gathered during the Newark hearing and at other hearings held in Staten Island and Bayonne earlier this month. the Coast Guard is expected to make its decision by May 24.
Built in 1931, the span -- graced by a single, distinctive arch -- connects Bayonne and Staten Island, rising 151 feet above the Kill Van Kull, a shipping channel used by vessels bound for Port Newark. Modern, and larger, container vessels, however, sit too high above the waterline to fit beneath the bridge, so the Port Authority hopes to win approval to raise the roadway to 215 feet, allowing for more traffic.
Proponents say the plan will bring thousands of jobs to the region and is necessary if Newark is to remain home to the busiest port on the East Coast. If the project is not approved, supporters fear vessel traffic may be diverted to other eastern ports able to accommodate the new generation of gigantic “Panamax” ships, which are designed to pass through an expanded Panama Canal. The Port Authority estimates the project will yield $169 million a year in “national economic development benefits,” the agency said in a statement.
“A lot of us feel this is the most critical infrastructure project of the century,” said Joseph McNamara of the New Jersey Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. The port is “an integral part of the economic engine that is the New York-New Jersey area. This is critical and has to move forward.”
Other labor leaders as well as members of several unions, including Newark residents who belong to International Laborers Local 472, also spoke up in favor of the bridge plan Wednesday, saying it will bring much needed jobs to a city where unemployment has historically been higher than the state average. Proponents also said the project is an indirect boon to the environment, with larger ships resulting in fewer journeys and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Local elected officials, including state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Mayor Cory Booker, also expressed support for the project -- albeit with important caveats.
“Our support for the project presumes that the Port Authority will increase and expand upon current efforts to work with the city of Newark and Newark-based community groups on reducing the air-quality impacts to our neighborhoods from existing and prospective truck and ocean vehicle emissions as well as ensuring that Newark residents have equitable access to jobs...,” Booker said in a statement submitted by a representative.
Several speakers Wednesday, however, said those caveats are being ignored.
Those speakers said an impact study prepared by the Port Authority -- which states that the project would “not result in any significant adverse effects” -- underestimates the increase in truck traffic to the port, reckoned to be an additional 50 vehicles a day. Speakers also demanded a more thorough environmental impact study to examine the effects increased vehicle emissions will have on residents’ health, especially the city’s youth.
“One in four Newark children have asthma,” said Kim Gaddy, of the city’s environmental commission. “A child in Newark is more likely to die of asthma than murder, even though that’s what you read about in the papers.”
The Port Authority has instituted a “clean trucks” program that provides a combination grant and low-interest loan so operators can purchase low-emission vehicles. As of Wednesday, nearly 400 trucks have been purchased through the program, which ends next month, a Port Authority spokesperson said Wednesday.
Critics, however, say the program has done little to reduce harmful emissions and puts the onus on low-paid independent truckers instead of the companies that employ them.
Speakers also sought more robust assurances that Newarkers would be candidates for the jobs the expanded port traffic is expected to bring.
“The people who are going to deal with the burdens of this project are not going to profit from this project,” said Emily Turonis of the Ironbound Community Corp.
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