The DOT Wanted to Speed Up Buses in the Bronx. These Powerful Suburbanites Had Other Plans.
None of the seven leaders who wrote to Mayor Adams opposing the Fordham Road busway live in the Bronx.
2:45 PM EDT on July 6, 2023
Fordham Road in the Bronx is home to New York City's second-busiest bus route, the Bx12. Every day, some 85,000 riders, the majority of whom are women of color, travel the street's five bus routes to travel across the borough. It was also the first street in the city to get bus-only lanes back in 2008, which improved bus speeds by 20 percent.
Those gains have evaporated. Today, drivers of cars and delivery trucks are constantly blocking the bus lane on Fordham Road. As a result, the average speed of the Bx12 is now worse than 40 percent of all other bus routes; it's also late half the time.
This spring, after nearly four years of planning and outreach, the City's Department of Transportation was poised to put a busway on Fordham Road, preventing private cars from using a seven-block stretch of the street altogether. The agency estimated that a busway would have boosted bus speeds by more than 30 percent, and similar busways on 14th Street in Manhattan and Main Street in Flushing have been successful. Bronxites were seemingly on board with the plan: A 2020 survey of residents showed that 70 percent supported a busway, and 79 percent supported changing City streets to make buses faster and more reliable.
But on May 26, a group of the leaders of some of the biggest institutions in the Bronx—Fordham University, Monroe College, SBH Health System, the Fordham Road BID, the Belmont BID, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Bronx Zoo—wrote a letter to Mayor Eric Adams. The letter asked him to intervene on the busway initiative, and expressed alarm that despite the fact that they'd had "countless conversations" with City officials and deputy mayors, there had been "no indication that our concerns were influencing DOT's plans."
"DOT's proposal presents economical, safety, health, and environmental concerns for our organizations, and it does not take many of the community's unique components into consideration," the leaders wrote, citing no data except for a vague reference to the "millions of private passenger vehicles" that people use to travel to their organizations. After quoting statements made by Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and Councilmember Oswald Feliz in opposition to the busway, the seven leaders invited the mayor to "lunch or dinner at your earliest convenience."
Five days later, the DOT indicated that it was dropping plans for a busway, and that it would instead move forward with a scheme that shifts the current bus lane from the curbside lane to the interior. The DOT says this plan would make it easier for trucks to make deliveries and increase bus speeds by 20 percent, though it would still rely on enforcement for keeping drivers out of the bus lane.
A City Hall spokesperson did not answer our questions about the letter, or whether the mayor dined with the group of business leaders, and referred us to the DOT.
"We are committed to improving bus service and supporting businesses across the Bronx," the DOT said in a statement. "We are presenting a refined proposal for upgraded bus priority on Fordham Road to the community this month and continuing to develop designs for offset lanes with their feedback."
Gibson and Feliz did not respond to our requests for comment, nor did Bronx Councilmember Pierina Ana Sanchez, who has in the past expressed support for a busway.
So who are these seven business leaders and institutional heads who were seemingly able to override years of transportation planning and the support of the Bronx's bus riders?
According to public records, all but one live in the suburbs—in New Jersey, Westchester, or Long Island. None reside in the Bronx.
The sole New York City resident who signed the letter is Dr. David Perlstein, the president and CEO of SBH Health System's St. Barnabas Hospital. Perlstein lives in Manhattan, according to campaign finance records. The hospital system declined to comment on the record.
At least one of the signatories to the letter may have access to a personal driver: Jennifer Bernstein, the president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden. "Reporting directly to the CEO, the President’s Office Driver will be responsible for transporting the CEO, Garden officials, and other NYBG constituents to/from appointments, Board meetings, airport, etc." reads a job listing from August of last year.
Campaign finance records show that Bernstein lives in Montclair, New Jersey. Bernstein's salary is not included on the NYBG's most recent tax documents, but her predecessor made $550,000 in annual compensation, or roughly 27 times the median annual income of a Bronx bus commuter. The NYBG did not respond to our requests for comment.
John Calvelli, who signed the letter on behalf of the Bronx Zoo and lives in Westchester, according to public records, earned $465,000 in annual compensation in 2021, which is just 23 times the median annual income of the Bronx's bus riders. A spokesperson for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoo, did not respond to a request for comment.
Richard Davey, the head of New York City transit for the MTA and an alum of several Jesuit institutions, recently expressed disappointment that Fordham University's president, Tania Tetlow, signed on to the letter opposing the busway.
Bob Howe, Fordham's vice president of communications and a special assistant to Tetlow, did not dispute that his boss lives in Westchester. But Howe insisted, without evidence, that a busway would harm the community, and that Fordham was actually looking out for Bronxites.
"Narrowing vehicular access to one lane of three will cause massive traffic, which in turn causes real air pollution, defeating the purpose. Do you really think otherwise?" Howe wrote Hell Gate in an email, though it's not clear which of the DOT's proposals he's referring to. "The proposal actually makes no sense: the important anchor institutions of the Bronx are actually protecting the interests of the Bronx." (Similar concerns were raised in opposition to the busways on 14th Street and Main Street, but have failed to materialize.)
Surveys conducted by the DOT and the Department of Small Business Services have shown that 86 percent of Fordham Road visitors take the bus, while just 15 percent drive. (Most visitors to Arthur Avenue, which boasts the Bronx's Little Italy, don't drive to get there, according to a DOT survey. Most on Arthur Avenue supported a busway on Fordham Road.)
The other educational leader who signed the letter is Marc Jerome, the president of the for-profit Monroe College. Public records show that Jerome lives in New Jersey; he did not respond to our requests for comment.
The heads of the Fordham Road BID and the Belmont BID—David Rose and Peter Madonia, a former chief of staff to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, respectively—did not respond to our requests for comment; Rose lives in Long Island and Madonia in Westchester, according to public records.
Dart Westphal, who has been an environmental organizer in the Bronx for more than 30 years with the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, said that the signatories to the letter view their institutions as "the most important things" in the Bronx, and that the busway represented an inconvenience to their everyday lives.
"I think the response to the [busway] is like, I'm not taking the bus because it's gonna take forever. The bus is going four miles an hour. We're not doing that, " Westphal told Hell Gate. "And I'm not talking for myself. I'm trying to channel the institutional leaders, a couple of whom I know personally, and what they would say. Like, how am I supposed to go to the borough president's office?"
Still, Westphal said the DOT could have done a much better job explaining the benefits of the busway to Bronxites—like pointing out how a busway would also absorb much of the truck traffic that now goes through residential streets to skirt Fordham Road. Residents of the Bronx are often afterthoughts when big changes are implemented, he noted, citing initial findings that congestion pricing would make the air cleaner everywhere but the Bronx. "Most changes have not worked out well for the Bronx," he said.
Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director for the Riders Alliance, who recently dressed up like a giraffe at the Bronx Zoo to draw support for the busway on Fordham Road, said he understood where the concerns were coming from.
"People have every right to be skeptical of government," Pearlstein told Hell Gate. "But people who don't ride the bus also don't take bus riders' time seriously, and all too frequently write off proposals they view as meant to help people other than themselves."
On weekends, Carmen Cruz leaves her home in Co-op City and gets on the Bx12 Select Bus to visit her mother, who lives off Fordham Road. "The traffic here is really bad," Cruz told Hell Gate on a recent steamy Sunday afternoon, when we asked her if she'd support making Fordham Road a bus-only corridor. "I think that would be a great idea."
Further west on Fordham Road near Webster Avenue, where the buses crawl at four mph, sisters Andre and Arleny Gil also said they'd support taking lanes away from cars to speed things along. "One hundred percent," Arleny said, noting that the slow buses make them late to work and school.
"Sometimes you'll be waiting like 25 minutes for a bus, and then when the bus comes, it's full of people," Andre added. "And then you have to wait for another bus. It's very bad."
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