For such a short highway, the 50-year-old Sheridan Expressway generates a lot of unhappiness.
"I don’t even know if you could call it an expressway," said Elena Conte, an organizer at the Pratt Center for Community Development, which works with low income communities on development and environmental justice issues. "It’s a fragment. It’s a mile and a quarter long."
It was planned by Robert Moses, whose original intent was for the road to cut through the Bronx Zoo and go into Westchester County. But local residents — not to mention the zoo and the New York Botanical Garden — were opposed to that vision, and in the 1970s that plan was dropped.
Since then, the question of what to do with the Sheridan has been roiling. Activists, working together as the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, have been crafting a plan to tear the highway down. In its place, they would redevelop it as residential and park land. They point out that three schools are located along the expressway, and the schools would benefit by having a green connection.
One of the supporters for tearing the Sheridan down is Bronx Congressman José Serrano. Two years ago he secured a $1.5 million federal grant to study three different options for the Sheridan: keeping it, modifying it, and taking it down altogether. "The initial agreement we had, the understanding we had, was that they were going to look at everything," he said.
But recently city officials said the removal scenario had “a fatal flaw” and it would no longer be considered, even though the New York City Department of Transportation won’t complete the study until next year.
"What I’m concerned about, what the community is upset about, what we’re all upset about, is that they immediately took off the table the possibility of full removal of the Sheridan," said Serrano. "We just think that’s totally unfair and improper."
But as much as some want the highway gone, others say it's a vital piece of the city’s transportation network.
"Without the Sheridan, a thousand trucks a night would have just one way to get to this market," said Matthew D’Arrigo. He's co-president of the Hunts Point Market, the massive food distribution center located off the expressway.
The Sheridan carries about 50,000 vehicles a day.
And the market hasn’t been shy about making it known that taking down the Sheridan could jeopardize its ability to do business — not to mention the thousands of jobs it brings to the Bronx.
"Well, we were completely dead set against that and have been since the dawn of time,” he said. “Everybody. Everybody. Everybody knows our position on that."
Right now, the market is in the middle of negotiations with the city for a long-term lease. After this weekend, if it doesn’t reach a deal with New York, the market can start talking to other places — like New Jersey.
Privately, officials tell WNYC that fear of losing the market prompted the city to drop the removal option.
But at a recent press conference in the Bronx, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the decision was driven by data, not politics. "All of the traffic studies show that it would not be feasible to do that," he said.
Predictions that losing a highway would lead to traffic nightmares have been wrong before. Sam Schwartz —also known as Gridlock Sam — worked for the city DOT in 1973, when part of the then-elevated lower portion of the West Side Highway collapsed. In a 2010 interview with WNYC, he described the frenzy that resulted from the shutdown of that part of the highway.
"People panicked," he said. "They thought that was Armageddon. They thought that was the end."
It wasn’t the case. Traffic on some roadways did go up, but so did transit numbers.
“We had trouble tracing one-third of the people and it wasn’t that they weren’t coming in," Schwartz said. "When we looked at transit, transit went up. We had the same number of people coming in, but they weren’t coming by car.”
Schwartz wouldn’t comment specifically on the Sheridan, but cities like Milwaukee, San Francisco and Portland all say they’ve seen big economic and environmental benefits when urban highways have been torn down.
New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan called that comparison flawed.
"I think you know the Bloomberg administration has been very innovative when it comes to traffic engineering," she said. "But in this instance this particular option didn’t work — but that doesn’t mean other options can’t work here and we’re going to continue to explore them."