Plan to Transform the Cross Bronx Expressway Gains Momentum

April 27, 2021

In 2018, Columbia Mailman School Professor Peter Muennig published a research study on the benefits of capping the Cross Bronx Expressway to reduce air pollution and create green space. Now, elected officials and community leaders are taking up the call to transform the busy highway, as part of the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

Last week, Bronx Congressman Richie Torres hosted a press conference on a sidewalk across from the highway, to make a case for fixing the Cross Bronx Expressway using a portion of the $20 billion earmarked in the Biden plan to redress inequities caused by past infrastructure projectsIn remarks citing Professor Muennig’s research, the Congressman said the project would take aim at one of the most infamous examples of harmful infrastructure: a highway that divides the Bronx and diminishes the health of its residents.

“If enacted, the American Jobs Plan presents a historic moment to fundamentally reimagine the Cross Bronx Expressway and reverse the legacy of environmental racism that it has left behind,” Rep. Torres said over the din of traffic. He added that the professor studied the impact of capping the Cross Bronx Expressway with a deck park and found that doing so would fundamentally improve the health and life expectancy of the South Bronx.”

Completed in 1972, the Cross Bronx Expressway bisects the borough east to west, carrying 300 diesel trucks every hour, on average. The resulting air and noise pollution contribute to a bevy of health problems, from asthma to COVID-19, for the 220,000 people who live near the highway, most of whom are Black and Brown. Robert Caro’s classic book, The Power Broker, tells the story of how “master builder” Robert Moses developed the highway, displacing thousands of residents and creating a fissure that led to declining conditions.

The concept envisioned by Muennig and community leaders would add a deck on top of below-grade sections of the highway, with filtered vents to scrub exhaust. On the deck, the city could create a park along the lines of projects already completed in Boston, Dallas, and Seattle. The professor’s 2018 study found that the Bronx plan’s long-term health and economic benefits would far exceed its estimated $750 million price tag. 

“We have a historic opportunity to heal the wounds caused by this expressway,” said Muennig of the plan. “We found it would pay for itself… [while improving] quality of life and longevity of residents.”

Earlier this month, Rep. Torres and New York Assemblywoman Karines Reyes outlined the proposal in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. More recently, they raised the issue with Senators Kristen Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer. For his part, Muennig has made several media appearances; on April 15, he joined community activist Nilka Martell, director of Loving the Bronx, on WYNC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, to discuss the idea. He is also working with Michael Bell, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, to flesh out its details. 

At the recent press conference, Rep. Torres, a Bronx native, spoke about his childhood struggle with asthma. “I spent most of my childhood in three places: home, school, and the emergency room. I was repeatedly hospitalized for asthma.” He added that his situation was far from unique: even today, asthma rates in the borough are multiple times the city average.

“The Cross Bronx Expressway has left in its wake decades of displacement and disinvestment, environmental degradation, and chronic diseases—diseases which have grown more dangerous and deadly in the midst of COVID-19,” the Congressman said.