A half-dozen trucks are lined up on Halleck Street outside the Hunts Point Produce Market. The seats are empty, but the engines are running as drivers squirrel up in the back of their cabs and while away the hours with the help of a little satellite television. They are.waiting for an open bay inside the market.
It's an unusual sight in this neighborhood only when you consider that it comes less a week after the market's promised November 1st crackdown on excessive idling. The product of an agreement with the state attorney general's office, the crackdown is supposed to send a message to out-of-state truckers: In a state that forbids non- operational idling past five minutes and a city that forbids it past three minutes, the city has zero tolerance for egregious offenders.
For Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, a local non-profit dedicated to the environmental remediation of this blue collar neighborhoods, it's a frustrating reminder that some messages take a while to get through.
"We thought the agreement was great," says Carter. "The problem now is enforcement. There's still an atmosphere that says you can do whatever you want."
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL'S "CARROT"
Clearing up that atmosphere, not to mention the real atmosphere of Hunts Point, is no easy task. Idling is a problem citywide, as recent attempts to clean up the city's school bus fleet has dramatized.
Here in Hunts Point, however, the issue is a little more pressing. Site of the two largest wholesale markets in the city -- the produce market and the nearby Hunts Point Cooperative, a wholesale meat market -- Hunts Point is a magnet for big rigs and the sooty exhaust they bring. Little wonder the neighborhood scores among the highest in the city when it comes to childhood asthma rates -- 10 per thousand vs. 6.06 per thousand citywide and 3.36 nationwide according to a 2000 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene study.
Lem Srolovic of the Attorney General's environmental protection bureau, the organization that forged a June, 2003 deal with the Hunts Point Produce Market to launch the self-policing program, says his office is weighing other ways to reduce emissions in the neighborhood. Still, with only four lawyers covering a region that stretches from Poughkeepsie to Montauk, Srolovic admits to being selective in both methods and targets.
"We've decided that with out tools and our resources, we could be most effective at the fleet or market level," Srolovic says.
In the case of the Hunts Point Produce Market, a regional wholesale supplier to local green grocers, that meant applying a strategy perfected over the last three years against large scale operators such as Frito-Lay, Inc. and Greyhound Lines, Inc. First, Srolovic and his staff documented the high number of residential complaints over truck exhaust and truck noise, building a quality-of-life component into the state's case. Second, they gathered together a paper trail of police and traffic citations, framing the market as a nuisance. Finally, they offered market operators a carrot-or-stick proposition: Fix the problem yourself or have the state fix it at the market's expense.
"The state idling law specifically puts an obligation on the owner or operator of real estate that exercises control over vehicles operating within that real estate," says Srolovic. "So there is a direct legal obligation on the market's part to effectively control idling."
To their credit, market operators chose the carrot. The market has hired four enforcement officers who, since the beginning of the month, have been issuing citations to trucks ignoring the local anti-idling statutes. Citations run from $250 to $875 depending on the nature of the offense.
SHIFTING THE EXHAUST
In stepping up enforcement within its own gates, however, the Hunts Point Produce Market has achieved the unfortunate short term result of pushing more scofflaws --and more exhaust -- out into unpoliced neighborhood streets.
Eager to correct this problem, politicians, neighborhood groups, and even the market itself are now searching for fresh carrots and scarier sticks.
On the carrot side, Carter and her colleagues point to the nearby Hunts Point Cooperative Market, and its 28 ."ATE" bays - ATE standing for Advanced Truck Electrification. They were created with funds from a combination of government and non-profit agencies.
Outfitted with air conditioners and heating units, these towers pipe in basic amenities that allow truckers to live and sleep in their rigs while waiting for an open slot in one of the terminal bays.
"They've got everything: Internet, cable TV, 125 channels," notes Ernie Digenstein, a trucker dropping off a load of frozen turkeys at the meat market.
Based out of Watertown, South Dakota, Digenstein says the towers are fairly standard at truck stops across the country and provide a welcome alternative to the engine wear and fuel consumption that comes with operating a truck engine in idle mode as a way to generate heat and power.
Still, old habits die hard. So do old attitudes. New York's reputation as one of the costliest destinations in the country creates a situation where many drivers don't feel an obligation to do the city, or its residents, any favors.
"If it's below zero, and the towers are full, I don't care how many tickets I'm gonna get," says Digenstein. "I need heat."
THE NEXT STEP?
Such attitudes will take a while to overcome. Hunts Point Produce Market managers are already talking with companies about installing similar units. In the meantime, local politicians are working on the stick-side of the equation. The New York City Council is currently weighing a bill, Bill No. 366, to increase the number of traffic officers authorized to issue citations for off-route driving and excessive idling.
Srolovic of the Attorney General's Office sees the June agreement as a "first step" and acknowledges that more steps will need to be taken in order to diminish the problem in a way that will satisfy Carter and other local residents. At the same time, however, he says his office is already looking toward the next major step in the hope that truck and bus companies, at least at the management level, don't take the current enforcement gap as a signal to relax.
"This is not the end of the idling enforcement story," Srolovic says."We do have other investigations underway."