If Mayor Bloomberg's traffic congestion pricing plan comes to pass, the financial disincentive to drive into Manhattan – added to some commuters' natural disinclination to fight city traffic – raises questions about whether the future Yankee Stadium parking facilities will become a de facto park-and-ride.

And while such lots are often considered a positive thing – the lots at Shea Stadium are popular with drivers who'd rather ride the 7 train than sit in crosstown traffic – local residents are worried about the potential for worse pollution and asthma problems in the surrounding South Bronx neighborhood.

Proposed by Bloomberg in April as a method of reducing traffic, congestion pricing would charge drivers for entering the busiest streets at the busiest times: $8 per auto headed into lower Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m on weekdays. Alternative congestion mitigation plans currently being discussed include a $4 toll on all bridges going into Manhattan. Parking facilities for the new Yankee Stadium, which is being built adjacent to the existing stadium, thus look like a potential transit hub, as they lie close to the Major Deegan Highway, Macombs Dam Bridge, the 4 and D subway station at 161st Street, and the Metro-North rail station under construction. Some community activists and elected officials fear the expanded stadium parking will encourage drivers coming from points north and the Bronx itself to park at the stadium and then hop on to public transportation to avoid incurring Manhattan's congestion pricing fees or paying a bridge toll.

Although a range of possible rates are cited, it's likely that monthly parking at the new stadium, plus a month-long subway TransitChek, would cost less than congestion fees and gas. Based on the usage of Shea stadium lots, though, some observers say park-and-rides are as much about ease of travel as saving money.

The 40 percent parking expansion underway – from 6,548 spaces in 11 lots and two garages to 9,127 spaces in six lots and five garages – carries a host of complications with it, as many things relating to the stadium project do. While a park-and-ride could bring new auto traffic and pollution to the area, it also could relieve a parking shortage in the nearby "Capitol District." And although no one wants to exacerbate the Bronx's asthma rates – the highest in the city – many do want to encourage mass transit.

(For a detailed map of the parking garages and lots, click here.)

Those issues are further tangled by controversy over the city's initial and current intentions about who gets to use the parking when. Existing Yankee Stadium garages are open only to game traffic on game days. But whether the new garages were originally intended to be open to the public on non-game days is a contested question. While Janel Patterson, spokeswoman for the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), said that the parking facilities “were always envisioned to be open on non-game days in deference to the community,” some neighborhood sources say otherwise, and documents such as the June 2005 Request for Proposal, the Community Benefits Agreement and the Environmental Impact Statement point both ways.

The stadium deal has been under fire since construction plans were announced in 2005 to take away parkland to build thousands of new parking spaces in three new garages, even though the new stadium will have approximately 5,000 fewer seats and the new Metro-North station is expected to bring 10,000 fans to games. (Patterson declined to explain the rationale for this formulation.)

Controversy arose again in October when the city’s Industrial Development Agency voted in favor of subsidizing the construction of these parking facilities through the issuance of $237 million in tax-exempt bonds. The Daily News recently reported that 600 parking spaces will be kept for the Yankees and their VIPs to get year-round free valet parking for the next 40 years, courtesy of state taxpayers.

Presently, three facilities with 2,972 spaces are planned to be open during the off-season. Two of them have rooftop parks to make up for the loss of Macombs Dam Park, and will be closed so that park users will not be subjected to car fumes rising from below.

J.J. Brennan, a blogger for Save Our Parks, the community group that tried to block the stadium’s construction, thinks the garages have been planned all along with the idea of serving as park-and-rides for commuters. “You begin to wonder why they were so adamant for the need for these new garages," says Brennan. Because his group didn't think they would be open all year, he says: “That's a bait and switch.”

According to a feasibility study embedded in a bond offering issued last month, only 250 local residents and 200 park-and-ride commuters will use the off-season parking. The projection, however, does not take into account behaviors if a congestion pricing plan is enacted, and acknowledges that these figures are likely to increase if the plan goes through. A Metro-North spokeswoman confirms that a park-and-ride at Yankee Stadium is being considered.

One expert on regional commuting thinks "park-and-ride lots are a wonderful thing," and a new one in the Bronx could be popular – after all, the lots at Shea Stadium have been well used by drivers transitioning to subways for years. "I think it's crazy to drive into Manhattan," says John Galgano, president of the nonprofit CommuterLink that helps metro-area commuters arrange carpools, vanpools and more.

Galgano said he empathizes with people who live near Yankee stadium, but "if it can reduce the number of people that are driving alone, or even carpooling ... I think it could only benefit everybody."

Some still doubt that commuters will use the facilities for this purpose, however. “It's very unlikely people are going to make changes in the middle or the end of their commute,” said Veronica Vanterpool, policy advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which works to reduce auto use in the tri-state area and supports congestion pricing.

When asked about the risks of the garages becoming park-and-rides, Michael Murphy, spokesman for Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion Jr. – who's a big supporter of the new stadium – said that since the garages will be located near highway exits, they will not affect residential traffic. Furthermore, Murphy said, commuters who would use the parking already drive through the Bronx anyway.

Despite this, many believe that air quality in the neighborhood would worsen if a park-and-ride situation were to occur. “The air quality damage from a car is far greater when you start it up – what is called a 'cold start' – and this is pollution that wouldn't be happening if these people were just barreling through on the highway,” said Lukas Herbert, a former member of the area's Community Board 4 who had been a vocal opponent of the new stadium.

City Councilwoman Helen D. Foster, whose Bronx district lies just north of the stadiums and whose support has been mixed, commented, "It's very interesting that the mayor and some elected officials are talking about asthma and the need for congestion pricing, but when they were voting for the building of the new stadium, their concern about asthma never came up.”

EDC spokeswoman Patterson defended the off-season parking by saying that it “addresses the community’s desire to have access to the facilities to reduce congestion from on-street parking that has not been previously available since the garages were not open on non-game days."

Congestion, already a major problem in the community, is said to be caused by the many people who work in the neighborhood rather than by local residents. According to state Sen. José M. Serrano, who represents the area, these commuters are currently more likely to use public transport because of the difficulty of finding somewhere to park if they came by car. Hence, it is likely that the availability of parking year-round would increase actual traffic coming to the neighborhood.

“Opening the parking lots will only create that parking lot effect outside of the zone that we want to avoid,” said Serrano, who favors congestion pricing but opposes opening the parking lots on non-game days. “So it's very important we don't create an environment that allows for that parking lot syndrome in poor communities of color that are already facing high asthma rates.”        

The congestion pricing plan is not yet city policy. A commission on traffic mitigation was created by the state legislature in July following opposition to Bloomberg's plan. It's been holding public hearings through the fall and plans to issue recommendations on the topic by the end of the month. The commission released an interim report last week, and a public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 16 to discuss it. It analyzes the pros and cons of different congestion reduction plans: the Mayor's congestion pricing plan, an alternative one, a bridge toll plan and a license plate rationing system. All four have the common trait of increasing park-and-ride activity "adjacent to major transit hubs if measures are not taken by the City to manage parking." The plan has to be voted on, first by the City Council, then by state legislators, before March 31.

- Mathilde Piard

This story has been corrected to accurately reflect that City Councilwoman Helen D. Foster has not consistently opposed the new stadium. 1/15/08