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Zones a lock for new commercial trash plan

Every day in New York, hundreds of garbage trucks log long hours on the city’s streets, pumping exhaust fumes into the air along with a cacophony of unpleasant sounds and smells.

These vehicles frantically crisscross the five boroughs collecting trash from companies big and small before hauling it off to parts unknown. Over-extended drivers pose a threat to themselves and those around them.

These are problems and the city thinks it has a solution but it might leave the real estate industry holding its collective nose.

“It’s like you saying, OK, I’m gonna get a chocolate cake, do you like it with chocolate chips, sprinkles or coconut?” Carl Hum, the Real Estate Board of New York’s head of governmental affairs, said of the city’s proposal. “Problem is I’m allergic to chocolate cake. It doesn’t matter what you put on it, I don’t want it.”

The Sanitation Department’s proposal calls for the city to be broken up into 20 zones, each with between three and five approved carters that will have to meet city standards. Routes will be limited to 70 miles or fewer and hauling companies will be restricted in the number of zones they can operate in.

The idea, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said, is to streamline the system so trucking companies aren’t driving all over the city to improve safety and protect the environment.

A recent analysis of the carting industry by the city revealed that some workers were clocking 16-hour days on grueling routes that generated minimal pay.

“For municipal collection, a very long route is nine miles compared to 200 miles on the private side,” Garcia said, “and part of that is because we’re doing every house and filling up a truck fairly quickly.
“If the municipal sector worked like theirs did, I would pick up three houses on a block then drive 10 miles and do three more houses then drive 10 more miles and do three more houses.”

However, Hum said the model put out by the city would only hurt competitive pricing, force carting operations out of business and result in a lower quality of service.

Last week, REBNY and the local chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association joined other interest groups to push back against a Sanitation Department’s proposed collection zones system but those cries fell on deaf ears. No changes were made during last week’s Commercial Waste Zones Advisory Board meeting.

While the city has not finalized its plan, the zone component is here to stay.

Hum said the city’s initial proposal in 2016 was a one carter per zone franchise system. In two years, the advisory board has gotten the city to come around to the semi-competitive system presented today.

“To go back to the cake analogy,” Hum said, “it’s like choosing pine nuts because it’s what I’m least allergic too.”

Questions remain about how the chosen carters will be able to both guarantee pricing to gain access to a zone and also compete with the two-to-four other companies within the zone.

The city will also have to find ways to prevent price fixing and avoid the growing pains experienced by other large cities, such as Los Angeles, when introducing zone-based franchising systems.

Garcia said the city is open to tweaking its proposal but sweeping changes are off the table. Her department plans to launch an environmental impact study before the end of this summer en route to a gradual roll-out that could begin as early as 2020.

“This can really be a win-win for both the business community and the public at large,” she said. “I think we’ll be able to maintain choice, which is really important, and get a lot of public benefits in terms of the environment and safety.”

Hum said the real estate industry is on board with regulations that would make the system safer, greener and more efficient, just not at the expense of the free market.

Both REBNY and BOMA have endorsed a legislative proposal from Councilman Robert Cornegy, which would allow the city to oversee industry training standards, equipment requirements and other facets without dictating which carting businesses can operate in the city and where.

“At the end of the day, the change has to come through legislation so we feel Cornegy’s bill should get a fair hearing,” Hum said. “It’s about putting your money where your mouth is and having a much more intellectually honest debate.”

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