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Federal judge places legal roadblock across New York's Westway

There is no doubt that someday something will happen to the western strip of Manhattan from roughly 42nd Street down to Battery Park. But right now it remains relatively quiet, as the saga of the proposed Westway highway and landfill project continues to play in the courts and in Congress.

Nearly 15 years ago, city politicians decided a new highway should be built along the Hudson River. But it has been put on hold as plans were made, objections heard, environmental impact statements done, and court cases filed.

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In referring to Westway, Mayor Edward I. Koch once said there ought to be a statute of limitations on how long such a battle can be waged.

In that time, the area has remained a busy city neighborhood. Large trucks rattle down avenues meant for lighter traffic. Meat markets and local stores thrive. Housing stays pretty much as is, since speculators are not certain of what the future will bring.

Last week came one of the most serious blows to Westway, a 4.2-mile highway that would run mostly underground in a landfill topped by parks, apartments, and office buildings. Federal District Judge Thomas P. Griesa issued a permanent injunction barring the federal government from funding or approving Westway, and banning the state from building it. He ruled last Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers did not conduct a proper environmental study before granting a landfill permit earlier this year.

Opponents are jubilant.

``This is a major, national environmental decision,'' says Marcy Benstock, whose name has become synonymous with the anti-Westway forces. She says the ruling could not only stop the nearly 170-acre landfill, but it could set a precedent for other decisions involving the Clean Water Act, around the country.

Lawyers for New York State have asked a federal appeals court to expedite an appeal to overturn Judge Griesa's decision by mid-September. At stake is the $1.7 billion in federal funds set aside for the highway. The state has until Sept. 30 to trade in this money for mass-transit funding. Both Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch say they are determined to build Westway, which they say would provide jobs, relief for housing woes, and economic revitalization to Manhattan's West Side.

Critics call the decision to appeal ``irresponsible.''

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``They've had 11 innings,'' says Ms. Benstock, who has devoted more than 10 years fighting the highway. ``They have spent our tax dollars on lawsuits. . . . They shouldn't waste anymore money. . . .''

And she said as much in a letter to the governor cosigned by 20 groups. It applauded Judge Griesa's ``inevitable and compelling decision'' and urged the governor to quickly apply for a trade-in of Westway funding for federal mass-transit aid.

``Every alleged benefit from Westway can be gotten now by canceling the project and spending the money where it is needed,'' Benstock says. She and other critics say it is inevitable that some type of highway is put in on the West Side. But they say the proposed landfill is not necessary.

There are ``hundreds of acres available for development,'' Benstock says. Existing unused piers could be refurbished. Jobs would be found through local redevelopment and through the massive reconstruction of the transit system made possible through a trade-in of funds, she says.

Some Westway proponents have said that the judge overstepped his bounds by ``second-guessing'' an administrative decision by the Army Corps of Engineers. James T. B. Tripp, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees that some judges would defer to the ``expertise'' of the agency.

``What is of value in this decision is the willingness of the court to investigate or assess the statements in the environmental impact statement,'' Mr. Tripp says. Judge Griesa, he says, has done what a court should do -- look at the evidence and assess the credibility of the witnesses.

The project has also become the target of fiscally conservative congressmen and groups like the National Taxpayer's Union, which advocates a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. Several New Jersey congressmen have offered anti-Westway legislation, which is expected to be heard in early September.

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