What the ‘L’? No E.I.S. could mean no subway shutdown

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Hand over the E.I.S. — or else!

That is, assuming an E.I.S. even exists, in the first place, to be handed over.

In their “tunnel vision” for the city’s L subway shutdown scenario, two agencies may have failed to do a critical Environmental Impact Statement, or E.I.S., for the planned closure of the Canarsie Tunnel — and it could put the whole project on hold, says a Village attorney.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to close the L train’s East River tubes — known as the Canarsie Tunnel — for 15 months of repairs, starting in April 2019. During that period, no L trains would run between Brooklyn’s Bedford Ave. and Manhattan’s Eighth Ave.

But District Leader Arthur Schwartz, who is representing the ad hoc 14th Street Coalition — a broad group of 20 Village and Chelsea block associations and co-op and condo boards — said that because the tunnel’s repairs would be federally funded, under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, an E.I.S. is required. To date, though, Schwartz said, he has been unable to find any evidence anywhere of such a study having been done.

Attorney Arthur Schwartz, the Village’s Democratic district leader, right, was the last public member to testify at a special hearing by Community Board 2’s Transportation and Traffic Committee last Thursday at which M.T.A. and D.O.T. officials — seen listening stone-faced, in background — described the agencies’ proposed mitigation plan to address a shutdown of the L train in Manhattan. Although he testified last, Schwartz’s message was probably the most significant of the dozens of members of the public who spoke because he reiterated that the 14th Street Coalition intends to sue the city over the shutdown plan for its lack of a proper environmental impact study that would address traffic changes, among other things. As Schwartz talked, supporters of the plan — particularly of a proposed two-way protected crosstown bike lane on 13th St. — hoisted up “Don’t Delay” signs. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

Speaking to The Villager, the attorney said, his experience has been that the M.T.A. always posts an E.I.S. online for pretty much every project it does that includes federal funding — even relatively small ones. So, he recently decided to search around on the M.T.A.’s Web site a bit and see if he could find one — and came up with nothing.

“I just wanted to see if the M.T.A. had done an E.I.S.,” he said. “They do it for elevators they put in on street corners. They did a big one for that Fulton St. subway station. There was a huge one for the Second Ave. subway.

“I’m sure a lot of federal funding is going into this,” he said of the L tunnel repairs. “It’s a $1 billion project. I couldn’t find an E.I.S. online. And if they don’t do it, then the whole shutdown project is illegal,” he declared. “If they didn’t do one, then it’s attackable.”

It doesn’t matter if the work is only repairs, under NEPA an E.I.S. is needed, he said.

Under NEPA, the agencies also would have to present alternative plans, as well as data “that could be publicly challenged,” Schwartz noted.

He added, for example, that the data presented to the public about the M.T.A. needing to move 50,000 displaced L train commuters along 14th St. during the shutdown seemed “very hokey” to him.

The M.T.A. and city Department of Transportation would not have to implement the alternative plans — but they would have to present some.

But the M.T.A. and D.O.T. are insisting that the project complies with all federal environmental requirements — while nevertheless having repeatedly failed to produce the asked-for E.I.S.

“If we sue over the tunnel closure we will have a lot of friends in Brooklyn!” Schwartz crowed in a group e-mail last Friday to members of the coalition, which he is representing pro bono.

Indeed, the proposed L shutdown scheme — ominously hyped as the “L-pocalypse” and an “unprecedented” transit event — would set off a mad scramble of L train-deprived Brooklyn straphangers trying to reach Manhattan by other subway lines, ferries, buses, bicycles and even foot. A former Union Square-area resident, Parker Shinn, has even proposed a pontoon bridge that would connect Williamsburg and the East Village.

To mitigate the impact of the L’s closure, the city has proposed banning cars from 14th St. and transforming it into a “busway,” sending neighboring residents from W. 12th St. to W. 19th St. and beyond into a panic that their narrow side streets would be flooded with the overflow traffic. Meanwhile, another part of the mitigation plan, a proposed two-way crosstown bike lane on 13th St., also has Greenwich Village residents, including City and Country School parents, especially, up in arms.

Ryan McGuire, 26, a bicycle messenger from Crown Heights, Brooklyn — who said a two-way bike lane on 13th St. would help him do his job — held up a “Don’t Delay” sign as Arthur Schwartz testified that he was readying to file a lawsuit against the L shutdown plan.

The L train’s East River tunnel needs repairs because it was damaged by flooding with saltwater during Superstorm Sandy five years ago. But Schwartz said the tunnel fix should simply be done on weekends and at nights, and by affordable M.T.A. crews — not the pricey English-owned outside contractors the transit agency has already hired for the proposed 15-month total shutdown scheme.

“Outside contractors always cost more,” Schwartz, who also represents the Transport Workers Union, said.

A few weeks ago, Schwartz initially threatened to sue under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, arguing that the proposed mitigation measures that the M.T.A. and D.O.T. are planning for 14th and 13th Sts. require an E.I.S. because they would be within or next to the Greenwich Village Historic District or be next to Union Square Park.

In an “opening shot” of sorts, on Feb. 14, he sent a letter to that effect to D.O.T. Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

Under SEQRA, Schwartz argued, an E.I.S. would be required if the improvements the city is planning for 14th and 13th Sts. — such as “bus bulbs” for a new Select Bus Service and extending the sidewalk out into a lane of traffic on 14th St., plus installing the two-way bike lane on 13th St. — would be permanent. The city, recently at least, has been saying the changes would be interim, and that it would look at them to see how they are working.

In response to Schwartz’s Feb. 14 letter to Trottenberg, Eric Beaton, D.O.T. deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management, responded on March 1 in a letter back to Schwartz.

“M.T.A. and D.O.T. have worked closely with the affected communities in over 70 stakeholder meetings to create what we believe is the best possible mitigation plan, backed by extensive analysis and planning,” Beaton wrote.

Beaton added that the agencies also recently released the “detailed traffic analysis that undergirds that plan, which includes the choices behind our menu of temporary alternative transportation options.

“D.O.T. and our partner agencies are complying with all applicable environmental review requirements for this project,” Beaton assured. “M.T.A. is seeking funding for the project from the Federal Transit Administration, which will work closely with the M.T.A. and NYC agencies to assure that the project complies with all environmental requirements pursuant to [NEPA]. As part of that collaboration, the M.T.A. and D.O.T., as well as other NYC agencies, are performing modeling, studies and analyses to the satisfaction of F.T.A. — in order to assure that the project meets all legal requirements and to reduce any and all inconveniences the project could cause.”

Nevertheless, in that alphabet soup of acronyms, Beaton never mentioned an “E.I.S.”

Said Schwartz to The Villager, ” ‘Modeling’ and all the rest isn’t enough. It requires an E.I.S.”

In his letter, Beaton didn’t mention whether the mitigation measures would be temporary or permanent, either, Schwartz noted.

After a meeting at P.S. 41 on W. 11th St. last Thursday at which agency officials presented the city’s mitigation plan for a possible L train shutdown, bicycle activists showed their support for both the “PeopleWay” plan for 14th St., which would turn the major crosstown street into a “busway,” and a related plan for a new two-way crosstown bike lane on 13th St. Their lead organizer was a member of Transportation Alternatives. Third from left is Florent Morellet, the legendary former restaurateur of Florent fame in the Meatpacking District, who is a longtime cyclist. Like many of the bike lane supporters, he now lives in Brooklyn, Bushwick, to be exact.

Similarly, The Villager last Friday asked D.O.T. and the M.T.A. if an E.I.S. had been done, specifically for the L tunnel shutdown.

This Monday, a D.O.T. spokesperson failed either to confirm or deny if an E.I.S. had been done, but referred back to Beaton’s letter of March 1 to Schwartz — which does not refer to an E.I.S.

On Feb. 21, when Schwartz was still only focusing on the SEQRA angle, The Villager asked if an E.I.S. had been done, and a D.O.T. spokesperson responded, “The 15-month closure of the L train is an unprecedented challenge. D.O.T. and M.T.A. have been doing extensive analysis and planning, and we expect to release more information shortly. The city is complying with its environmental statutory obligations with regard to its L train shutdown mitigation plans. Despite assertions by Mr. Schwartz, no E.I.S. is required… .”

But the NEPA tunnel argument that Schwartz subsequently hit on is much stronger than the SEQRA angle, he said.

Schwartz had promised Trottenberg he would be sending a “more formal” follow-up letter, and, sure enough, on March 6 he wrote to both the M.T.A. and D.O.T.

For D.O.T., Schwartz addressed his letter to Deputy Commissioner Beaton, requesting that he prove that the necessary environmental studies have been done for both the tunnel project and the 14th St. mitigation scheme.

“We have scoured the M.T.A. Web site,” Schwartz wrote. “It contains many E.I.S.’es. I can find none for the Canarsie Tunnel / 14th Street Redesign project.

“I request, pursuant to the New York Freedom of Information Law, that you provide all documents for this project which demonstrate compliance with NEPA as well as SEQRA. Please save me the time and don’t refer this to your FOIL officer.

“We are, for now, pending your response, preparing our litigation,” Schwartz warned. “And if we are not too late, we will seek to stop the M.T.A. from following its ‘Total Shutdown Scenario’ unless they supply us with the E.I.S. A project done on weekends and at night would eliminate most of the need for D.O.T.’s ‘doomsday planning’ on 13th and 14th Sts.”

In his letter, Schwartz pointed out that Beaton in his March 1 letter to him had confirmed that the project would be federally funded, which should trigger an E.I.S. under NEPA.

At one point during last Thursday’s C.B. 2 committee meeting, parents from City and Country School on W. 13th St. all stood up together to show their opposition to the planned two-way bike lane on 13th St. A total of 37 of the school’s parents turned out for the meeting. The school’s students range from tots to 12th graders. The planned bike lane would run through the school’s curbside drop-off and pickup area, and parents, particularly of young children, fear it would put the students at risk. Cycling advocates, meanwhile, stressed that bikes are exponentially safer than cars and kill far fewer people than cars.

Also on March 6, Schwartz wrote to Ronnie Hakim, M.T.A. managing director, again requesting that the agency fork over the E.I.S.

“In our correspondence with D.O.T.,” Schwartz wrote, “it has become clearer and clearer that D.O.T.’s 14th Street Plan and M.T.A.’s Canarsie Tunnel repair are one unified plan. D.O.T. has stated that, in all respects, it and the M.T.A. have complied with New York State environmental laws and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). While it is unclear to us whether a ‘repair,’ such as the Canarsie Tunnel project, requires review under SEQRA, we have no question that it requires proper scoping and an Environmental Impact Study (E.I.S.) under NEPA.

“Given that the decision to do a total closure [of the Canarsie Tunnel], as opposed…to the weekend / nighttime option, promises to upend hundreds of thousands of lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we just cannot imagine that an E.I.S. wasn’t done,” Schwartz wrote, incredulously.

“I am writing to you, instead of the FOIL officer, in an effort to expedite things,” he noted to Hakim. “We are headed to court soon, and if an E.I.S. was not done, we are prepared to challenge the Canarsie Tunnel ‘total shutdown’ choice as unlawful… .”

Speaking to The Villager, Schwartz recalled how Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, in the 1990s, insisted an E.I.S. be done for the creation of the Hudson River Park on the West Side waterfront.

“They did one for Hudson River Park,” the attorney said. “They didn’t want to do it, and Jerry Nadler made them do it. It delayed the park three years.”

As for the filing of the L shutdown lawsuit, it’s not a question of if, but when, Schwartz said.

“It’ll be filed by the end of the month,” he said.

“Unless it gets stopped by a court, they’re going to do it,” he said of the agencies’ L train plan. “It’s like they’re interchangeable with Transportation Alternatives,” he said, referring to the nonprofit advocacy group for more cycling, mass transit and walking. “They think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

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