Residents, disabled groups suing to stop ‘arrogant’ L train plan

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It’s either “L yes!” or “L no!” — depending on your point of view — as a federal suit to block the city’s L train shutdown plan was filed in federal court Tuesday morning.

Opponents of the plan held a press conference on April 3 at Lenox Health Greenwich Village, at 13th St. and Seventh Ave., to announce their legal effort to stop the Canarsie Tunnel repair plan, along with related mitigation efforts, including the so-called 14th St. “PeopleWay.”

The suit contains two main charges: that government has failed to conduct an environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., for the plan, and that it fails to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A coalition of more than two-dozen Village and Chelsea block associations, along with two disability-rights groups, are petitioners in the suit, which is being brought by Village attorney Arthur Z. Schwartz.

From left, attorney Arthur Schwartz, spoke at the announcement of the lawsuit against the L subway shutdown plan on Tuesday, with Edith Prentiss, of Disabled in Action, and Judy Pesin, co-chairperson of the 14th St. Coalition. Both groups are among the many parties to the lawsuit. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

At the press conference, Schwartz blasted the failure to do required environmental studies as “arrogant,” and said the traffic schemes in the plan were cooked up by misguided transportation “zealots.”

The petitioners include the ad-hoc 14th St. Coalition — the group of Village and Chelsea block associations and building co-op and condo boards that has been meeting regularly to organize against the plan — individual block associations covering blocks between 12th and 18th Sts., the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, the Flatiron Alliance, and two large apartment buildings — the Victoria, at 7 E. 14th St., and the Cambridge, at 175 W. 13th St. — along with Disabled in Action and the 504 Democratic Club, the city’s leading political club for disabled individuals.

Defendants named in the lawsuit include the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit and the New York City Department of Transportation, plus the Federal Transportation Administration.

The F.T.A. is included because, the suit alleges, the agency has “failed to enforce compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” even though the L tunnel repair work is a $1 billion federally funded project. The suit argues that, under NEPA, because federal funding is involved, an E.I.S. must be done for the project.

The suit also charges the M.T.A. / NYC Transit and city D.O.T. with failing to conduct an E.I.S. under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, and the City Environmental Quality Review Act, or CEQRA.

“Despite all sorts of community meetings and obscure modeling, no E.I.S. has been done,” Schwartz charged. “It’s incredible to me, as a lawyer with 40 years experience, that this is a $1 billion project and the M.T.A. and D.O.T. did not do an environmental impact study. It’s almost the epitome of arrogance — because when you do an E.I.S. it requires more work, but it requires transparency and community engagement.”

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the suit further argues, elevators should be added to the stations in the shutdown area.

“Although all the L stations in the shutdown are being upgraded,” Schwartz said, “at least five of these stations will not be made A.D.A.-accessible.” As he recently told The Villager, this is also something that could have been studied as part of an E.I.S.

“The residents, the leaders of this community have decided to go to court to stop the plan because government should be required to do the required input and studies,” he said.

These studies, the attorney added, “would require consideration of alternatives, and develop analysis and statistics that would be reviewable at public meetings and at court — that could be challenged, as in Westway. Striped bass numbers were fudged in Westway,” he noted. “Here, we believe they have fudged the number of cars that go down 14th St.”

Schwartz was referring to how the $2 billion Westway tunnel-and-landfill project on the Lower West Side was defeated in the mid-1980s due to environmental concerns. As for allegedly “fudged numbers” on 14th St. traffic, Schwartz and members of the 14th St. Coalition contend that the D.O.T. data excludes trucks from its figures — plus is more than 10 years old.

If the city’s mitigation plan goes through, Schwartz added, “There will be more traffic on Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Aves. and on the side streets.”

He added that for-hire vehicles, like Uber, are currently clogging up Manhattan’s streets more than anywhere else, especially Downtown. And, with the closure of St. Vincent’s in 2010, there is no nearby hospital, other than Beth Israel all the way over on First Ave., meaning increased traffic would be putting people’s lives at risk.

“The plans of D.O.T. could be a matter of life and death,” he warned.

In addition to compelling the agencies to conduct an E.I.S. and for the M.T.A. to install handicap-accessible elevators at L stations, the suit also seeks to stay any funding for and work on the Canarsie Tunnel shutdown project.

Schwartz, of the law firm Advocates for Justice Chartered Attorneys, is also the Village’s elected Democratic district co-leader.

The city hopes to close the East River L tunnel for 15 months for repairs starting in April 2019. This would set off what has been nicknamed the “L-pocalypse,” causing a mad commuter scramble of displaced L straphangers. The city’s proposed transportation mitigation measures would see 14th St. transformed into a “busway” without cars during rush hours, if not for even longer periods, while roadway space on 14th St. would be taken away to increase pedestrian space; a two-way protected crosstown bike lane added on 13th St.; a flotilla of small ferries sailing back and forth between Williamsburg and Stuyvesant Town; and a fleet of 70 diesel-powered buses per hour motoring over the Williamsburg Bridge that would link to Downtown local subway hubs, as well as to 14th St., where the busway would be filled with even more newly purchased diesel-fuel buses.

Many Village and Chelsea residents fear that displaced car traffic from the 14th St. “PeopleWay” would overwhelm their narrow historic streets, while 13th St. residents and City and Country School parents vehemently oppose the novel two-way crosstown bike lane.

Judy Pesin and Julianne Bond, two leaders of the 14th St. Coalition, also spoke at the press conference.

“We believe there’s strength in numbers,” Pesin said of why the coalition formed two months ago. “These plans were devised with just the commuters in mind. We’ll be impacted by them 24 / 7. The businesses will also be impacted.”

“The D.O.T. has not been interested in listening to us until now,” Bond said. She added that, even now, trucks already are going down side streets that have “No Trucks” signs, implying that it would be even worse under the city’s mitigation plan.

Pesin said the “rush hour” periods for the 14th St. busway plan to exclude cars from the street seem to keep growing.

“We’ve seen anywhere from 16 hours a day to 21 hours a day,” she said. “I’m not sure what universe that exists in.” Most people consider rush hour to be 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.  to 7 p.m., “not 16 hours a day,” she added.

“We also believe the D.O.T. data is based on 2005 numbers, which is way before the for-hire vehicles,” Pesin added. “And we need solid data to have a real plan. We can’t come up with alternatives until we know what we’re facing.”

Similarly, Schwartz questioned the need for widening the sidewalks on 14th St.

“They say there is going to be this crush of people,” he said. “A lot of us don’t understand where this crush of pedestrians will come from.”

Meanwhile, he noted, the traffic data that D.O.T. recently released — which is just tables of raw numbers and times — is “incomprehensible to most people.”

From left, attorney Arthur Schwartz and Judy Pesin and Julianne Bond, co-chairpersons of the 14th St. Coalition.

Under the city’s plan, 14th St. would be narrowed to two lanes of traffic, with a passing lane in the middle, while University Place would be closed to traffic between 13th and 14th Sts., and much of Union Square West would be closed to traffic.

“So cars will be zigzagging all around,” Schwartz said. “There are all kinds of bottlenecks that are created.”

According to Schwartz, D.O.T. is now saying it would move the bike lane from the south side to the north side of 13th St. — but now people on that side of the street are upset about it.

Edith Prentiss, a member of Disabled in Action, rolled up to the podium in her wheelchair to give her remarks. She said the L train serves an area with a number of facilities serving the disabled and that the area has a high density of disabled individuals, such as residents at Penn South and other large developments.

“Look at Canal St.,” she said. “Try getting across Canal St. in a wheelchair — forget it. If you’re going to close the subway for [15] months, I think that’s enough time to put in elevators.”

In Manhattan, the L line currently has elevators at Eighth Ave. and Union Square, and is now getting ones installed at First Ave., but doesn’t have elevators at Sixth and Third Aves., and the current shutdown plan does not include adding them there.

“This would be an excellent opportunity for the M.T.A. / NYC Transit to actually look at deficiencies in the system,” Prentiss said, “instead of trying to just patch the bleeding wound.”

In addition, state Senator Brad Hoylman has said, if anything, electric buses, not diesel, should be used in any mitigation plan, while some local environmental advocates say ultra-low-pollution, renewable natural gas buses, though more expensive, would be even better. The city is purchasing 200 diesel buses to deal with the expected L shutdown.

Schwartz and Pesin added that they expect the Grand St. Democrats political club to join the lawsuit since Lower East Siders are concerned about the increase in bus traffic and pollution due to the mitigation plan.

Schwartz said that the M.T.A. and D.O.T. could start right now and easily do an E.I.S. in plenty of time and still be able to begin the L Canarsie Tunnel repairs in April 2019. However, he said, an even-better option would be for the tunnel repairs to be done only at nights and on weekends, which would lead to far less disruption.

Schwartz stressed that the M.T.A. has made it clear that the repair of the Canarsie Tunnel is not an emergency situation and that the tunnel’s structural integrity is not at risk — so there is no pressing need to do the job as quickly as possible.

“I don’t know why they have to opt for the most severe option,” he said.

Answering his own question, Schwartz said he believes the L shutdown scenario and related mitigation measures are being driven by “zealots” who want to use it as a form of congestion pricing — basically, by making it harder for drivers to get around the area.

“These people have a vision,” he said. “There are some zealots in the New York City Department of Transportation. But they can’t get congestion pricing. They can’t limit the number of for-hire vehicles.”

But Schwartz said D.O.T. is wrong to think that making it harder to drive in Downtown Manhattan will lead to cars simply vanishing from the streets.

“That theory has no basis in New York City,” he said, “because most of the cars on our streets now are for-hire cars and trucks. These people get paid to sit in traffic.”

Stanley Bulbach, from W. 15th St., said the plan to widen the sidewalks on 14th St. is actually just a gift to landlords and developers, “so they can put seats out” for cafes.

“This has nothing to do with the subway,” he declared.

Schwartz said the sidewalk widening obviously would be a permanent change, though D.O.T. is declining to say so.

“It’s not temporary. They have no plan to ever, ever go back,” he stated.

He and Bulbach also both said that an increase in traffic would impact the infrastructure of the side streets they live on — Bulbach referring to a problematic asbestos-covered steam pipe and a gas main underneath 15th St.

“The building I live in was built in 1840,” Schwartz said of his W. 12th St. home. “It wasn’t built to withstand that traffic going by 24 a day. The street has a cast-iron water main.”

In response to the lawsuit, a D.O.T. spokesperson said, in a statement: “The crisis stemming from next year’s closing of the L train tunnel is not just an issue for north Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. This unprecedented challenge will be felt citywide, requiring hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to think about their commutes and their streets differently.

“D.O.T. and M.T.A. will continue to work with stakeholders over the next year to improve the plan. This follows extensive community outreach since the closure was announced.”

City agency officials have previously stated they do not feel an E.I.S. is needed for the project because it allegedly complies with all environmental requirements.

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