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Feds Get Signals Crossed on L Subway Shutdown Plan

The city’s planned shutdown of the L train between Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn and Eighth Ave. in Manhattan would create an unprecedented transit disruption for commuters, transit advocates say. Meanwhile, Village and Chelsea block associations who have filed a lawsuit over the plan, say the city’s mitigation plan for the subway shutdown would also cause an unprecedented impact — on their neighborhoods. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Did the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant exemptions to New York transit and transportation agencies allowing them to forgo an environmental impact study for the L subway shutdown plan?

And if the FTA did grant exemptions, why is it now saying it did not?

On May 1, that issue was front and center in federal court in Foley Square, as part of a lawsuit filed last month by the 14th St. Coalition (a broad-based group of Village and Chelsea block associations and homeowners) along with disabled advocates, against the city’s plan to shut down the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 15 months starting in April 2019. The shutdown would be done to allow for repairs to the L train’s Hurricane Sandy-damaged East River tunnel.

The suit’s defendants include the FTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the New York City Transit Authority, and the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT).

The suit charges that under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, because the tunnel repairs would be federally funded, either an environmental impact statement (EIS), or Environmental Assessment (EA), must be done. Additionally, the suit argues that the State Environmental Review Quality Act, or SEQRA, and City Environmental Quality Review, CEQR, also require an EIS or EA. Finally, the suit asserts that, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, L subway stations closed during the shutdown would have to be made fully handicapped accessible, such as by adding elevators, as part of the project.

Yet, on April 25, in a letter to Paul Engelmayer, the judge on the case, the FTA, with the MTA’s concurrence, stated that “categorical exclusions” previously were granted for the transportation megaproject — but that now the agency actually is not so sure this was the correct thing to do.

“In 2015 and 2016,” the letter states, “based on information available at that time, the FTA concluded that work on the L train line (including the Canarsie Tunnel work) would be covered by Categorical Exclusions [CEs]… However, since that determination, the plan for the Canarsie Tunnel work has undergone significant modifications. The FTA has not received a final version of the current Service Plan [L train shutdown mitigation plan], and has not made a final determination at this time as to whether the CE classification is still appropriate. Among other things, the FTA has requested that the ‘appropriate environmental studies’…be prepared to allow the FTA to evaluate whether the Canarsie Tunnel work is exempt from further review under NEPA. If the FTA decides that the work is not exempt from further NEPA review, the FTA may require preparation of an EA or EIS…”

However, according to Arthur Schwartz, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, on May 1 in court, US Attorney Jennifer Simon, representing the FTA, “stated that no CE had been granted.”

“I pointed out that ran contrary to what was stated in the letter,” Schwartz said, “that there had been a CE and that it was being reconsidered.”

This discussion was all duly recorded in the court transcript, Schwartz noted.

Since the feds and MTA are giving conflicting information on this matter, Schwartz said he now plans to file a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain documents to verify whether or not any CEs were, in fact, granted.

Further, he charged, if FTA did grant categorical exclusions, it would have been “illegal.”

Basically, under NEPA, Schwartz argues, the decision whether to give a project a CE classification requires a study.

As Schwartz put it, “It seems to require some study about whether the plan will have a significant environmental impact, is the subject of substantial controversy on environmental grounds, or has an impact on a National Historic Preservation Act area — which Greenwich Village and Union Square are.”

Also, the Village attorney added, under NEPA, if granting a CE is being considered, then “FTA is supposed to be far more public about what it is doing.”

Specifically, the lawsuit states, there are supposed to be “public notice procedures; publication in local newspapers; notice through other local media; notice to potentially interested community organizations, including small business associations; [and] direct mailing to owners and occupants of nearby affected property,” among other legally required steps.

The L train shutdown mitigation plan, specifically, is what has sparked fierce opposition by Village and Chelsea groups. Indeed, the MTA and DOT acknowledge that no area would be more impacted by the shutdown plan than 14th St.

The city’s scheme would include transforming the major Downtown crosstown artery into a buses-only “busway” for much of the time — if not the whole time — while also adding a two-way protected crosstown bike lane on 13th St. Local residents fear the no-cars restriction on 14th St. would merely push traffic onto their often already-congested narrow side streets, plus that the busway plan would be permanent. Thirteenth St. residents are also battling the plan for the two-way bike lane.

In addition, Lower East Side and Soho residents are extremely concerned about the mitigation plan’s call for adding scores of additional diesel-spewing buses running over the Williamsburg Bridge and through Downtown streets every hour to connect to area subway hubs and 14th St.

After the May 1 court date, the judge granted Schwartz several days to amend the lawsuit, and he did so — adding that the C.E. exemptions were granted illegally by the FTA.

In addition, according to Schwartz, an attorney from the law firm Bryan Cave who was representing the MTA told the judge the authority planned to wait until after the L tunnel repairs and station upgrades were done before going back and making all the affected stations handicapped accessible. That didn’t exactly sit well with the disabled advocates who were there in court with Schwartz.

“I had people there in wheelchairs,” Schwartz said. “They were very angry afterward.”

As for the lawsuit’s SEQRA/CEQR claim, while the MTA and DOT have not done an EIS for the L shutdown plan, they maintain that sufficient environmental studies of one sort or another were done.

Schwartz said that, if the lawsuit “gets past hurdles,” and is still going by August, it will be looking very good for the plaintiffs.

However, he said, if the FTA “pulls” — as in, removes — the allegedly previously granted categorical exclusions now, there would still be time for the transit and transportation agencies to conduct the legally required environmental studies. But if the CEs aren’t pulled, and the agencies don’t start doing the environmental studies right now, then there is no way, in Schwartz’s view, that the L shutdown project would be ready to start, as planned, in April 2019.

The MTA and DOT did not respond to requests for comment. The FTA could not immediately be reached for comment.

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