Town Hall Tracks “Challenging” L Train Fix

The 14th St. Coalition was well represented at May 9’s town hall, along with residents from Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Transit and transportation agency heads Andy Byford and Polly Trottenberg last Wednesday faced an auditorium packed with residents asking tough questions about what has been described as the city’s most unprecedented transit challenge in history — the L train shutdown.

“I can say this is one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever seen,” Trottenberg, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, told the May 9 town hall, at The New School, at 66 W. 12th St. “This is one that’s fairly unprecedented, and I think both entities have agreed that we need some really unprecedented solutions.”

Trottenberg, along with Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), and other city officials fielded three hours of questions about the shutdown plan.

Under the plan, the L train would be shut down between Bedford and Eighth Aves. for 15 months starting in April 2019, so that the Canarsie Tunnel, under the East River, can be repaired. The city’s proposed mitigation plan, or “service plan,” would increase subway service on the J, M, G, and C lines; add ferry service from North Williamsburg to E. 20th St.; create high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV-3) car lanes and add three new bus routes over the Williamsburg Bridge, with 70 buses per hour crossing the bridge; install a two-way protected crosstown bike lane on 13th St.; and turn 14th St. into a “busway” between Third and Eighth Aves.

Well-represented at the town hall was the 14th St. Coalition, an ad-hoc group of Chelsea and Village residents who recently sued the DOT, the NYCTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and the Federal Transit Administration over the L train shutdown plan. The coalition is suing over the lack of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, having been done, as well as the plan’s failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to the Village and Chelsea coalition members, residents from all over Downtown Manhattan and some from Brooklyn, too, showed up to ask questions.

“We were really glad about that,” said Judy Pesin, co-chairperson of the 14th St. Coalition. “We were glad that the forum gave the MTA and DOT the chance to really hear the community’s concerns from them — not just from a few of us on the coalition.”

Pesin and other coalition members have said the coalition has been mischaracterized as a handful of NIMBY residents. But for Pesin, who lives on 13th St., the town hall made her hopeful that transit officials will balance the needs of commuters and Manhattan residents.

“That’s what we’ve been asking for,” she said. “They’ve told us the plans are not cut in stone. We’re hoping to see these concerns reflected in revisions.”

However, some said the event offered nothing new and that concerns without a factual basis were repeatedly raised.

“The redundancy is incredibly frustrating,” said Philip Leff, a North Brooklyn volunteer activist for Transportation Alternatives (TransAlt). “Wednesday night did not move the debate at all. It was just another rehashing of tired, old stereotypes,” he said. “We just need DOT and MTA to stick to the real data and make a plan that benefits the 400,000 New Yorkers that rely on the L every day.”

Doors opened for the meeting at 5:30 p.m. and it began around 6:30 p.m. Some residents had to wait until 9:30 p.m. to ask their questions.

Village and Chelsea residents were particularly concerned how restricting cars from the 14th St. dedicated busway would affect the one-way side streets to the north and south of the crosstown corridor.

“My concern was that, with all of that increased traffic, what will the MTA and DOT — really, the DOT — be doing to mitigate some of that local impact on our side streets,” said Mike Hartigan, a 15th St. resident and member of the 14th St. Coalition.

Hartigan, among others, noted that the area’s side streets are already overburdened and dealing with traffic issues, including a lack of enforcement against trucks illegally parking and driving on them. Fourteenth St. being the borderline between a number of police precincts, Hartigan said, puts the surrounding area in a “limbo zone.”

Several times during the town hall, Inspector Dennis Fulton, from the Police Department’s Transportation Bureau, said he would report the trucks-enforcement issue on 15th St. to the local precinct.

Inspector Dennis Fulton, from the Police Department’s Transportation Bureau, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and Eric Beaton, the DOT deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

Trottenberg said the DOT is still determining exactly what the agency would do to mitigate traffic impacts north and south of 14th St. She stressed that the plan’s flexibility would allow changes to be made during the shutdown, such as to ramp up changes or scale them back. For Hartigan, however, Trottenberg’s answer did not reassure him that the agencies would take action if the plan turns out to be a disaster.

Trottenberg several times noted, without too many specifics, that the DOT has a “toolkit” of traffic-mitigation measures. Hartigan said she could have elaborated on that more, but added, “I am thankful that they are doing more community outreach.”

In his question to Trottenberg, Hartigan pointed out the MTA estimates there would be a 33 percent increase in the number of cars on 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th Sts. if the busway was implemented on 14th St. between Third and Eighth Aves. between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

The same traffic analysis, published in February, states that if just 3 percent to 5 percent of morning peak-hour bus riders opt for cabs or Ubers should 14th St. buses get stuck in traffic, making no changes to existing 14th St. transportation usage could be worse for side streets than the proposed busway. On the other hand, crosstown travel delays would drop by 51 percent during morning and evening peak rush hours with the busway versus doing no changes on 14th St., according to the report.

The MTA’s traffic analysis considered the overall picture of Manhattan streets, with a particular focus on travel times rather than specific increases of the number of cars. The analysis determined that a 14th St. busway between Third and Eighth and Ninth Aves. would be most efficient.

Residents repeatedly raised environmental and air-quality concerns about the proposed increase of buses along the routes from the Williamsburg Bridge through Downtown and the Village to 14th St. The coalition’s lawsuit includes some of these concerns, as well. Some 200 buses were purchased for the shutdown, only 15 of which will be electric buses. At the town hall, Byford said he would look into increasing the number of electric and natural gas buses for the L train mitigation plan.

Residents have complained that commuters’ needs have been prioritized over their own, and that residents’ concerns have not been heard or incorporated into the plan in a meaningful way.

“I don’t understand if this is a recovery effort or city planning — where you’re ramming something down our throats and sidestepping an environmental impact statement,” Susan Finley, co-founder of the Flatiron Alliance, said at the town hall. Finley, also a member of the coalition suing the agencies, reiterated concerns about historic, narrow side streets and old underground infrastructure being unable to handle the increased car and bus traffic, and fears that the temporary plans would become permanent after the shutdown.

“No one wants to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” Trottenberg responded, apologizing that the city needs to repair the L train after it was inundated with saltwater during Hurricane Sandy. “We didn’t just dream this all up for no reason.” Rather, she said, some 400,000 L train riders — 225,000 of whom go through the Canarsie Tunnel every day — need a new way to commute.

“We’ve said here that we think everything is going to be temporary,” Trottenberg said, adding that at the project’s end, the transit and transportation agencies could re-engage the community about what could possibly stay permanent.

Yet, at the same time, she assured, “But the things we’ve said are temporary, they are temporary.”

Though residents are concerned about the buses’ environmental impact, Byford reiterated that buses would be more efficient than cars. Although a majority of the buses in the mitigation plan would be diesel, buses hold 60 to 70 people, which would be more efficient in terms of environmental impact than, for instance, 60 or 70 individual cars would be, he noted.

“Reading into the room a little bit, the notion came out, time and time again, that buses were somehow going to be more environmentally degrading than private cars,” Chelsea Yamada, a Manhattan organizer with TransAlt, said after the town hall. “It led me to ask a question, which the president of New York City Transit, Andy Byford, answered: The buses will be more efficient than doing nothing.

“There was a lot of fear about environmentalism being spun into really an efficiency question that the president answered very simply: Busways are the way to go,” she added.

Daily cycling volume is expected to double if the L train shuts down between Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to the MTA. To handle the expected increased volume of cyclists, the DOT plans to install a two-way protected bikeway with a bike-parking hub on University Place between 13th and 14th Sts.

Residents asked how bicyclists’ bad behaviors would be reined in — saying they were afraid of being injured or even killed by rogue bike riders. In the evening’s first question, a man asked Trottenberg how DOT would help train cyclists to keep them from killing him. Another man said his nose was broken when a cyclist struck him. One woman said the Flatiron District is being “terrorized” by cyclists. In response, one cyclist later said that she bikes very slowly and is not a terrorist.

Trottenberg said there are about 200 total roadway fatalities each year, and less than half a dozen of those are from a bicycle hitting a pedestrian. She added, though, that she does understand pedestrians’ fear about some bicyclists engaging in dangerous behavior.

Advocates for the mitigation plan, however, said it’s too late now to start tinkering.

“At this point, it’s like climate change denial,” said Leff, the TransAlt activist. “At this point, with less than a year to go before the L shutdown, there have been more than enough public meetings for everyone to have their say. We cannot shut down a city for a few people.” Leff said the statistics on cyclists are clear: Motor vehicles are far more dangerous in terms of roadway fatalities.

In addition, some residents whose buildings only have entrances on 14th St. voiced concern about accessing the street when they need to use a car due to mobility issues.

“I am not an old woman,” said Betty Sternlicht, who works as a regional brand manager and said she is not associated with any group or coalition. “But I occasionally have arthritis pain, and if I’m coming home from work and I can’t bear to take the subway station stairs, I’ll take a cab home, precisely so it will leave me in front of my building.”

The answer she has been given is that she could take a cab to the corner of Fifth Ave. and then walk down the block to her home from there.

“If I could walk from Fifth Ave., I would take the subway,” she said. Access-a-Ride isn’t an option for her, she told Trottenberg.

An audience member speaks up. | Photo by Tequila Minksy

The DOT and the MTA still have not made final decisions on several factors regarding the busway. Trottenberg said she is still considering what type of vehicles could be allowed on 14th St. besides buses, including emergency vehicles, Access-a-Ride or even trucks and cars that are for 14th St. residents only. Additionally, how many hours per day the busway would be in effect is still up in the air. However, last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he does not support a 24-hour-a-day busway.

Though residents, particularly coalition members, are skeptical of a busway, transit advocates argue that without a 24-hour busway, the traffic issues residents fear would come to pass and create a “nightmare scenario.” Specifically, if the L train shutdown plan does not address commuters’ needs 24 hours a day, they would turn to taxis and ride-sharing car services, advocates predict. TransAlt estimates 40,000 additional car trips each day into Manhattan if the MTA doesn’t create a 24-hour L train shutdown plan.

On Wed., May 16, the DOT and MTA held another town hall, in Brooklyn.

“I think this was actually a very telling moment, whereby the city replied to one of the 15th St. residents to the question ‘What is being done for 15th St.?’ ” TransAlt’s Yamada said. “And they said, ‘We’re going to keep having a conversation with you.’ ”

Yamada said she hopes that conversation can be more public — between residents and advocates — to explore the so-called “toolkit” Trottenberg spoke of.

“The vast majority of people who use the street will never get a say,” Yamada said, concerned that resident groups alone will influence DOT decisions on side-street traffic patterns. “I’m interested to see if that’s going to be a transparent conversation.”

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