Elevators are a Win but L Fight Continues

Milagros Franco, who has been disabled from birth and lives in the East 20s, said that each new subway elevator is another victory for accessibility. | Photo by Lincoln Anderson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Village and Chelsea residents, along with disabled advocates and local politicians, hailed a major victory on Monday morning when they announced that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has agreed to install handicap-accessible elevators at the L subway station at Sixth Ave. and W. 14th St.

But members of the 14th St. Coalition — which includes a broad swath of Village and Chelsea block associations and residents associations in large apartment buildings — said there is still a long way to go to address their concerns about the mitigation plan for the city’s L-train shutdown plan. In fact, they say, they are being stonewalled: They specifically repeatedly blasted Polly Trottenberg, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT), for turning a deaf ear and showing a veritable Robert Moses-like haughty disdain for their concerns.

“We’re glad the MTA responded,” said Julianne Bond, a co-leader of the coalition, speaking at Monday’s press conference outside the Sixth Ave. station. “We are extremely disappointed in the DOT. The DOT’s refusal to answer even basic questions is arrogant, disgraceful and disrespectful.”

Similarly, disabled advocates and local politicians said that — while the MTA is at least, thankfully, listening to them and working with them — as witnessed by the promised Sixth Ave. elevators — the MTA still must do much more, namely, by committing to making the entire subway system accessible for the disabled, the elderly, parents with baby strollers, and all the others who need it.

The city plans to shut down the L subway line between Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg and W. 14th St. and Eighth Ave. in Manhattan for 15 months starting next April, so that it can repair the Canarsie Tunnel tubes under the East River, which were damaged by Superstorm Sandy six years ago.

In early April, the ad-hoc 14th St. Coalition and disabled groups sued the MTA, New York City Transit Authority (which is a subagency of the MTA), the city’s Department of Transportation and the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) over the L shutdown plan. One part of the lawsuit — demanding that handicap-accessible elevators be added to the subway stations in the shutdown area — has now been settled as a result of the Sixth Ave. agreement. Under the terms, construction of a pair of lifts at Sixth Ave. must start on or before Dec. 31, 2020, and be completed and fully operational on or before Dec. 31, 2022. In addition, two more Americans With Disabilities Act-compatible elevators must be added at the Sixth Ave. and 14th St. station by 2024 to connect to the F train there.

The other part of the lawsuit contends that because the tunnel-repair project is receiving $700 million in federal funds, an environmental study on the whole plan’s impacts must be done under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Until recently, the agencies had been staunchly arguing that no such formal study was required.

Joined by disabled advocates, attorney Arthur Schwartz announced that the disabled-access part of the L shutdown lawsuit has been settled at Sixth Ave. and 14th St., where the MTA has agreed to add elevators. At left, are Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and Councilmember Carlina Rivera. | Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Village activist attorney Arthur Schwartz brought the dual-pronged lawsuit pro bono for the plaintiffs. At the elevators press conference, Schwartz — who is also the Village’s Democratic district co-leader — praised the MTA for reaching the agreement in “record time” — in just slightly more than 30 days since their first court hearing.

The press conference’s backdrop was the usual chaotic morning rush-hour traffic clogging the intersection. Speakers had to project their voices over the din of roaring buses and snorting garbage trucks, plus the occasional ambulance, siren frantically wailing, struggling to get through the traffic jam. Referring to the mayhem on the street, Schwartz said implementing the L-shutdown scheme would be a major mess.

Under the city’s plan, DOT wants to narrow congested 14th St. from four lanes of moving traffic down to just two lanes, while making this major crosstown artery exclusively a “busway,” with no cars — with a third lane in the middle as a passing lane; meanwhile, the proposal would also see the sidewalks extended out into what are currently the parking lanes. DOT and MTA maintain this is all needed to accommodate the droves of displaced L riders who would be flooding 14th St. if the subway were shut down. But Schwartz and coalition members scoff that 14th St. is being targeted for a half-baked “experiment” that, in fact, would be a recipe for disaster, and would completely inundate the surrounding smalls streets with traffic.

“Just look at the traffic here on 14th St. and Sixth Ave.,” the attorney said, incredulously. “They want to throw this all off onto the side streets.”

As for how ambulances would get crosstown quickly to Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital under the proposed 14th St. scheme, Schwartz said they were told ambulances would have to use the extended pedestrian areas.

Coalition members said they planned to meet with Manhattan Gale Brewer this Friday to urge her to back their call that 14th St. be kept as a four-lane street and that the pedestrian space not be increased into the parking lanes. They said the crosstown boulevard’s sidewalks are already extra-wide, and that a few simple tweaks could be done to ensure that there are no bottlenecks. For example, there should be enforcement against vendors who clog up spots — such as the book vendor at the western end of Union Square — and a couple of halal carts that encroach on crosswalks; these vendors could be shifted into the new pedestrian areas the city wants to create, as part of the plan, on Union Square West, they suggested. And newsstands at Sixth Ave. and Eighth Ave. could be moved so that they are not abutting L-train exits, which currently creates a double-wide sidewalk obstacle.

Then there is the problem of construction, which takes up traffic lanes, too. Local residents and community boards are calling for a moratorium on construction on 14th St. in the event of the L shutdown. Chelsea activist Stanley Bulbach, for one, noted there are currently six empty lots on 14th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. alone, with some of them with construction projects already underway.

Michael Schweinsberg, president of the 504 Democrats — a political club whose members are disabled — speaking at the press conference as City Councilmember Carlina Rivera listened, at left. | Photo by Lincoln Anderson

In other major news, Schwartz also announced that the MTA and DOT recently submitted an application for a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) to address the community’s cries that the sweeping mitigation plan at least have a formal study regarding its impacts on the surrounding area. This EA would state whether, in turn, a more-rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would need to be conducted. Schwartz said that, so far, he has been rebuffed in his efforts to obtain the draft EA through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.

Schwartz added that, in his understanding, under the EA process, a level of public review is required — and that this would require a public hearing.

“Not a town hall — a public hearing,” he stressed, adding that the FTA might have to be the lead agency for the hearing, tough he was not 100 percent sure of that. Local residents have angrily complained that the “outreach” meetings, and only more recently, town halls, about the L shutdown plan, have been very disappointing — with Trottenberg, in particular, sometimes just rolling her eyes at their concerns — and that they feel their views still are not being taken into account.

“The fact that they are doing an Environmental Assessment means there’s a door open that wasn’t before,” Schwartz explained. “And there’s definitely a public process as part of an EA at some point — they have to listen to the public. To me, that means they’ve moved the mitigation part a step backwards.”

As for how this new development could affect the whole project’s timetable, Schwartz stated, “They’re not going to do anything until the judge rules on this.”

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein speaking at the press conference as Michael Schweinsberg, president of the 504 Democrats and Councilmember Carlina Rivera listened, at left. | Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera — two East Side local pols — both joined the press conference about the Sixth Ave. elevators victory. Disabled advocates said a press conference the two recently participated in at the Third Ave. L station, at which they called for more elevators, helped yield the settlement.

Epstein led the crowd in a chant of “Let them ride!” and said the fact that less than one-quarter of the city’s subway stations are accessible is a disgrace.

“Half a million New Yorkers have a disability,” Rivera said, “but only 20 percent of stations are accessible. That is larger than some countries… We’re going to get an elevator at Third Ave. in my district,” she vowed. Epstein also said the Third Ave. stop needs elevators.

Rivera said she is also asking for a town hall meeting on the L shutdown impact to be held farther east — in her district; a town hall held on W. 14th St. a few weeks ago was a bit far for some residents in her district to attend, she noted.

Milagros Franco, who lives in the East 20s near First Ave., was an individual plaintiff on the disabled part of the lawsuit. Seated in her motorized wheelchair as she spoke into the microphone at the press conference, she said everyone — not just the disabled — benefits, or will eventually benefit, from more subway elevators.

“This is momentous moment for our community,” she said. “Everyone here will eventually need an elevator for themselves or a family member.”

Similarly, Michael Schweinsberg, president of the 504 Democrats, said the “disabled-accessibility movement, in fact, includes us all.

“Everyone is just an accident or an illness or a few years away from joining the disability community,” he noted. “We are the largest minority.”

The disabled unemployment rate currently stands at 62 percent, which would go down if there were improved access to mass transit, he added.

Franco, who was born with cerebral palsy and has always been disabled, said Access-A-Ride is not the preferred transit option, calling it “Stress-A-Ride.”

“When you’re in the chair almost 24 hours a day, any bit of accessibility makes a difference,” she said.

The previous Thursday, about 150 members of the 14th St. Coalition gathered at the Salvation Army building, at 14th St. near Sixth Ave., to hear an update on the fight. David Marcus, another leader of the coalition, noted that a two-way crosstown protected bike lane that DOT plans to add on 13th St. as part of the plan would be used by an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 bicycles per day.

“My God, where are they going to put all these people?” he asked, as audience members audibly groaned. “It just seems so ill advised.”

Thirteenth St. is being targeted for the bike lane because it’s a through street near 14th St., as opposed to streets to the north, which are blocked by Union Square Park.

And there is concern that the mitigation plan, being dubbed temporary by DOT, is anything but that.

“Some of the things they’re doing — on the face — like extending the sidewalks — don’t tell me they’re going to rip those up in 15 months,” Marcus said. “There’s absolutely no transparency.”

Bill Borock, of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, said doing an EIS is critical for the community.

“The environmental study is a big, big thing,” he said. “Even if they think they don’t have to do it, we want them to do it.”

Speakers slammed DOT’s Trottenberg as “obstructionist” and “insensitive.”

Referring to the town hall meetings at which the agency officials nod their heads and feign concern, Susan Finely, a member of the Flatiron Alliance, said, “It’s an illusion of inclusion.”

A DOT spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on residents’ criticisms of Trottenberg, as well as for comment on the significance of the MTA and DOT recently filing a draft EA for the mitigation project. However, he did say, “I want make it clear that the announcement yesterday regarding ADA concerns and the L train project itself are two separate things, despite them being looped together in the handout during some speakers’ remarks. Our traffic-mitigation measures are related specifically to the need to install these while necessary work is conducted. Not taking any action would have a worse than the options offered. As for the elevators, DOT will work collaboratively and in good faith with the MTA to ensure that elevators are sited in areas that are appropriate.”

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