Clinton’s the problem, L.E.S. locals tell D.O.T. about bridge-traffic hell

Car traffic streaming off the Williamsburg Bridge. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The city Department of Transportation has finally detailed its short- and long-term solutions for congestion problems at Grand and Clinton Sts. The long-term fixes, however — offered at the June 28 Community Board 3 Transportation Committee meeting — are far from final. D.O.T. announced further investigations are necessary to determine which long-term plan for the Williamsburg Bridge traffic is viable.

“I don’t have a lot of definitive answers, but I have a lot more data than I had last time,” Sean Quinn, the agency’s senior director of bicycle and pedestrian programs, told the meeting.

Around 71 percent of southbound traffic coming from the F.D.R. Drive heading toward Delancey St. bound for the Williamsburg Bridge takes Grand St. onto Clinton St. That totals around 600 cars per hour during peak hours, according to D.O.T.

The notorious intersection at Grand and Clinton has been a target of community activists for several years.

“The bottleneck that’s happening at Grand and Clinton didn’t exist before because Clinton St. wasn’t an access point to the bridge,” said Jeremy Sherber, president of the Grand Street Democrats political club. “What we’re trying to convince the D.O.T. of is that Clinton St. is not an appropriate approach to the bridge.”

Back in 2012, D.O.T. banned left turns from Essex St. onto Delancey — which was previously the most dangerous intersection in the city — and implemented traffic changes that made Clinton St. a primary route to the Williamsburg Bridge. The changes had unintended consequences, sparking congestion at Grand and Clinton that plagues residents today.

“It’s just not the place that cars should be getting to the bridge,” Sherber stressed.

The department has already made small, short-term changes, mostly involving better signage. It has modified signal timing and installed signage to get southbound drivers on the F.D.R. to take the E. Houston St. exit instead of the Grand St. exit. Signs along Grand St. also encourage drivers instead to take Norfolk St. — further to the west — to get to Delancey and, ultimately, the bridge.

Yet, despite those changes, travel time from the F.D.R. to the Williamsburg Bridge is still quickest by Grand St. compared to both the E. Houston and South St. highway exits.

Mapping programs, such as Google Maps and Waze, still direct drivers to take Grand St. since it’s the quickest, taking around 5 to 10 minutes to reach the bridge, depending on the time of day. The South St. exit takes 6 to 11 minutes, and the E. Houston St. exit takes 10 to 12 minutes.

Long-term traffic mitigation measures won’t be decided until further analyses are completed at the end of August and into the fall. The department plans to investigate Norfolk St. as the primary route to the bridge, a protected left-turn lane at Essex and Delancey Sts., redesigning the F.D.R. exit ramp to be able to queue more cars, and review Broome St. traffic. The department is also studying more left-turn bans onto Clinton St. during evening peak hours.

Other long-term solutions require a higher-level analysis, such as making Clinton St. one-way and southbound between Grand St. and East Broadway, and using Suffolk St. as another access point to the bridge.

One previous community request that the department is investigating is using the Delancey St. South Service Road as an access point for the bridge from the F.D.R. But that would require more stakeholder input than other traffic fixes — plus, a U-turn onto the bridge would be challenging, the department says.

“The theme of tonight is [that], little by little we’re trying to whittle the number of people using Clinton St. to get to the bridge,” Quinn said. “It’s always going to be the main access point, but we’re trying to figure out ways to peel off 100 vehicles here, 100 vehicles there to free up and make it flow a little more easily.”

Future short-term fixes in the works include removing the word “ALT” from signs leading drivers to Williamsburg Bridge via the F.D.R.’s E. Houston St. exit, installing a protected left-turn phase from Essex St. onto Broome St., adding a traffic guard at Clinton St. and East Broadway, and installing a quick curb (vertical, flexible poles) to separate through and left-turn lanes on Grand St. approaching Clinton.

Community members raised traffic concerns beyond the intersection at Grand and Clinton at the meeting — though they all point back to gridlock from cars headed toward the Williamsburg Bridge.

Take, for instance, the intersection at East Broadway and Clinton St.

Lisa Shapanka Arbisser, another member of the Grand Street Democrats, walks along East Broadway at that intersection nearly every day, taking her two young children, ages 3 and 7, to the Educational Alliance, the Seward Park Library and Seward Park. It may be less congested than Grand and Clinton, but it’s still dangerous, she said.

“It’s not just unpleasant — it’s really unsafe,” she said.

Friday and Saturday evenings, Arbisser has noticed, are particularly bad — with traffic along East Broadway backing up all the way from Clinton to Pitt St.

“There’s generally a ridiculous amount of traffic on Friday afternoon and Saturday evenings,” she said.

Several people at the meeting noted that Clinton St. is so congested that cars speed into the bike lanes. Aaron Fineman, assistant secretary of the Seward Park Co-operative board, said a car once almost hit him and his son, who was riding with him. D.O.T.’s Quinn said Jersey barriers could be an appropriate fix in that instance.

The co-op’s board, which represents residents in more than 1,600 apartments, is preparing recommendations for D.O.T., as well.

“Members of the board, as well as the larger community, have been on the front lines of the Williamsburg Bridge-approach traffic issue for several years now,” Darcey Gerstein, the board’s president, said by e-mail. Gerstein said the traffic fixes currently in place have alleviated some problems, but stressed that Clinton St. as a pathway to the bridge simply is not viable.

Emergency vehicles are also having difficulty accessing people’s buildings on Grand St., according to Sandra Strother, the president of the Grand Street Guild Residents Association. She has personally witnessed the difficulty emergency vehicles have in pulling over to get to the residential buildings at 460 and 410 Grand St.

“If an emergency vehicle comes, it has to wait an inordinate amount of time in order to gain access to the entrance doors of 460 Grand or 410 Grand,” Strother said. An ambulance coming from the wrong direction on the other side of the street has to “bully” its way through traffic to get to the entrance, she said. Strother doesn’t know of any deaths to date because of the issue, but she remains cautious.

“I’m just saying there’s always a possibility of it happening with things as they are,” she said.

Looming in the background of any local traffic solutions going forward is ongoing construction at Essex Crossing, as well as the Delancey St. bicycle network project and the expected L train shutdown. The city plans to shut down the Manhattan stretch of the L train for 15 months starting in April 2019.

The city plans to implement high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV-3) lanes on the bridge during the L train shutdown from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. A D.O.T. spokesperson said it’s expected that the HOV-3 lanes would reduce traffic on streets near the bridge while the L train’s East River tunnel is being repaired. The Police Department will enforce the HOV-3 regulation.

During the C.B. 3 Traffic Committee meeting, some community members asked whether the HOV-3 lanes could be permanent. Others were curious how implementation would take place, wondering where cars without at least three passengers would be directed instead.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety about the L train shutdown,” Arbisser said. “I’m curious to see, and I’m optimistic. I actually hope that whatever they have to decide to do about the L train shutdown that, perhaps going forward, will help with some of the longer-term traffic issues we’re dealing with.”

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