L work already hell, East Side residents tell agency officials

Causing a cloud of dust, a backhoe dumped a load of debris from the First Ave. L station into an uncovered dumpster on E. 14th St. The work is being done to add elevators to the station and new exits for it at Avenue A, and also prepare it to be the main staging area and extraction point for the L train tunnel repairs, which are planned to last at least 15 months. Photo by Bob Krasner

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Sun., Sept. 23, 2018, 10:10 p.m.: At a town hall meeting on the city’s L train shutdown plan at Middle Collegiate Church Monday night, anxious East Villagers raised an outcry about a station-improvement project currently underway at First Ave. that they said is already making their lives hell. But they are even more worried now after recently discovering that the same spot will also be the main staging area for the 15-month-long renovation of the L line’s Canarsie Tunnel tubes.

In addition, Lower East Side and Little Italy residents voiced fears about their neighborhoods being inundated with convoys of buses as part of the project’s “alternative service plan” — which they blasted as poorly thought out — for when the L would be shut down west of Brooklyn’s Bedford Ave.

The East Side town hall, at the historic church at E. Seventh St. and Second Ave., came about after a similar town hall on the L plan was held on W. 14th St. in May. Back then, City Councilmember Carlina Rivera reached out to agency officials to ensure that her constituents would have an equal chance to question officials and air their concerns about the massive project’s impact on their neighborhoods.

Responding to 150 of those constituents at Middle Collegiate Church Monday was a panel including Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation; Andy Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority; Eric Beaton, D.O.T. deputy commissioner for transportation and management; and Peter Cafiero, N.Y.C.T.A. chief of operations planning.

‘It’s like Beirut’

Most of the audience questions during the Q & A period were from residents living near the L’s First Ave. station, where work has been going on since July 2017 to add entrances / exits at Avenue A and handicap-accessible elevators — and also apparently to prep it as the primary staging area for the tunnel repairs. Locals complained of clouds and plumes of dust — that they say are causing them headaches and throat pain — aggravating beeping from construction vehicles backing up, big trees being felled and the work site being “lit up like a movie set” throughout the night.

“I feel like I’m living in Beirut,” said Joan Steele. “I feel so sick in my apartment, the noise, the air quality. They’ve chopped down trees at will.”

Locals said they were worried about silica and asbestos dust from both the current project and the larger tunnel repair work, which is set to start in April 2019. They were livid at hearing that the work would allegedly be going on 24 / 7 outside their windows.

“Mesothelioma is almost always fatal,” said one young Stuyvesant Town resident, of the slow-developing lung disease connected to asbestos. “I have seen the workers wearing respirators.”

Byford: I’m on it

But Byford said while there is indeed asbestos in the city’s subway tunnels, it is handled very carefully.

“You’re not asking if asbestos is present — you’re asserting that it is,” he responded, regarding residents’ concerns about the air and debris being taking out of the East Side work site.

He added they will “get something up on the Web site” to explain what is actually in the dust and debris.

Byford told them that the concerns they were raising were serious and that he would visit the project director on site the next day.

“I’m taking copious notes,” he said.

On Friday night, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, N.Y.C.T.A.’s umbrella agency, posted some general information online about how it handles asbestos and silica dust at its worksites. However, it didn’t contain specific information about air-quality readings at the E. 14th St. worksite.

Laura Sewell, executive director of the East Village Community Coalition, added that the disruptive work has already driven five local stores out of business.

Some residents are hoping the M.T.A. will at least buy them soundproof windows.

Street vs. tunnel work

An M.T.A. spokesperson subsequently told The Villager that, yes, the spot where new elevators are being added for the First Ave. station would be where all of the debris from the tunnel repairs would be removed and where all the new materials would be brought in. However, he said, while the tunnel repairs would go on 24 / 7, the street-level construction would not be round-the-clock. They are doing environmental monitoring at the site, including for dust control and PM 10 particulate matter in the air, he added — and will also be looking at PM 2.5, fine particulate matter, from “existing NY State Department of Conservation monitors.”

All kinds of detritus and debris are scattered about E. 14th St. around Avenue A and extending along the street east and west as part of the work at the First Ave. L subway station. But the worst may be yet to come, as the subway station is set to be ground zero for the extraction of all the damaged material — including the tracks — from the Canarsie Tunnel under the East River, which was seriously damaged by salt water during Superstorm Sandy. Under the city’s plan, in addition to being the main extraction point, the spot where elevators will be added would also be the main point for bringing in construction materials to renovate the tunnel. Photo by Bob Krasner

“We have also already made changes with community input on switching diesel-powered equipment to electric-powered where possible,” he added, “and requested that subcontractors use as many of their trucks outfitted with white-noise back-up beepers in their fleet on the job as are available.”

Residents and politicians are upset that they are only now learning that the First Ave. station will be the tunnel project’s extraction point. But the spokesperson said that people now have seven months’ advance notice, which is not short notice.

Pols monitoring, too

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was among the local politicians addressing the panel and audience.

“This is extremely important for both sides of the river,” he said of the proposed L project. “This is not going to be easy, even with the best mitigation plans. I know there are still serious concerns from folks that live around 14th St. and the side streets, from folks who live around Kenmare Square,” referring to Little Italy’s Petrosino Square, “and from folks who live around the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. … We are all going to feel some pain,” Johnson said, before pointing at the panelists and vowing, “I want you to know I will hold you accountable during the process.”

Toll already causes traffic

City Councilmember Margaret Chin said, “I just cannot imagine all those buses coming off the bridge,” adding she was skeptical about some of the proposed temporary bus routes being able to make the tight turn from Kenmare St. onto Cleveland Place. Chin added that if a two-way toll was restored on the Verrazano Bridge, it would go a long way toward helping ease congestion on Downtown’s streets over all.

“Hopefully, we’ll take back Congress and have that reversed [sic],” she said of the current one-way toll.

But state Senator Brian Kavanagh said of the Verrazano, “I don’t think we need to wait.” Basically, now that there is cashless tolling — meaning there would be no toll-plaza backups on Staten Island — it shouldn’t be a problem to quickly rebalance the bridge fee, he said, to applause from the crowd.

D’Amato’s legacy

Trottenberg later said that it would take an act of Congress to rebalance the bridge toll since, in a highly unusual move, former Senator Al D’Amato was able to insert the toll change into a federal bill.

Other politicians spoke, too, and mostly said the right things that the audience wanted to hear. But what residents really wanted to do was voice their concerns directly to Byford and Trottenberg and get some answers and reassurances back from them.

“We’re still listening. We’re not just going through the motions,” Byford stated early on.

Tubes are corroding

He said the L train tubes under the East River, though badly damaged by flooding with saltwater during Hurricane Sandy, are safe only because N.Y.C.T.A. took emergency action to shore up their systems.

“But corrosion is continuing,” he noted. “We would have to shut it down eventually.”

Worst damaged are the “conduits” — basically, concrete parts of the tubes through which electrical cables are threaded. Most of what’s in the tunnels now needs to be ripped out and removed — from the tracks to the corroded conduits — and replaced with new equipment.

Mitigation plan

Byford acknowledged that during the anticipated L shutdown, about 70 percent of displaced L riders would switch to alternative subway lines. The G line would have longer trains. M service is being improved.

Andy Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority, right, and Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city Department of Transportation, tried their best to address audience questions. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

And, once the Canarsie Tunnel is repaired, Byford said, the authority would be able to run more trains on the tracks since new substations would be added to boost the line’s power.

He added that, earlier just that day, the city had agreed to have larger ferries — with 240 passengers versus 149 — on a new route to run between Williamsburg and Stuyvesant Town during the L shutdown. There would be a total of three of these ferries, with two running until the late hours, and one on standby.

High H.O.V. hopes

The Williamsburg Bridge, meanwhile, would be totally converted to H.O.V. (High Occupancy Vehicle), with lanes for H.O.V.-3 cars (with a minimum of three passengers), and “busway” lanes.

The bridge, as Byford put it, would be “a very high-intensity H.O.V. and busway,” from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., with more than 80 buses per hour streaming into Manhattan.

“That’s more than a bus per minute,” he noted.

“Build a new tunnel!” a woman in the audience cried out in frustration.

But Byford said that wouldn’t work, and that the L tunnels are decaying.

“That would take six years,” he said. “We don’t have six years — we don’t have two years.”

He later said that closing one tunnel at a time for repairs would double the project’s duration to three years, while doing overnight work only would be difficult because of having to clean up silica dust from the work to allow riders to safely use the tunnel during the day.

Added Trottenberg, “We are really hoping this H.O.V. lane will do a lot and will…discourage people from driving into Manhattan during this period. … A big part of the plan is to have less vehicles come into Manhattan. The more we have buses, the more we have people cycling, hopefully, it will get people out of cars.”

Pushing pedaling

The mitigation plan would also see crosstown bike lanes added in Manhattan on 12th and 13th Sts. The lanes would be “protected” by buffer zones ranging from 4 feet to 9 feet wide, with flexible plastic “delineator” poles that motor vehicles — like fire trucks — can drive over, if need be. Installation of the new bike lanes was scheduled to start on Thurs., Aug. 20.

“We do think cycling is going to be a big part of the solution,” Trottenberg explained, adding that the number of bike-share CitiBikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn would be increased, and that the new pedal-assist CitiBikes are making it easier for some people to bike over the Williamsburg Bridge.

She later added, “I think the bike lane we’re building potentially will be the fastest way to go from the East Village to Williamsburg.” She later added, “Bicycles burn no gas and emit no carbon. One of the things we heard in the community is that there’s a lack of protected east-west lanes.”

She noted there had been a number of cyclist fatalities in the past year on Chelsea side streets.

Want electric buses

Both Chin and Kavanagh called for nonpolluting electric instead of diesel buses to be used during the interim plan. Byford said that, of the 200 new buses that would be added to the streets under the plan, five would be electric and 10 would be electric / diesel hybrids, and that more such buses would be added moving forward to the greatest extent possible.

Byford said N.Y.C.T.A. would also be monitoring the air for dust, specifically, PM 10 particulate matter.

Local residents peppered the Transit and Transportation leaders with questions. The man at left noted that, if buses going in both ways were counted, then, under the city’s plan, 160 buses per hour would be coming off of and going onto the Williamsburg Bridge per hour. He also wanted to know exactly how and where H.O.V.-3 enforcement would be done and if it would really work. D.O.T. Commissioner Trottenberg responded that they feel drivers would abide by the rule, but that if more is needed to enforce it, then that would be done. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

The ultimate goal is for the city to move to an all-electric bus fleet as soon as possible, he said.

“You will have a faster ride [on 14th St.] during the L shutdown than you normally have,” Trottenberg said of the Select Bus Service busway that would operate from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., under the plan.

In addition, the Federal Transportation Authority recently issued a Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact a.k.a. FONSI on the entire L shutdown plan, including the mitigation plan and the new bus routes with their scores of new buses that would be added.

Make that 160 buses

During audience questions to the panel, one Lower East Sider said that, actually, the correct number of buses rumbling to and fro at the Williamsburg Bridge would not be 80 but 160 per hour, when buses going in each direction are included.

“Where will the enforcement be done?” he asked of the H.O.V. requirement.

A Transit Bureau police chief at the event said it would be done on the Manhattan side of the bridge.

Cradling her four-and-a-half-month-old daughter, Augusta, Georgette Fleischer, president of Friends of Petrosino Square, said the prospect of 48 diesel buses per hour coming around their corner at Cleveland St. was a nightmare.

“What are you going to say to this child if she gets asthma?” she said. “If you cared about the health of our children, you would have [zero-emission] buses in place. You need to get them by April 2019.”

Uber invasion

Daniel Loeb, an E. 11th St. resident, warned the community would be inundated with Ubers and Lyfts during the L shutdown.

“Our neighborhood, in the last 10 years the demographics have changed,” he said. “Now we have million-dollar condos. These people are not going to wait on long lines for buses. And we have to deal with that for two years?”

Trottenberg said not to worry since people won’t be able to take Ubers across 14th St. or the Williamsburg Bridge.

There is also concern that the changes that D.O.T. would implement under the plan could become permanent.

One audience member, a West Sider, asked the panel, “Can we have all of your commitment to put things back the way they were when you’re done? I would not like to see 14th St. closed to traffic,” he said, to audience applause.

Interim or lasting?

Trottenberg responded that temporary changes would include the 14th St. busway, the 12th and 13th St. bike lanes. and a new bike lane on Grand St. in Brooklyn, while permanent changes would include a new Delancey St. bike lane and bike lanes in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Yet the D.O.T. commissioner did not rule out making the temporary changes permanent, noting, “If a lot of people like them, we’re going to have that discussion. I’d like to keep the door open.”

Added Byford, “I’ve learned, don’t box yourself into a corner — because you may like something about it!”

Lawsuit update

Village attorney Arthur Schwartz is representing the ad hoc 14th St. Coalition and other plaintiffs in an environmental lawsuit against the L shutdown project. He told The Villager that instead of the previous two-in-one lawsuit, he’s going to refile the state part of the lawsuit next week, and also may refile the federal part, as well.

After the town hall, The Villager asked Beaton, the D.O.T. deputy commissioner for transportation and management, about Schwartz’s assertion that N.Y.C.T.A., the M.T.A. and city D.O.T. left out a key point of their “Supplemental Environmental Assessment” for the project: Namely, that traffic would actually move faster on 14th St. with S.B.S. buses and not taking away any current traffic lanes versus the much-hyped busway that the city is pitching, which would include extending the pedestrian space into the current parking lanes, and thus reducing the number of lanes on each side of the street from three to two.

However, Beaton responded that “nothing was hidden” in the S.E.A., and explained that the agencies must “balance” various needs. In short, he said, it’s expected that there would be more pedestrians — up to double the current number — on 14th St. if the city’s L mitigation plan was enacted, so bus speed on 14th St. isn’t the only consideration: Extra pedestrian space would be needed.

He gave the example of Bushwick residents who would want to get to Union Square: Instead of taking the L to Union Square, they would take the M to Sixth Ave. and 14th St. and then walk the two blocks east, adding to the pedestrian traffic on the street.

But Schwartz scoffed that he felt the F.T.A. response on the S.E.A. was “ridiculous” and “looked like it was written by the M.T.A.”

“People from over there on E. 14th St. now want to join the lawsuit,” he said, “and  people from Petrosino Square also want to join.”

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