L shutdown plan a real train wreck, residents say

BY REBECCA FIORE | Residents along 13th St. are concerned and skeptical of the city Department of Transportation’s newly released proposal for the reconstruction of 13th and 14th Sts., just one part of the plan to accommodate the L train 15-month long maintenance project slated to begin April 2019.

Polly Trottenberg, the D.O.T. commissioner, spoke before the City Council Committee on Transportation on Thurs, Dec. 14, revealing a 14th St. busway, where two-way M14 Select Bus Service will travel, blocking off all other vehicles during rush hour, with the exception of Access-A-Ride. Deliveries would be allowed during off-hours.

In her testimony, Trottenberg called the S.B.S. an “upgrade-plus” that would include temporary bus bulbs, a sidewalk expansion and improved station elements at stops. Bus stops would be offset — out of the travel lane — with commercial loading zones in between.

This busway street treatment would run between Third and Eighth Aves. traveling westbound and between Ninth and Third Aves. traveling eastbound. It is not clear whether or not these measures would be temporary fixtures as a result of the L train closure or they would become permanent.

According to a D.O.T. spokesperson, “A version of Select Bus Service will remain on 14th St. However, when the L train returns, the ridership demands will lessen and the street design may change accordingly.”

Residents are concerned that since car traffic would be restricted on 14th St., drivers would be forced to side streets, such as 13th St., which D.O.T. has additional proposed changes for.

“We are carrying a lot of the burden,” Birgitte Philippides-Delaney, president of the W. 13th St. Alliance, said. “This was presented as a plan, a done deal, not a work in progress. It’s been very upsetting to the community. We live in one of the last remaining 19th-century neighborhoods. There’s got to be other solutions besides 13th St. bearing the brunt of this.”

Along 13th St., Trottenberg said, would be the first two-way protected crosstown bike lane, stretching from Avenue C to Ninth Ave. To do this, D.O.T. would remove the parking lane on the south side of the street, install the bike lane, and reduce the street to a smaller travel lane with parking on the other side.

The new 13th St. crosstown bike lane is “expected to be permanent,” the D.O.T. spokesperson said.

“Robert Moses initiated projects without neighborhood input or commentary. A bike lane is not a highway, but it will have major and irreversible impacts on W. 13th St.,” Philippides- Delaney said.

Philippides-Delaney, who lived on W. 13th St. for more than 25 years, said that in the public meetings she attended, held by D.O.T. and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, she had never heard of a plan for bike lanes on her block.

“The Alliance, we are not opposed to bike lanes in general,” she said. “The question is are the bike lanes appropriate for historical residential streets? Without knowing the details, or not having a chance to speak up during a public commentary period, we are skeptical.”

Gary Tomei, president of the W. 13th St. 100 Block Association, echoed similar sentiments that at the previous meetings held on Feb. 23 and March 9 hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, along with D.O.T. and the M.T.A., there was never a discussion of bike lanes along 13th St.

“No one is against bicycles and having the use of bicycles,” Tomei said, “but not at the expense of our community and not in this arbitrary way.”

Some of the safety concerns for residents living on the block include that the one lane of traffic would be backed up by people getting into or out of cabs or unpacking groceries from cars, that crossing the two-way protected bike lane could be dangerous, and that children who attend City and Country School, at 146 W. 13th St., would be endangered by cyclists.

The school’s principal, Scott Moran, said that his biggest concern is for the safety of his students. “Losing an area for children to easily be dropped off is unnecessarily dangerous,” he said. “Our children range from age 2 to 14, and you can imagine the chaos of having those children crossing an active roadway to get to school.”

Currently, the school’s drop-off zone is directly in front of the building, and according to the city’s proposal, the bike lane would run right through that spot.

Moran said no officials notified the school of D.O.T.’s proposal and that they heard the news through being active members of the W. 13th St. 100 Block Association.

At the Transportation Committee hearing last Thursday, local Councilmember Corey Johnson asked what data was used to show that restricting vehicular traffic on 14th St. wouldn’t just flood neighboring side streets. While Trottenberg said she would make this data publicly available, that has not yet been done.

“We can’t promise there won’t be impacts on neighborhoods,” Trottenberg said, adding that D.O.T. needs to discourage people from driving in Manhattan. “This is the enormity of the challenge we are facing, with 50,000 people on 14th St. that were formerly traveling underground coming up to the surface,” she explained. “We want to accommodate them with buses so they don’t all get into Ubers because that will only make traffic worse… . If we do nothing, unfortunately, the streets of Lower Manhattan will be filled with traffic during these 15 months.”

In addition to the bus stops and lanes on 14th St., the plan calls for a 10-foot-wide pedestrian sidewalk extension, intended to accommodate the droves of additional displaced L train riders.

But Tomei doesn’t think that those 50,000 estimated riders would all be coming to Union Square since many commuters currently continue their route connecting to other trains and don’t just get off on 14th St.

“Most people that take the L train don’t use it to come to 14th St.,” he stated. “They get to Union Square and change trains either going Downtown or Uptown.”

Tomei said he believes the L train construction is just an excuse D.O.T. is using to radically reshape the streets how it sees fit.

Straphangers exiting the subway at 14th St. and Eighth Ave., the westernmost stop on the L line. According to D.O.T., 50,000 people a day currently use the L train just to go crosstown in Manhattan along 14th St.  Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Similarly, Judy Pesin, a W. 13th St. resident and member of the W. 13th St. 100 Block Association, is not convinced that there will be an influx of people at Union Square.

“They are not coming to 14th St.,” she scoffed. “They are coming to change transportation. They are not bringing people to 14th St. because that’s not the ultimate destination. I don’t believe, personally, that there will be tens of thousands of people on 14th St.”

Pesin suggested switching the bike lane designated for 13th St. with the extra pedestrian room planned for 14th St. However, Trottenberg said in her testimony that the “sheer volume of buses that will be on 14th St. and the need for expanded pedestrian space will not mix well with the high cyclist volume we expect.”

After a meeting with D.O.T. and the M.T.A. in July, Community Board 2 wrote the agencies a joint letter expressing their concerns. Not only did C.B. 2 encourage D.O.T. to repair three of the L train subway stations in C.B. 2’s district — including making the Sixth Ave. stop comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act — but they also asked that an Environmental Impact Study, or E.I.S., be done for areas that would be affected by the additional buses and car traffic.

“Impacts also should be addressed on other crosstown streets besides 14th, e.g., 23rd, 34th and 42nd, since the project’s effects will spread beyond the immediate project area,” the board’s July 31 letter read.

It is not clear if an E.I.S. was ever done, though, since no further information has been given to C.B. 2. But the proposal read that the Third and Sixth Ave. stations would receive platform repairs, A.D.A. boarding areas and track, wall, column and floor repairs.

Asked if an E.I.S. had been done for the proposed changes, the D.O.T. spokesperson responded, “D.O.T. has worked with M.T.A. to incorporate the projected travel shifts during the L train shutdown into traffic analyses for all of the mitigation projects. Treatments including bus priority and bike lanes align with our overarching goal to keep people out of private cars and get them onto transit to the greatest extent possible during the temporary closure of the Canarsie tunnel. We believe that these alternatives will result in far less congestion and pollution than would otherwise exist during this major subway repair.”

The Canarsie tunnel — the L train tunnel under the East River connecting Manhattan to Williamsburg — needs repairs due to damage sustained during Superstorm Sandy, which is what is prompting the plan to shut down L train service east of Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn.

Shirley Secunda, chairperson of the Traffic and Transportation Committee of C.B. 2, said that she noticed there doesn’t seem to be “real consideration of impacts on the side streets,” and that she isn’t sure why the “bikeway is on the side street rather than 14th St.” Beyond that, though, she said the committee has to wait for more information to come out.

Some groups, including Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit organization focusing on increasing nonpolluting forms of travel, released a statement in favor of D.O.T.’s proposal. In the release, Executive Director Paul Steely White said TransAlt was “pleased to see that street space has been set aside for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders.”

TransAlt did stress, however, that all-door boarding is “an absolute must for the shuttles that will carry transit riders who will be using L train-replacement bus shuttles.”

TransAlt also said that while bike lanes that would be implemented on “Grand, Delancey, 13th and 20th Sts. are necessary, there must also be considerations made for cyclists on 14th St. Working cyclists, in particular, must use 14th St. since it is a commercial corridor that is home to dozens of restaurants.”

The D.O.T. spokesperson said that, in addition to the new two-way 13th St. bike lane, new “bike facilities” planned for 20th and Grand Sts. are also “expected to be permanent.”

Trottenberg ended her testimony before the Council committee last week by saying there would be new rounds of public outreach for these plans in the new year in January and February. The changes to 13th and 14th Sts. would start to be implemented in late summer or early fall of next year.

Many questions remain unanswered. For example, W. 13th St. is a primary ambulance route for the new Lenox Health Greenwich Village stand-alone emergency department and comprehensive care center, at W. 12th St. and Seventh Ave., neighbors noted.

Asked if the impact on ambulance routes was considered in the plans, the D.O.T. spokesperson responded, “All street design changes are vetted by the N.Y.P.D. and F.D.N.Y. for emergency vehicle access needs.”

Also, it was not immediately known what sort of barriers would protect the proposed 13th St. bike lane. Asked if these would be bollards or cement islands, for example, the spokesperson said, “The project is still under development. We will be presenting the draft design to the community boards early in the new year.”

Blindsided residents are now scrambling to express their concerns about the suddenly sprung proposal and, if possible, try to modify it.

“I personally don’t know what the most effective step will be except to get people’s voices heard,” Pesin, of the W. 13th St. 100 Block Association, said. “I have about 100 e-mails from the block association.

“We are trying to get voices heard so D.O.T. understands what is going on. Hopefully, this time we can make reasonable changes.”

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