BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Manhattan foes of the L shutdown plan rejoiced Thursday after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a far less-drastic repair project would be done instead.
Arthur Schwartz, the Village attorney who filed suit for the 14th St. Coalition against the plan last year, hailed the news as “a tremendous victory.”
“On behalf of the 14th St. Coalition and the 18 block associations and scores of condominium and co-op buildings we represent, we salute the governor for a wise decision,” the coalition’s leaders said in a statement. “The plan adopted by the M.T.A. and the New York City Department of Transportation, which would have disrupted the lives not only of the 250,000 L train riders, but of hundreds of thousands more in surrounding neighborhoods, was never sound. Every other subway and passenger-car tunnel repair done in New York City to adress the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was done at night and on weekends. The 15-month total-shutdown scenario was a contractor’s dream — a $1 billion contract, at that — and everyone else’s nightmare.”
In fact, the contract to fix the tunnel is only about half that amount.
“The residents of Greenwich Village look forward to the restoration of our streets, our sanity, our bus stops — many of which had been moved — and, yes, our parking spaces,” the coalition’s statement continued. “Our lawsuit addressed to D.O.T.’s mitigation plan remains in place until we, and our community leaders, sit down with D.O.T. to figure out how to restore our community.”
Rather than a total shutdown for 15 months that would have put Manhattan service on complete hiatus, the L will run during weekdays as normal. Repairs to its East River tubes will be done on weeknights and weekends — one tube at a time, leaving the other tube open for two-way subway service between Brooklyn and Manhattan and across 14th St.
Some significant transportation “mitigations” that were part of the plan have also now been discarded. Opponents are hoping the rest are tossed out, as well — particularly a car-less so-called “PeopleWay” that had been planned for 14th St.
Last April, members of the ad-hoc 14th St. Coalition, joined by disabled advocates, filed a federal lawsuit against the L shutdown plan.
On Thursday, Andy Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority, said the idea of having more than 80 buses per hour pour over the Williamsburg Bridge and through the Lower East Side, Little Italy and Soho to connect to subway stations has been abandoned.
It was not immediately clear if the city’s Department of Transportation would still try to push a “busway” for 14th St. At least D.O.T. has not formally said anything about it at this point.
On Thursday, Scott Gastel, a D.O.T. spokesperson, said, “What we are saying at this early point is that D.O.T. will review the plans presented today.”
But attorney Schwartz said it’s clearly no longer justified to ban cars on the critical crosstown boulevard, since the new L-repair plan would be far less disruptive.
“There’s no justification” for the busway, he said. In fact, he predicted, “They won’t close 14th St.” to car traffic.
As a result, residents no longer have to fear traffic being diverted from 14th St. onto their narrow side streets on 12th and 13th Sts. and 15th through 20th Sts., he noted. With Union Square Park blocking through traffic on the streets directly north of 14th, it only would have meant other nearby streets would have been hammered even harder by the spillover effect.
“They can’t defend all the stuff now,” Schwartz said, referring to the mitigation plans. “For example, they’ve painted all these wonky lines on 14th St.,” for the expected busway. “They took away two lanes of traffic on Kenmare and Delancey Sts. for the bikes. They put bike lanes on 12th and 13th Sts. Are they going to keep them?”
Schwartz added that residents living around 14th St. and Avenue A also no longer need fear as massive a construction impact as they had been dreading. The location has been earmarked as the main staging area for all the tunnel repairs. From the sound of it, though, there now will be much less actual demolition done inside the tubes, with fiberglass instead being used to patch over less-damaged areas that can be preserved.
“There’ll be a lot less debris coming out of the tunnel,” Schwartz assured.
He said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transit Authority previously said they were planning to put Select Bus Service on 14th St. anyway — but now that isn’t even justified anymore. Meanwhile, the SBS on 23rd St. has come under fire by many for only exacerbating that street’s congestion.
“Twenty-third St. is a mess,” Schwartz said, adding that 14th St. doesn’t need SBS anyway since it already has the L train running crosstown right beneath it.
More to the point, he stressed, “I don’t think there’s a problem with the bus service on 14th St.”
The attorney also disputes as inflated the transit agencies’ figure that 50,000 people use the L train solely to shuttle crosstown within Manhattan every day.
Coalition members would now like to see the striping that D.O.T. added to 14th St. for the busway removed, according to Schwartz.
A meeting of the coalition’s steering committee coincidentally had already been set for Thursday evening, and Schwartz spoke to The Villager both before it and afterward.
“The number one goal of the 14th St. Coalition is to have them restore 14th St. to the way it was,” he said.
One part of the community lawsuit was also to force the M.T.A. to add handicap-accessible elevators at the subway station at Sixth Ave. and 14th St. In June, the authority agreed to do so, settling that part of the suit.
“I don’t think they can get out it, because we had a deal,” Schwartz said, feeling fairly confident the M.T.A. won’t somehow now try to weasel out of the settlement due to the scrapping of the shutdown plan.
Meanwhile, the new bike lanes on 12th and 13th Sts. had been among residents’ biggest beefs about the mitigation plan. But Thursday, Schwartz, for one, downplayed that issue. The bigger problem for neighbors, to hear him tell it, is the striped buffer area between the new bike lanes and the remaining lane of moving traffic on each street.
“People don’t object to the bike lane as much as the buffer,” he explained. “There’s a sense they could put the white [delineator] poles on the edge of the bike lane, which would restore a 16-foot-wide street. It’s more the buffer than the bike lane per se. … The buffer is being used for truck parking.”
In addition, in anticipation of the expected traffic changes on 14th St., the city recently reversed the traffic direction on University Place between 14th and 13th Sts. from northbound to southbound. But that, in turn, is now “feeding a lot of cars into 13th St.,” he noted.
“That kind of stuff they want reversed,” he said of the coalition members.
Asked if the lawsuit could now be used to force the new bike lanes’ removal, Schwartz said the suit really focused on more significant impacts — like how a flood of car traffic would have been redirected onto the surrounding side streets — and the bike lanes don’t really rise to that level.
As for what the dramatic turnaround on the L shutdown project means in the bigger picture, Schwartz said, “It shows that people shouldn’t give up and say government can do whatever it pleases. That was the approach that a lot of politicians took. But the people leading this fight didn’t give up.”
Georgette Fleischer, president of the Friends of Petrosino Square, was another outspoken voice against the L shutdown project and its impacts — particularly all the additional buses it would have added to the streets. She was elated at Thursday’s news.
Living at Cleveland Place and Kenmare St., and with her new baby’s health at risk, Fleischer had begged Transit Authority chief Byford at a September town hall meeting to consider the impact of “48 diesel buses per hour” coming around their corner.
“What are you going to say to this child if she gets asthma?” she asked Byford then, as she cradled her daughter in her arms. “If you cared about the health of our children, you would have [zero-emission] buses in place.”
On Thursday, Fleischer said, “Fabulous news, and a victory for grassroots activism! The public, which stood to be negatively impacted by the unwieldy and environmentally unfriendly M.T.A./D.O.T. plan, was finally heard.
“Cuomo deserves credit for bringing in engineering experts who have broad, comparative knowledge of major infrastructure projects,” she said. “From the start, it made more sense to do a nights-and-weekends shutdown. Now we learn that the entirety of the benchwall does not need to be replaced, as M.T.A./D.O.T. originally claimed, but rather can mostly be shored up or left as is.”
Fleischer said her environmental plea to Byford and Polly Trottenberg, the D.O.T. commissioner, remains the same: “Whether you send 80 or eight buses an hour over the Williamsburg Bridge, make them zero-emissions rather than diesel-fueled, for the sake of the public and the sake of the planet.”