Spitzer nixes dangerous change on West St.

By Skye H. McFarlane

The latest score on West St. is in: Community 1, State Department of Transportation –2… minus two left-hand turn lanes, that is.

After months of meetings, petitioning and phone calls from community members, the state D.O.T. has cautiously agreed to cancel plans to add two southbound turning lanes to the corner of West and Warren Sts. Although the D.O.T. is still working to develop an alternative traffic plan for the area, local advocates were relieved to hear the intersection will not be made more dangerous.

“I’m very happy that the D.O.T. recognized that this was important,” said Bob Townley, head of the West Side Crossings Task Force, which organized a November rally and a petition campaign to protest the turning lanes. “This is a lesson that boots on the ground work. Oftentimes people involved in the community have more information about the needs in the community than the planners do and this shows what can happen if you go at it in a civilized manner and you have receptive planners.”

Though it represents only a small piece of the Route 9A Project — the state D.O.T.’s longterm plan to overhaul West St. from Chambers St. to Battery Pl. — the Warren St. intersection has created a big stir in the Downtown community. Based on hand-timing done by the Task Force, the intersection currently offers the most generous crossing time in the area — 46 seconds compared with an average of 35 seconds at neighboring stoplights. This makes it the preferred crossing for students, seniors and parents with small children traveling between Tribeca and a number of Battery Park City locations, including P.S./I.S. 89, the ballfields, Rockefeller Park and the Hallmark senior living center.

The state’s own environmental impact statement revealed that the installation of turning lanes at Warren St. would shrink the median, decrease the crossing time and increase the likelihood of accidents at the intersection by 71 percent.

Though the D.O.T. never disputed that its plan would make the Warren St. crossing more hazardous, agency officials in the past insisted that the lanes were necessary to accommodate the increased traffic that is expected once the new World Trade Center developments come on line. Additionally, the D.O.T. pointed out that the lanes were only one component of an overall traffic plan that is projected to decrease the number of accidents in the area between Chambers and Albany Sts. by about 100 per year. Former 9A Project manager Richard Schmalz, who retired in mid-November, repeatedly urged the community to stop focusing on individual streets and view the plan as a system.

However, Warren St. pedestrians were not satisfied with being told to, as they put it, “take one for the team.” A Nov. 9 Task Force rally outside P.S./I.S. 89 drew a crowd of concerned parents and brought support from local politicians, including State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who said she was “shocked and appalled” by the D.O.T.’s plan. The ensuing petition campaign accrued more than 2,000 signatures, a remarkable number considering that the population of Community Board 1 as a whole is only about 40,000 residents.

Responding to the outcry, the D.O.T. began a regular series of meetings with Task Force members and C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin. In addition to demonstrating public support for a revised plan, Townley said, the community members read the state’s data thoroughly and offered hard evidence, such as the intersection timing, to support their position. Menin also took her case to the governor’s office when the new administration took over in January. Last week, a member of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s staff called her to say that the turning lanes were “no longer going to be pursued.” Wednesday, Chris Cotter of the Route 9A Project confirmed to the Downtown Express that the D.O.T. is changing course.

“We are committed to reexamining the initial proposal,” Cotter said. “We are still looking into a final solution, but it looks as though we are not going to do it as proposed, that is, [not have] the turning lanes at Warren St.”

Because the D.O.T. still wants to alleviate the anticipated W.T.C. traffic and maintain safety at other crossings in the area, Cotter said the state and city transportation departments are working together to examine a number of proposals. Cotter declined to say what the options might be, but community advocates mentioned additional turning lanes on Murray or Vesey Sts. as a possibility. Cotter hopes to bring a solution to the community within the next month. Construction on the Warren St. segment of the project has a flexible timetable, but is currently slated to begin in mid-2008.

Both Menin and Townley praised the state D.O.T. for its willingness to listen to residents and adjust its plans. However, the advocates vowed to stay vigilant on West St. safety concerns, including the remaining details of the Route 9A Project as well as issues like drunk driving, speeding and the running of red lights.

“Every parent of every child at that school has a personal stake in this,” said Mike Nadel, a member of both the Task Force and the I.S. 89 Parent Teacher Association. “My suggestion to [the government] would be: Take the time to collect the data, analyze the data and share the data with the people in the community.”