What the L? TransAlt vol is accused of not ID’ing self at forum

Each table at the workshop drew up routes and options on city maps. Photo by Dennis Lynch
Each table at the workshop drew up routes and options on city maps. Photo by Dennis Lynch

BY DENNIS LYNCH | Around 225 people turned out at a recent city-run community workshop at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to share their thoughts with city transit agencies on how best to solve the so-called “L-pocalypse” coming in 2019. That’s when the city will shut down service of the L train along 14th St. for 18 months to repair the Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Department of Transportation will use the feedback to inform their plan to deal with the major transit disruption, which they will release this spring.

At the Feb. 23 meeting at the church, at 328 W. 14th St., the agencies presented some options about how they will get commuters across the East River to 14th St. — the bulk of the line’s riders. They mentioned a ferry across the river and buses over the Williamsburg Bridge as possible mitigation measures in development.

A D.O.T. spokesperson said that generally speaking — without discussing what option they favor — the agency’s goal is to “keep as many people underground as possible.” In other words, they want to move as many people back into the subway system from alternate transportation as much as possible to maintain efficiency.

One local agreed. Kimon Retzos, co-chairperson of the W. 15th St. 100 and 200 Block Association, said the city should look to bus people to other subway stations in the area once they get from Brooklyn to Manhattan, so they can get back underground and be on their way.

“You need to get the commuters across the East River,” Retzos said. “But then you need to get them back underground and into the New York City subway system. Taking the bus across Manhattan and using surface transit is not really the best way to go. Most of them don’t [go aboveground] at 14th St.; a lot of them transfer. Why not take them, for example, to W. Fourth St.?”

The agencies also floated some options at their disposal for 14th St., including running more buses with faster curbside ticketing and “dramatic treatments” that have been used around the country in similar circumstances.

One such dramatic treatment is barring passenger vehicle traffic on 14th St. to make room for buses, which would be the most efficient way to move the 400,000 people who use the L train each day. Fifty thousand of the L train’s 400,000 daily riders — or one-eighth of its daily passengers — use it exclusively to get across town.

The debate over an “L-pocalypse” solution has largely become a debate over such a plan since the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives  released its “PeopleWay” plan late last year. That plan would bar vehicles, and emphasizes pedestrian flow, biking and above-ground mass transit.

So far, however, many neighborhood groups have come out against the plan, though some local residents at past community meetings have expressed support for it. The latter argue that it’s the only viable way to move people across 14th St. at anywhere near the numbers that the L train currently does.

Opponents worry that blocking 14th St. to passenger vehicle traffic would force those vehicles onto their side streets, creating further congestion on them. Some folks at the workshop think it’s downright mad to suggest such a plan.

“I don’t know if they should be arrested for smoking what they’re smoking, but they shouldn’t be selling it,” said David Hertzberg, a W. 16th St. resident. Hertzberg suggested that the city divert traffic up and down main avenues and to other major crosstown streets, such as 34th St.

Other critics of the PeopleWay accused TransAlt of attending the meeting to push their plan, without full disclosure.

Bill Borock, president of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, attended the meeting as a representative of the group’s 14th St. L Train Closing Extended Task Force. The group’s members include the Flatiron Alliance, the Lower Chelsea Alliance (LoCal) and the Union Square Community Coalition.

At the meeting, participants broke down into brainstorming groups at separate tables.

“We started our session, and there was a man standing behind me,” Borock said. “As we discussed various things, it was obvious he was espousing the Transportation Alternatives position. I asked him if he was a member, and he said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Borock took issue with that, because everyone at his table introduced themselves at the beginning of their session.

“The D.O.B. and M.T.A. moderators called on him” several times, Borock noted, both before and after the man’s TransAlt affiliation came to light.

D.O.T. and M.T.A. have no rules about who can participate in the public workshops and no participants are required to disclose that they belong to any group whatsoever, a D.O.T. spokesperson said.

TransAlt’s Brian Zumhagen, the 12,000-member-strong group’s communications director, said that “many people who live near 14th Street” agree with the PeopleWay plan and want to “see the city prioritize buses, biking and walking during this crisis.”

Zumhagen also scoffed at the notion that voluntary members of the group should have to identify themselves as such.

“People who turn out for meetings of this kind presumably have all types of affiliations — including the people whose opposition you cite,” he said in an e-mail, following the Feb. 23 event. “If someone at a workshop speaks out against the PeopleWay plan, that is legitimate, and it would be unreasonable for us or anyone to demand that those opponents disclose, for example, whether they are members of a given group just because they have raised a concern about on-street parking.”

But Borock countered that among the multitude of community-minded circles he moves in, “There is a sense that Transportation Alternatives, which is a lobbying group, is having undue influence” in the public debate that shapes policy, he said. “I have no problem if there’s somebody there with a different position than mine. I mean, that’s the way the world is. But he never identified himself. So I asked.”

M.T.A. and D.O.T. will not discuss which options they favor until they complete and release a traffic and impact study this year. An additional East Side Community Workshop will be held Thurs., March 9, from 7 p.m. 10 p.m. at Town & Village Synagogue, 334 E. 14th St., between First and Second Aves.

With reporting
by Scott Stiffler