Subway vigilante takes aim at MTA

Goetz blasts $40M projected cost of First Ave. L station’s Ave. A entrance

Bernie Goetz says Donald Trump could do a better job than the MTA at getting the  Avenue A entrance built at the First Avenue L station. (Pictured) Goetz gestures to the long walk down from the platform’s east end to First Avenue. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Bernie Goetz says Donald Trump could do a better job than the MTA at getting the Avenue A entrance built at the First Avenue L station. (Pictured) Goetz gestures to the long walk down from the platform’s east end to First Avenue. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Over 30 years ago, a man named Bernie Goetz would become known as the subway vigilante for shooting four men who tried to mug him on the train.

These days, Goetz, who lives on West 14th Street, leads a much quieter existence running his own small business, Vigilante Electronics, and on his own time, rescuing and rehabilitating injured squirrels in the neighborhood.

But one issue he felt the need to talk about recently is the First Avenue L subway station, where the MTA wants to add an Avenue A entrance as part of an overall upgrade project along the line.

Goetz is in support of this idea, but suggested that the reason it still hasn’t happened is the $40 million estimated price tag the MTA has put on it.

“Donald Trump could do it for five million and do it in one year,” said Goetz, although he then doubled that figure to account for entrances on each side of East 14th Street. Asked if he’s a supporter of the GOP presidential candidate, Goetz shot back, “I don’t even want to talk about it.”

He added that he would like to hear an estimate from an independent contractor. “I think it could be done for a small fraction of that,” he said.

Goetz frequently rides the train to First Avenue to feed and check on the squirrels in Stuyvesant Town, and, like many other L riders, has concerns about the crowding and the lack of a second exit/entrance on the platform in the event of a fire.

“If there’s a fire here, what are you going to do?” asked Goetz, who once had the misfortune of being in a west side subway station when a fire broke out, possibly coming from the train itself as it barreled into the station.

“I saw a lot of smoke coming out of the tunnel. People were running. I ran like hell. Lots of smoke.”

Then, there’s the inconvenience faced by anyone who lives close to the river. “This would save people a big walk in the winter.”

Though he’s never worked for the MTA, Goetz claimed to have some idea of what construction costs would be, having worked for a couple of years in the 1970s as a building contractor.

“I built over 100 houses,” he said. This was for an Orlando, Florida, family-run company, before he moved to New York.

On building a new entrance, Goetz said he thought an important thing was to be able to have enough room on the sidewalk for a stairway that’s at least as wide as two wheelchairs, which, he noted there is on East 14th Street.

Rather than putting the entrance at the corner of Avenue A, Goetz said he thought a better spot was at the subway platform’s end, which is about 80 percent of way from First Avenue east to Avenue A. This is the spot that’s currently in front of the soon-to-be-demolished Peter Stuyvesant Post Office, and also where there are several grates along the sidewalk. The grates, Goetz noted, as he peered below on a recent stroll with a Town & Village reporter, show an area that’s walled off. Behind the wall is the Brooklyn-bound platform, where there’s a tiny security booth at the end. If the wall were knocked down, the platform could be widened enough for a new staircase.

“You don’t need a token both clerk,” he said. “All you need is a turnstile in and out.”

Of course, he conceded, this would only work if there are no major circuits or equipment behind the wall that aren’t visible from the sidewalk, and he doesn’t know if there are. “You don’t want to bump into utilities.”

The answers lie in the original plans for the subway station, which, Goetz said, if they can be dug out, could prove that a renovation could be simpler than the MTA thinks. “This can be done cheaply without much structural change to the station,” he said.

But even then, he quipped, the MTA should spring for an extra five or ten grand to “power wash it and modernize it. Why not make it look good?” He stressed, “You can make a subway station look nice for not a lot of money.”

Numerous times, Goetz called the projected $40 million figure too high. “For $40 million, you could build a whole apartment building.”

He also had another suggestion for the MTA: Rip down all the advertising, which Goetz blasted as an eyesore.

“Put up some artwork. You don’t need a constant barrage of advertising.” Artwork could be as simple as some of the structure that’s preserved from construction, he said. Pointing to one of the mosaic arrows on the wall directing straphangers towards First Avenue, Goetz said, “I think these First Avenue things are cool. There’s a lot of cool art in the Village. The station doesn’t have to be luxurious.”

At one point, Goetz approached a cop in the security booth to ask what people should do if there’s a fire, and the cop responded that there is an emergency exit, but it’s in the tunnel. “I wouldn’t recommend running down there,” he told Goetz.

Interestingly, Goetz didn’t seem to be shy about approaching the officer despite some recent legal troubles (he was arrested in 2013 for selling pot to an undercover cop although the charges were dismissed) or the fact that he was wearing a t-shirt with a pot leaf on it.

A marijuana advocate, Goetz added he was happy to hear about the medical marijuana dispensary that’s coming to East 14th Street.

“It’s not going to solve the world’s problems — vegetarianism would go a long way — but people would relax a little more,” said Goetz. But he blasted the state’s strict laws governing its use, so that the product cannot be smoked. “They should just decriminalize it,” he said.

He added that most of the time when he’s approached by people, it isn’t because of the notorious subway incident, but for the pot leaf shirt with the word “vegetarian” on it.

“I get a lot of positive feedback on the shirt,” he said.

Town & Village reached out to the MTA, where a spokesperson, Kevin Ortiz told us, “The scope of the project is a bit more complicated than how Goetz describes it. Making a station fully ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant can add tens of millions to the cost.”

When told about this response, Goetz said in an email that he still thought the project should be looked at by an independent contractor.

“All that’s needed is two stairways (and) entrances with turnstiles. This addition, for convenience AND safety, should not be denied because of requirements for handicapped that don’t use the station. Insanity.”

Meanwhile, Council Member Dan Garodnick, who along with fellow Council Member Rosie Mendez, has been nudging the MTA about the new entrance, to make sure the project doesn’t slip through the cracks, indicated his mind was open to any new ideas.

While he had figured the reasons for the $40 million price tag were related to the entrance being ADA-compliant, he added, “If there are ideas that will help the MTA save time or money, they are most certainly welcome.”

A spokesperson for Garodnick also provided an update on the funding for the project. Since the MTA capital budget plan is still being negotiated, nothing has been removed or added, she said, including the $40 million for the new entrance. The MTA is applying for a $270 million grant for all the L line upgrades, but hasn’t submitted the application yet. The deadline for the application is the end of this month.

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