By Maria Rocha-Buschel
L train riders at a recent town hall on the upcoming shutdown are saying they’re concerned about an increase in bike traffic as a result of the mitigation and the plan to make 14th Street primarily a thoroughfare for buses, as well as accessibility for seniors and disabled residents. The meeting’s venue, The New School’s West 12th Street auditorium, was packed with more than a hundred community residents with concerns about the plans on Wednesday, May 9.
The first question came from an attendee who didn’t mince words.
“How are you going to train cyclists so they don’t kill us?” asked David Hertzberg, a West 16th Street resident. Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg admitted that the increase in cyclists would be a difficult responsibility.
“Cycling will be a hot topic,” she said. “We’ll be working with the NYPD on enforcement and we know we’re going to have a big safety challenge.”
Other residents were worried about the impact the increase in buses would have on curbside access for both businesses and residents, especially those with disabilities.
“Attention needs to be paid to the conflict between the buses that will be going through during peak hours and accommodating residents,” said resident Betty Sternlich. Trottenberg said that one of the considerations to deal with these conflicting issues would be adjusting the hours of the 14th Street “busway,” which have not yet been finalized.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made L train-related news recently for voicing opposition to making the proposed busway available at all times, while at the town hall, Trottenberg and New York City Transit President Andy Byford advocated for making the busway available 24/7.
The proposed busway will not close 14th Street to private vehicles entirely but would affect the street from Third to Ninth Avenues eastbound and from Third to Eighth Avenues westbound, with Select Bus Service to be implemented there next year.
When one resident pushed for making the busway available at all times during the shutdown, pointing to the fact that the L train is sometimes as crowded at midnight as it is during rush hour, Byford agreed but noted that the agency is sensitive to the inconveniences a 24/7 busway might cause for people who live and work in the area.
“Ideally there would be 24/7 service for the busway,” he said. “We know (the L is) very busy overnight but it’s also about taking the needs of local residents into account.”
Trottenberg also reiterated that whether or not the busway is in effect all the time, bus service will be available at all times, so the main question is if the sections of 14th Street designated for bus priority would be closed to private cars at all times or only peak hours.
Michelle Golden, a co-director of the Flatiron Alliance, said that she was concerned about what the addition of so many buses would do to the air quality in the neighborhood.
“I’d like to know what you’re going to do about the pollution, not just to my health but for the health of our beautiful historical buildings,” she said.
Byford noted that the agency is working to add electric buses to the fleet in time for the closure, while the other new buses will be “clean diesel,” although only 15 of the 200 new buses allocated for the plan will be electric.
“We will be deploying electric buses on the M14 route,” he said. “And I know ‘clean diesel’ sounds like an oxymoron but it actually is a lot cleaner than it used to be.”
Stuyvesant Town resident Karen Reynolds expressed concern about the way the elevator at the new Avenue A entrance for the L train is being situated, with construction ongoing.
“I’m concerned about the elevator. I’m sure the elevator is ADA-compliant, but I question how that location is ADA-compliant,” she said. “When you’re coming out of the elevator, you have to cross the service road to get to the very narrow sidewalk. It’s dangerous for me to cross it at times even now because cars block the crosswalk and bikes come in the wrong direction. People will have to come off the traffic island when getting out of the elevator. The door is set up to face east, which is going to make it very difficult for handicapped people to go where they need to go.”
Byford confirmed that the elevator is, in fact, ADA-compliant but said he would raise the issues Reynolds mentioned with his team, and when Reynolds said that she had spoken to workers at the site who didn’t seem aware of the issue with the traffic island, Byford assured her that he would look at the situation himself.
“I personally wasn’t aware of this specific issue before and I’m their boss, so I’ll make sure we look into it,” he said. Reynolds appreciated the attention Byford gave to the question but still urged the transit chief to move as quickly as possible if any changes needed to be made.
“They’re pouring the concrete as we speak,” she said.
Some residents were also concerned that the new bus lanes on 14th Street could have an impact on the ability of emergency vehicles to reach residents in the neighborhood, with multiple attendees pointing to the aging population in the surrounding area, but Trottenberg said that the dedicated bus lanes will likely help in this regard.
“Bus lanes provide good response times for emergency vehicles,” added Eric Beaton, deputy commissioner for traffic planning and management at the DOT.
Other residents and neighborhood advocates were worried that the changes being implemented for the shutdown would end up being permanent once L train service was restored and residents weren’t reassured by Trottenberg’s willingness to keep certain aspects of the plan past the shutdown date. But Trottenberg tried to assure attendees that the changes would only remain in the neighborhood if people living and working in those communities want them.
“There are a number of things we’re going to be implementing that we’ll be putting in and we’ll have a process at the end of the shutdown to determine if those things will stay,” she said. “We’re hoping that these things will work, but we’ll discuss it.”
One resident was in favor of at least keeping the M14 SBS route permanent once the shutdown ends.
“That would be a long-term aspiration but we would have to see how it goes,” Byford said.
At one point, Byford assured the crowd that even though he joined the agency post-Sandy, he’s fully informed on the scope and significance of the project.
“This is a very busy line,” Byford said. “What really brought it home to me that this work is important was learning that the L is the tenth busiest subway in the country.”
Byford also explained that the MTA has taken future potential Sandys into account in the work for the L train.
“We’ve done a huge amount of preventative work already,” he said. “We’re installing closeable grates to prevent the kind of flooding that damaged the Canarsie tunnel. The planning for this took a long time because this tunnel was particularly badly hit.”
The shutdown is scheduled to begin next April, with L train service running only in Brooklyn for the subsequent 15 months.