L train street changes in flux

Council Member Keith Powers speaks at a Feb. 6 rally for transit improvements along 14th Street during work to repair L train tunnel damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Transportation Alternatives, via Twitter
As city prepares for subway line’s “slowdown” rather than full shutdown, the fate of long-planned mitigation measures is unclear
By Michael Garofalo

More than a month after the surprise cancellation of the L train shutdown, commuters and elected officials are still looking for answers regarding what will become of long-planned changes to bus and bike infrastructure designed to mitigate the impacts of the subway closure.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Jan. 3 announcement that the MTA would scrap the imminent 15-month full shutdown of the L train, opting instead to maintain weekday service on the line during repairs to the damaged Canarsie Tunnel, came as an unexpected curveball to transportation officials who had spent years developing elaborate plans to accommodate displaced riders.

Some aspects of the shutdown plan, such as new bike lanes on 12th and 13th Streets, are already in place. Other measures were scheduled to take effect ahead of the April shutdown, including expanded bus service across the Williamsburg Bridge, new East River ferries and the wholesale transformation of 14th Street into a dedicated “busway” with restrictions on private vehicle traffic.

What will become of the 14th Street busway and other transit changes in light of the MTA’s new repair plan remains an open question.

Transportation advocates and elected officials gathered on 14th Street Feb. 6 to call on the city’s Department of Transportation and MTA to follow through on their mitigation plans, which they say will benefit commuters on the L train corridor even though the shutdown will no longer occur.

“The mitigation measures that had been planned were good ones and they had years of community input behind them,” Joe Cutrufo, communications director with Transportation Alternatives, told Straus News. “Even though they were planned in concert with the 15-month full L train shutdown, these are mitigation efforts that are needed nonetheless. Regardless of how the Canarsie Tunnel repairs take shape, we are in the middle of a transit crisis.”

Test case on 14th Street

The top concern for many Manhattan residents is whether the city still intends to reconfigure 14th Street to include new dedicated bus lanes, expanded pedestrian space and a daytime ban on non-bus through traffic. Pedestrian and bus advocates have long hoped that implementation of the 14th Street busway could serve as a successful test case for the street design concept, paving the way for the similar changes to other major crosstown thoroughfares in the future.

“When you consider 14th Street, it’s right in the heart of the densest, most transit rich city in America,” Cutrufo said. “We can’t continue to put the convenience of drivers ahead of people who choose and rely on more space-efficient modes like the bus.”

While transit activists have cheered the busway plan, it has attracted equally fierce opposition from some locals. The 14th Street Coalition, a neighborhood group opposed to the DOT’s previously proposed street changes, responded to the new L train repair plans by calling on the city to remove the new bike lanes recently installed on 12th and 13th Streets and abandon the busway, which it believes will divert excessive traffic to surrounding residential streets.

Council Member Keith Powers, whose district includes the eastern portion of 14th Street, said that the partial L train shutdown, which will last 15 to 20 months and result in reduced nighttime and weekend service, “was met with a lot of relief by people, but I think they’ll find it does not solve all of their problems in terms of getting around.”

Powers said the city should carry out previously announced plans to implement select bus service on the M14, which is one of the city’s slowest bus routes. He said that the city should “still consider” implementing the full busway proposal, but added, “The most important thing to me is getting quicker bus service on 14th Street regardless of whether there’s a private vehicle restriction or not.”

Since Cuomo’s announcement, the city has given little indication of which mitigation steps it intends to complete. Asked for comment, a Department of Transportation spokesperson referred Straus News to remarks made by Mayor Bill de Blasio at a Jan. 24 press conference, in which the mayor said it would take “several weeks” for the city to reevaluate its mitigation efforts in light of the MTA’s new repair plan.

“Obviously we’re going to be very vigilant to make sure things are working properly,” de Blasio said. “But now we have to decide what that means now with this new plan in terms of mitigating the impact and then if there’s anything that we were planning that is no longer needed because of the L train but that we might want to do anyway.”

An MTA spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.