Frustrated Critics Cry Foul at L Train Open House |

Frustrated Critics Cry Foul at L Train Open House

Participants could go around the meeting hall and ask junior staffers questions about the plan. | Photo by Lesley Sussman

BY LESLEY SUSSMAN | The atmosphere in the air was more electrified than the third rail at an open house last Wednesday night sponsored by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to discuss the proposed shutdown of the L subway line for 15 months beginning in April 2019.

The open house for the Carnarsie Tunnel reconstruction, held at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard Church (328 W. 14th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.) drew more than 100 local residents from Chelsea and the West and East Village, including a slew opposed to the shutdown mitigation plan. Also at the event was Andy Byford, the newly appointed president of New York City Transit, who mingled with the crowd to answer questions.

The plan has been sharply criticized by residents in Manhattan and Brooklyn alike who make daily use of the L train, which runs from Eighth Ave. in Manhattan to Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and beyond in Brooklyn. Roughly 225,000 commuters ride the train daily between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The city’s transportation agencies say the section of the subway line between Bedford and Eighth Aves. must be shut down because the East River tunnel connecting the two boroughs is in desperate need of repair after being flooded during Hurricane Sandy.

The mitigation plan, which transit officials say is still in the making, calls for, among other things, increased service on nearby subway lines, such as the J, M, Z and G lines, to compensate for the L train shutdown, longer subway cars, extra turnstiles in some adjoining subway stations, and new and more frequent bus routes between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The scheme also calls for a car-free 14th St. during rush hours between Third Ave. and Eighth Ave. on the north side of the street and Ninth Ave. on the south side of the street.

Also proposed by DOT and the MTA as part of the plan is a ban on the Williamsburg Bridge of vehicles carrying a driver only or a driver plus one passenger during rush hours; a new ferry route from Williamsburg to Stuyvesant Cove, at E. 23rd St., with a free transfer to the M14 crosstown bus; a new two-way bike lane along 13th St. between Avenue C and Horatio St.; and new pedestrian spaces with bike parking from 14th to 17th Sts.

Byford, who previously served a five-year stint as the CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, North America’s third-largest transit system, took over the reins of the MTA just last month.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, he fielded some sharp questions from several Village, Chelsea, and Brooklyn residents who wanted to know why there has yet to be a general meeting where people seated in an audience could ask questions of top MTA and DOT officials — instead of the current format, in which junior DOT officials are spread around the room next to posters that detail various aspects of the reconstruction plan.

Opponents of the current shutdown plan deride this current format as “show and tell,” and dismiss it as ineffective.

Several residents also wanted to know why the tunnel repair work could not just be done on weekends only instead of totally shutting down this segment of the subway line, which they said would inconvenience local residents, students and interborough commuters, alike.

However, Byford defended how the process has been conducted, and said there are other venues for the public to have input.

“We have been going before community boards and will continue to do so,” he stated. “This is where people have and will have the opportunity to ask questions. Many residents I’ve spoken to like this present format because they don’t have the confidence to speak up at a general meeting, and with this format they can privately ask MTA representatives all the questions they want.”

Clearly, Byford doesn’t know Village and Chelsea residents very well if he thinks they lack the confidence to ask such questions.

The NYC Transit honcho also acknowledged to several residents and reporters that, yes, the repair work on the L line could have been done only on weekends.

“[But] it would have taken much longer than 15 months to complete all the work,” he noted. “Many residents and business people have told me to just get the work done as soon as possible.”

Judy Pesin, a leader of the coalition of Village and Chelsea block associations fighting the L shutdown mitigation plan, called on the MTA and DOT to end the “show and tell” sessions and hold some true public meetings to hear community input and criticism of the plan. | Photo by Lesley Sussman

Despite holding 40 open houses since 2016 to discuss the plan — including a number of “community outreach” charrettes over the past two years — both the MTA and DOT have nonetheless been sharply criticized for a lack of clear communication about the plan to the public. Last Wednesday night’s open house did little to quell the outrage and concern that many riders and transit advocates feel about the plan.

Residents who spoke to this newspaper said they remain frustrated that there still has not been a full and open discussion in a meeting room where senior agency officials could answer questions from the audience.

They also said they continue to worry about the impact on West Village and Chelsea side streets, in terms of parking and detoured traffic, and for car-owning residents on 14th St. where only buses will be allowed during rush hours. Adding to that concern is the MTA’s interest in expanding the hours and the number of blocks included in these special bus lanes.

“From the MTA perspective, we’d like those dedicated bus lanes to work for longer hours to accommodate more riders,” Byford said at the open house. “We’re also looking at whether we should have these buses-only lanes start from Third Ave., or could they start further east on First Ave. We want more feedback on all of this to further refine our plan.”

Several residents also expressed concerns about the new two-way crosstown bike lane planned for 13th St. West Village resident Mark Brenner said the bike lane would be dangerous, particularly for handicapped people living along that block.

“This is especially true for handicapped people,” he said. “So many of these bike riders speed down the block and make sudden turns and pay no attention to who is crossing. These bike lanes are dangerous for pedestrians throughout the city.”

Judy Pesin is a spokesperson for the recently formed 14th Street Neighbors group, comprised of block associations between 12th and 18th Sts. who are concerned with the plan. (Pesin later told us that the new group’s name was not official yet and would be a discussion topic at their second meeting on Feb. 20.)

“We got together,” she said, “because independently our voices are not heard, and as a group of block associations, we might be able to show strength in numbers.

“We just want to have a two-way discussion with MTA officials and we’re not getting that,” Pesin said. “These open houses are like a science fair — it’s all show and tell. And they’re junior people staffing them and they haven’t answered any of our questions.”

Rosemary Goldford, an 18th St. resident, said she was angry after finding out what the open house was actually like.

“They misadvertised this meeting,” she said, accusingly. “They totally mishandled it. We were led to believe that this would be a general meeting with questions and answers.”

Byford said he was aware of local residents’ many concerns about the mitigation plan during the upcoming reconstruction.

“The plan is not set in stone and changes can still be made,” he said. “The whole purpose of these sessions is to get feedback and refine the plan. I think most people understand, absolutely, that we have no choice but to do this work, and that we’re trying our best to make sure we get it right — not only along 14th Street, but the proposed bike lane along 13th Street, as well.”

Andy Byford, the new head of New York City Transit, was also on hand to answer people’s questions — though one on one, not in a large audience setting. | Photo by Lesley Sussman