By Arthur Z. Schwartz
On October 29, 1975, President Gerald Ford gave a speech to the Federal Reserve, in which he denied Federal assistance to NYC, which was then teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The next day the NY Daily News ran its now famous headline: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”
Last month, a dozen block associations, several disability rights groups and political organizations filed a lawsuit in Federal Court addressed to the failure of the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Association (MTA) to genuinely consider the alternatives to the plans it had announced in connection with the planned shutdown of the L Train from April 2019 until late 2020. Those plans arose in connection with a much needed renovation of the Canarsie Tunnel, through which the L Train runs between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the MTA’s decision to shut the line entirely down. 225,000 people use the L Train every day, most going from Bushwick and Williamsburg to Manhattan, some going within Manhattan, where the L Train has stops at 1st Avenue, 3rd Avenue, Union Square, 6th Avenue and 8th Avenue. Those commuters have to find alternative routes, which is where the DOT comes in.
DOT has decided (not proposed)
- that 14th Street be shut down to cars and trucks, that the sidewalks be doubled in width, and that only buses run, 24 hours a day, from Avenue A to 8th Avenue; this plan also includes closing Union Square West and University Place above 13th Street;
- that 70 diesel buses per hour run from Williamsburg, across the Manhattan Bridge, down Delancey Street, and turn right up Lafayette Street to Union Square; and
- that a two way, physically separated bike path be built across 13th Street, all the way across town.
Residents who live on the Lower East side and up Lafayette Street are aghast at the plan, which will create massive traffic onto an already crowded street, and (in the words of City Council member Margaret Chin), “bomb” the area with diesel fumes. Residents of the West and East Village are aghast as well. There is a well reasoned fear that 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Streets will become inundated, 24 hours a day, with livery vehicles, trucks, tour busses and other vehicles. The result will be extreme levels of auto exhaust, horn honking, and disruption of the fabric of the community.
We are not talking about a short period of suffering. At least with respect to 14th and 13th Streets, DOT plans the change as permanent.
Furthermore, though the entire subway line will be shut down for at least 15 months, and over a billion dollars spent, there is no plan to make the 6th Avenue, Union Square or 3rd Avenue subway stations fully accessible to people with disabilities.
There are three problems with how DOT and the MTA have proceeded. First, they did not follow Federal, State and City environmental laws which require projects of this size to be studied, with genuine scientific studies (traffic flows, pollution, noise), with real opportunities for public input, with public discussion of alternatives, and with the ultimate creation of an environmental impact study (EIS). But perhaps more importantly the two agencies have made these decisions without listening to, or even genuinely soliciting input from the affected communities. Third, the MTA, as it frequently does, is ignoring riders with disabilities – which includes many older folks who cannot climb and descend two flights of stairs. And that has really pissed people off! Hence, the extreme step of a Federal lawsuit.
Everyone had hoped that the lawsuit would get DOT and MTA to pause, and seek discussion and compromise. But no. DOT, after receiving the papers, cancelled all meetings with community groups and block associations “on advice of counsel.” In other words, we have gone from a pre-lawsuit world where the government has said: “Don’t sue us and be damned,” to a post lawsuit situation where the government says: “Now that you sued us, we really won’t talk to you.”
We are in court, with US District Judge Paul Engelmeyer, on May 1, as this paper hits the street. The government is complaining that we might kill their whole plan, and has told the Judge that the Federal Government, which is investing most of the money being spent, may require an EIS. But in a pre-trial filing, they told the judge that they did not think that settlement talks would be of any use. In other words: “MTA and DOT to Lower Manhattan: Drop Dead.”
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village, and the lead counsel in 14th Street Coalition v. MTA. He lives on West 12th Street