L Train Not Shutting Down—But Will 14th Street?

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Back in 2016 the MTA did an Environmental Assessment of its now abandoned plan to shut the L Train down for 15 months, so that it could do electrical repairs in the Canarsie Tunnel. That 200-page report had a half page about mitigation. It said to add some more trains going north and south in Brooklyn and add “a few more busses on 14th Street in Manhattan.”

Then in 2017, the bike rider advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives (TA for short) announced a contest. “Let’s use the closure of the L Train as an opportunity to change the face of 14th Street.” They got dozens of design entries and gave the prize to someone who proposed a “Busway” which also included cross-14th Street bike paths, where all vehicles would be barred.

Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Polly Trottenberg is a big fan of TA. Somehow, six months later, DOT announced a far more extensive Mitigation Plan, which included a 14th Street Busway and a two-way cross-town bike path on 13th Street. Our community was broadly united against the plan, because it was going to throw cross-town traffic on 12th Street, 13th Street and 15th to 20th Streets. On 13th it was impossible to see how there could be two bike lanes and any room for vehicles. Every Block Association in South Chelsea and North Greenwich Village/West Village, united as the 14th Street Coalition. It organized meetings, demanded changes from the DOT, MTA, and public officials, and then filed a Federal Lawsuit alleging violation of Federal environmental laws, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because of the plan’s lack of attention to the disabled and the elderly.

That lawsuit got settled, after the MTA agreed to add four elevators at 14th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Feds required a new Environmental Assessment (EA) addressed to the Mitigation Plan. But that EA, though 1000 pages longs, was a fraud, in part because it didn’t consider doing work on weekends and at night, and in part because it threw out a bunch of statistics about increased bus and bike demand which were created out of very thin air. Part of what was presented was that the changes were “temporary,” and would be rethought once the shutdown was over. So, we went back to Court, arguing that the State Environmental Law was being violated. (Your author is the Coalition’s lawyer.)

Flash forward to January 2019. DOT has moved bus stops on 14th Street, added SBS bus equipment (for faster boarding), painted all sorts of weird traffic lanes, banned all left turns all the way across 14th Street, closed Union Square West, changed the direction of University Place between 14th and 13th Street, and created one-way, 16 ft. bike lanes all the way across 12th and 13th Streets. And then the Governor pulls the plug on the 15-month shutdown and says work will go on, one tube at a time, on nights and weekends.

Our community is the great place it is because 60 years ago Jane Jacobs led a fight against another DOT Commissioner, Robert Moses, who wanted to run a highway down 5th Avenue. Jane believed in community planning. In her classic book about city planning, she said: “We shall have something solid to chew on if we think of City neighborhoods as mundane organs of self-government. Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government… There exists no inconceivably energetic and all wise “They” to take over and substitute for localized self-management.” Then she addressed the difficulty in standing up to City Hall: “It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly.” The shutdown crisis was being used to take away the vibrancy of localized self-planning in Chelsea and the Village.

Wanting to regain community control, I went to DOT and said, “now that your plan isn’t needed, let’s put things back the way they were, and our lawsuit will go away.” But DOT’s response has been: “we are studying the issue, we have to assess the impact of the reduced service between 10pm and 5am.” Total malarkey (that’s an old Yiddish term.) What is really going on is that Commissioner Trottenberg wants to implement her busway anyway. (I call it “Polly’s Folly”) And although her bike lanes are largely unlawful truck parking zones, which Mayor de Blasio says he can’t police, she wants to keep the largely unused/blocked bike lanes too. The Coalition, in Court, proposed a new round of statistical study, by an independent expert, real consultation between the DOT and the four affected community boards AND with the block associations, and a 45-day warning before DOT takes one step further.

As WestView goes to press, DOT’s response has been silence…

Anyone up for a mass purchase of Yellow Vests????

Arthur Schwartz is the Village Democratic District Leader and President of Advocates for Justice.

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