For a few days now, I’ve been mulling over the debacle that has become 125th Street. Once planned to be Manhattan’s next crosstown Select Bus Service corridor with the M60 tabbed for off-board fare payment, express service and a dedicated travel lane, 125th St. fell the way of the 34th St. Transitway. Community opposition from an entrenched and vocal minority killed a project that would have benefited 32,000 travelers per day. I’d like to know how, why and what we can learn from the latest transit setback.
When DOT and the MTA announced on Tuesday their decision to shelve the Select Bus Service upgrades for the M60, they laid the blame on the area’s political bodies. “There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date,” the agencies said in a statement. “We do hope to have a continued dialogue with community stakeholders about ways that we can continue to improve bus speed and service, traffic flow, parking, and pedestrian safety along 125th Street. In the short term, we plan to work with the Community Boards to explore whether any parking or traffic improvements discussed during the SBS outreach process can improve 125th Street for all users.”
Theirs is a pretty damning position to take for two agencies that needs the support of Community Boards and elected officials, but it’s not an incorrect one. Senator Bill Perkins threw up nothing but obstacles, and Community Boards were more concerned with losing a few parking spaces and left-turn lanes than they were with the thousands who would benefit from smoother, faster bus rides. Minority obstructionism had trumped the needs of the majority yet again.
In the intervening days, various news outlets have tried to pinpoint the way this deal went sour. Responding to Perkins’ claim that the process was moving too fast, Streetsblog established a project timeline. WE ACT for Environmental Justice started calling for bus improvements in late 2011, and DOT and the MTA launched the project last September. For six months, the Community Advisory Committee held meetings and worked to develop plans for the bus corridor, but in March, Perkins threw his first fit. He claimed DOT had ignored public input but couldn’t cite specifics. In May, he held an emergency public meeting where the MTA and DOT produced plans designed to assuage his concerns, and in July, the bus lane dies.
Over the past 36 hours, Perkins has tried to spint the DOT/MTA decision every which way he can. In an interview with amNew York, he grew belligerent. “Not only is it premature,” he said of the move, “it’s a smack in the face of the community. We didn’t get the kind of process for input that was genuine and folks were feeling a little anxious about the project moving quickly without taking into consideration some of the concerns they had.”
The process. It’s all about the process. It was the process that the Community Boards objected to as well.
If Perkins carries some of the blame, so too do the Community Boards. They refused to vote for the project and seemed more concerned with parking — empty space for idle vehicles — than for bus improvements. Opponents have claimed that the M60 is a treasure for Laguardia riders that doesn’t take into account community needs, but 90 percent of bus riders aren’t going to the airport. (Many others are Harlem residents who use the bus to commute to work at Laguardia.)
Yesterday, Ted Mann delved into the Community Board opposition with a piece that focused on tangential complaints. CB 11 refused to support the M60 SBS route because the MTA refused to heed their complaints about another bus line. Mann gets to the meat of the issue:
One issue with the M35 stop is that it led to crowding at the already-busy intersection, the board said. But there’s another problem: the people who ride that bus, according to records of community meetings compiled by the DOT.
Neighbors have complained about psychiatric patients and homeless people traveling to the neighborhood via the M35 from facilities on Ward’s Island, records from a September 2012 public workshop led by DOT to plan bus improvements show.
“Patrons of the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, and the Charles Gay and Clarke Thomas homeless facilities on Wards Island disembark the M35 bus at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue,” a summary of the workshop says. “They hang around the immediate vicinity all day, creating excessive congestion. They panhandle and disturb the public at this busy intersection.”
CB 11 members tried to claim their concerns were about crowding at the intersection, but Mann’s reporting betrays their cover-up. The MTA too dismissed the complaints about the M35 as unrelated to the 125th St. SBS corridor. “In deference to concerns from Community Board 11, NYC Transit has weighed the pros and cons of both moving the bus stop and rerouting the bus route,” an agency spokesperson said to The Journal. “All the options studied present operational issues and are inferior to the current M35 route and stop configuration.”
So CB 11, it seems, also did not like the process. All of this talk about process leads me to think that the process isn’t actually the problem. Rather, stakeholders can blame “the process” when things don’t go their way. In fact, “the process” is actually just a code word for “we didn’t get what we want so we’re going through an obstructionist fit instead.” We’ve seen it on 34th St.; we’ve seen it with Citi Bikes; we’ve seen it with a subway to Laguardia; and we’re seeing it with a bus route on 125th St.
Eventually, the needs of the many have to trump over the needs of a select powerful few. It’s democratic to give community members outlets through public meetings, elected officials and Community Boards, but it’s also democratic to realize on both sides of the table what a collective sacrifice may be and what measures will improve a neighborhood. Now, 32,000 riders will continue to take a bus that’s slower than walking because Community Board members held the bus route hostage over an unrelated issue and politicians cannot come to grips with the idea of losing a few parking spaces along a busy two-way travel corridor. It’s not actually the process that’s the problem.