At Transportation Camp over the weekend, I led an impromptu discussion session on the challenges we face and lessons we could learn from the looming L train shutdown. (You haven’t forgotten about the L train shutdown in my absence, right?) A room full of biased transportation policy wonks came to the general conclusion that the city should implement bus-only restrictions over the Williamsburg Bridge and the 14th St. Peopleway, prioritizing buses, bikes and pedestrians throughout the 15-month shutdown. This complete street could serve as a model for other busy NYC corridors, and the alternative is a transportation hell in which personal autos, for-hire vehicles, privately-operated jitneys and buses all compete for the limited space on the city’s limited access points into Manhattan.
Well, don’t hold your breath. A source provided me with a glimpse of some planning documents this week, and while NYC DOT is leaning toward certain restrictions across East River Bridge and some bus prioritization along certain Manhattan corridors, a full-fledged Peopleway may not be in the cards. The plans aren’t public yet and diagrams are labeled for discussion purposes only. DOT, I’ve been told, has been instructed to hold back on public announcements until after the mayoral election in November. But they tell the story of an agency both unaware of what it faces when a subway tunnel that carries over 260,000 people shuts down for an extended period and unwilling to lay down the gauntlet when it comes to restricting private automobile access to Manhattan.
According to the documents, New York City Transit and NYC DOT may not be on quite the same page when it comes to mitigating the impact of the shutdown. The MTA had drawn up a plan to run 60 buses over the Williamsburg Bridge during peak hours in both directions. The MTA had identified three potential bus corridors: Grand St. to 1st Ave. and 15th, Grand St. to the Broadway/Lafayette subway stop, and a Bedford Ave.-Broadway/Lafayette route. To do this, the MTA determined it would need bus priority across the bridge and on the approaches and exits at either end.
DOT, meanwhile, based on its modeling has other ideas. Per the documents, a bus-only plan for the Williamsburg Bridge failed due to expected congestion on surrounding streets, but the model may not have accounted for longer bus corridors (e.g., from the Williamsburg Bridge, north to 14th St and west to 10th Avenue). While the plan is not set in stone, the city agency is leaning toward a HOV3 set-up in which the Williamsburg Bridge would be a HOV3-only bridge from around 5 a.m. through at least the evening rush while the other three East River Bridges would be HOV3 only in the Manhattan-bound direction from 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. DOT still plans to study the approaches and exits of these bridges in detail, but it’s not clear when those studies will be initiated. The L train shutdown, meanwhile, starts in less than 18 months.
To make matters worse, the planning documents raise some “political” concerns that this modest HOV3 plan won’t pass muster, and a bus-only lane could run up against enforcement issues. The fallback is a HOV3 policy on only the Williamsburg Bridge without a dedicated bus/truck lane as DOT claims enforcement of a mile-long bus lane is impractical. However, HOV3 enforcement on both Staten Island and the LIE is severely lacking, and I’m taking DOT’s word with a huge grain of salt. Even still, any plan that permits modest high-occupancy vehicles without prioritizing buses or truly high-occupancy transit options makes me worried about the traffic impact.
The plans for 14th St. are a bit better. The MTA plans to operate over 30 M14 SBS trips in each direction during peak hours, and DOT is amenable to prioritizing access over certain corridors to ensure this bus brigade can move through the city. The mayor hasn’t yet signed off on this plan internally, but DOT supports an eastbound busway from 9th to 3rd Aves., a westbound busway from 3rd to 8th Aves. and dedicated bus lanes in both directions between 3rd and 1st Aves. and westbound from 8th to 9th Aves. Access to other vehicles will be limited only to those making deliveries and accessing garages and only if vehicles turn from the avenue nearest their destinations. Sidewalks could be widened throughout some of the busway area, but either DOT or the MTA (or perhaps both) seem to feel adding a bike lane would both reduce space and “complicated” bus operations.
Clearly, the best part of this plan is the city’s treatment of 14th St., and even this limited busway could serve as a model for future corridors. But overall, this talk of HOV3 lanes is nothing but disappointing. The city doesn’t seem willing to take a politically risky step of re-envisioning travel corridors from the Williamsburg Bridge to the west side of Manhattan at 14th St. and can’t wrap its head around telling drivers they have to take a back seat to buses for 15 months. It also seems as the city doesn’t understand who’s traveling along the L train or where they are going as this plan heavily favors those who can access the bridges. Further, even with HOV3 restrictions across the East River crossings, Manhattan will be inundated with private automobiles and for-hire vehicles. It will be our own version of Carmageddon.
It’s obvious why DOT and the Mayor’s Office aren’t keen for this plan to see the light of day before election day. Drivers won’t like it, and a transit community already skeptical of Bill de Blasio’s approach to policy won’t either. In that sense, it’s the worst of any world, and I’m skeptical it will truly solve the transit crisis for those who rely on the Canarsie Line. With just over 17 months to go before the shutdown, it’s looking dicey indeed that anyone planning for it is truly ready for what’s coming.