National News

New Yorkers Ponder How to Carry On When the L Train Shuts Down

Posted December 14, 2017 9:18 p.m. EST
Updated December 14, 2017 9:19 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The day after New York City officials unveiled a sweeping contingency plan for the shutdown of a major subway tunnel, elected officials, experts and New Yorkers whose lives will be upended began raising concerns about the way the city will cope with the absence of a train line that carries 400,000 people every day.

The workaround for the closing of the tunnel that carries the L line between Manhattan and Brooklyn, which was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, includes creating a series of bus-only lanes in Manhattan, travel restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge and beefing up other subway lines in Brooklyn.

Officials have warned that no matter what they do, there will be pain once the tunnel closes in April 2019 for a scheduled 15 months. Upon that most could agree — the L line is one of the city’s most congested subway routes. But there were many questions about some of the details of the contingency plan, including a plan to direct 70 buses an hour across the Williamsburg Bridge during peak commuting periods.

That seemed like an overly optimistic projection to some members of the City Council, which held a hearing on the plan Thursday. “That’s more than one a minute,” said Councilwoman Margaret Chin, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan, including the neighborhood around the Williamsburg Bridge. It might work in a model, but in reality?”

Veronique Hakim, the managing director for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway and city buses, acknowledged that the plan might not reflect what will happen once the L line tunnel closes.

City officials believe that about 80 percent of affected riders will use other trains, 15 percent will ride a bus and the remainder will rely on ferries or commute by bicycles. The idea is to alleviate some of the pressure by spreading out the transportation options.

But the city’s public buses are already plagued by problems, including slow travel times, deteriorating service and an aging fleet, leaving some skeptical that relying on buses to any extent will actually work.

“Buses in my area are already really crowded, like chin-to-chin,” said Juju Simon, 21, who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and teaches elementary school in Manhattan. “It’s going to be horrible.”

Some criticisms of the plan seemed somewhat tangential to the issue of addressing the anticipated snarls. Councilman Rafael Espinal, a Democrat who represents Bushwick, was angered because the 200 additional buses that the transportation authority plans to deploy during the shutdown will run on diesel fuel.

“I think it is ironic that the MTA, which is spending millions of dollars to repair an issue that was created by the effects of climate change, will invest millions of dollars in purchasing diesel-fueled buses,” said Espinal, who added that other cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and London have committed to fully electric fleets in the near future. “It’s very surprising that they are going to invest in purchasing buses that run off fossil fuel, when other cities across the country have committed to going 100 percent electric.”

Hakim said officials would discuss with Espinal the possibility of electric buses.

A central piece of the contingency is to establish bus-only lanes across 14th Street during the morning and afternoon rush. But some advocates said that officials should consider extending those hours to make navigating across the width of Manhattan easier. “Anybody who has spent much time on 14th has experienced it not moving,” said Eric McClure, the executive director of StreetsPAC, a political action organization.

The Williamsburg Bridge will be restricted solely to vehicles carrying three or more people during rush periods, as well as buses and trucks.

But that could wreak havoc on the other bridges that cross the East River, said Jon Orcutt, the director of communications and advocacy at the Transit Center, a research group. “People aren’t crazy,” he said. “They are not going to drive the Williamsburg Bridge every day if it is going to be a nightmare.” Orcutt said implementing the same occupancy restrictions across all the bridges could help.

Lakhwinder Singh, who drives a taxi in Brooklyn, feared the prohibitions on the Williamsburg Bridge — which for taxi drivers would mean they could not drive across without a minimum of two passengers — would make his job harder. “If we no have customers, we don’t have the money,” Lakhwinder, 38, said.

Some expressed concerns that people will turn to sharing rides in for-hire cars, clogging the roads even more. “I’m worried. I’m concerned for the culture and the community,” said Wayne Fortune, who sells clothing from a sidewalk table along Bedford Avenue.

Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said that part of the plan is giving the public ample communication, including encouraging drivers to stay off the road at certain times of the day. Still, she was frank: “We cannot understate the magnitude of the disruption.”

Officials stressed that the plan was not final, and Orcutt noted that “a lot of this stuff, the city can change day-to-day.” In the end, however, “the city has to do this,” he said. “You can say it won’t work, but there are only so many options you have.”