With L Train Shutdown a Year Off, Lower Manhattan Braces for Upheaval
Posted April 3, 2018 6:46 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — One year from now a large swath of Lower Manhattan will face a deluge. Fourteenth Street, for nearly its entire length, will be transformed into the busiest bus route in the country, ferrying as many as 84,000 people a day.
Seventy buses an hour will stream across the Williamsburg Bridge and pour into the neighborhoods of Chinatown and SoHo, where narrow streets will have to accommodate three new bus routes.
And the equally tight streets of the West Village will have to make room for an anticipated 5,000 bicyclists on miles of freshly laid bike path, while vehicle counts on some streets are expected to jump more than 70 percent during peak rush periods.
After months of meetings and the fine-tuning of contingencies, this is the sweeping situation that has begun to emerge. It is expected to play out in 2019 when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shuts down the workhorse L train in Manhattan for 15 months to repair damage, from Hurricane Sandy, to the tunnel that carries the train under the East River.
The city’s plan to deal with the loss of one of the system’s busiest lines, closing a section that serves 275,000 daily riders, entails a sweeping overhaul to roads, traffic patterns and bus routes that will reshape and strain many streets. The fear among local residents is what the onslaught will mean for neighborhoods already choked by constant traffic snarls.
The plan, which will close the L line from Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn to Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, places most of the burden on 14th Street, transforming much of the two-way thoroughfare during commuting hours into an all-bus corridor, barred to most other vehicles.
But the blueprint, arrived at after more than 40 community meetings and sophisticated traffic modeling by the city’s Department of Transportation and the MTA, will also envelop other neighborhoods as officials face what one described as an unprecedented challenge of finding new ways to transport waves of displaced subway riders while avoiding bringing large parts of Manhattan to a standstill.
“You can’t shut a tunnel down that was carrying hundreds of thousands of people every day, and have it be impact free,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner. “I wish that you could. One thing we know is that New Yorkers, they can be pretty tough and resilient and make the best of things. I hope they will do everything they can in this case.”
Ratcheting up the anxiety is a deep distrust in the agencies — especially the MTA — charged with guiding the process. All along the route of the L train many people and subway advocates expressed a lack of faith that an agency whose negligence allowed the system to plummet into crisis is equipped to pull off such a daunting feat.
“The subway fell apart due to inattention and a failure of accountability at so many different levels, and so much shortsighted thinking, and there is definitely that risk here,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group that nonetheless believes that a robust plan for the absence of the L train is vital.
On Tuesday, a coalition of neighborhood groups in Lower Manhattan filed a federal lawsuit against the MTA and the city claiming that officials were required to conduct an environmental review before developing a contingency plan and accusing the transit agency of violating the American with Disabilities Act by failing to include new elevators in its plan for the L train.
An MTA spokesman said the agency did not comment on pending litigation. But the spokesman, Jon Weinstein, said “the repairs to the Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel are desperately needed to ensure the tunnel’s structural integrity.'’
Some transportation experts argue that even bolder action is necessary. To encourage carpooling they have called for banning vehicles with fewer than three people from the Williamsburg Bridge for longer than just rush hours as the city envisions and extending the ban to other bridges. And 14th Street, they say, should be restricted primarily to buses 24 hours a day to make it easier on subway riders.
“A lot of people don’t commute 9-to-5 hours,” said Kate Slevin, the vice president for state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association, an urban research group. “A lot of people are traveling down 14th Street all times of the day. The worry here is you’re just going to have an inability to get around.”
For now, the biggest worry on all sides is preparing for the unknown.
“It might look all right on a computer simulation,” said City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown. “But in real life, I just can’t imagine it.” 14th Street: Nation’s Busiest Bus Route
The nucleus of the city and the MTA’s plan is 14th Street, which stretches from the East River to the Hudson River. During the morning and evening rush between Third Avenue and Ninth Avenue, it will be limited to buses with the exception of some vehicles, like delivery trucks.
The city has a goal of ensuring that buses can cross the bus corridor along 14th Street in 20 minutes, a speed rate of over 6.5 mph and more than 40 percent faster than buses there travel now. But some transit experts are dubious, believing that 14th Street “will saturate with buses,” said Annie Weinstock, the president of BRT International, a company that plans and designs bus rapid transit systems and that helped produce an alternate plan for 14th Street. “Buses will queue up behind one another and become a bus parking lot.”
Trottenberg said the plan for 14th Street was flexible. “If we don’t get it right from the start, we can adjust,” she said.
Transit experts have pushed for buses to be free to speed loading and prevent gridlock. “The only way we are going to get near the capacity that the MTA thinks will shift on to buses is if we do everything we can to get people onto those buses as fast as we can,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group.
A spokesman for the MTA, Jon Weinstein, said the agency had not made any final decisions about fares.
Businesses have already begun making plans for the shutdown, including shifting deliveries to overnight to avoid the crush, said Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, the business improvement district for the area.
On the other hand, some retailers are looking forward to the flood of new commuters. “There are tens of thousands of people who will experience the ground floor retail on 14th Street who would never come above ground before,” Falk said.
Chinatown and SoHo: ‘Can’t Even Imagine’
Seated on a raised wooden dais during a hearing on the L train shutdown at City Hall, Chin looked visibly stunned as city officials unveiled their plans, including the decision to deploy 70 buses every hour over the Williamsburg Bridge — and into the streets of Chinatown, which she represents. The buses will be part of new routes from Brooklyn, some of which will terminate near subway stops in Chinatown and in SoHo.
“We just can’t even imagine what havoc it is going to be,” Chin said. Along with buses, she is also bracing for a rise in ride-sharing vehicles like Uber and Lyft.
The buses will pour onto Delancey Street, splitting into three routes, including two that will loop through SoHo. Many of the buses will funnel from the bridge onto Kenmare Street, a single-lane road, before turning at the elbow where it meets Cleveland Place. The potential bottleneck alongside a small city park is already inducing anxiety, said Sean Sweeney, the director of the civic group SoHo Alliance.
“The horn honk will be intolerable, diesel fumes and diesel noise will spew forth 24 hours a day underneath peoples’ bedroom windows,” Sweeney said. “The flowers that the neighbors planted here, their sweet smells will be consumed by the overpowering diesel fumes coming out of these buses.”
Officials acknowledged the difficulties buses will have navigating cramped streets and tight turns. “The geometry does work for buses to turn,” Trottenberg said. “But we have to get the street design right. I am not going to deny it will be a challenge.”
West Village: Quaint Streets and Congestion
The city estimates that 21,000 people will take to bikes during the L train shutdown, playing a critical role in moving people from Brooklyn. To make crossing Manhattan easier, a two-way bike lane will be added along 13th Street, which is expected to carry 5,000 cyclists a day. To make room for a bike lane, 13th Street will lose 236 parking spots. The Transportation Department is considering splitting the bike lanes between 12th and 13th Streets in response to community concerns about the sheer volume on one thoroughfare.
But bikes will be just one new addition to the streets of the West Village: During the height of the morning rush, traffic is projected to increase by 71 percent on 12th Street as drivers seek ways around the car ban on 14th Street, according to the Transportation Department. At night, the estimate predicts an increase in traffic of 29 percent along 12th Street, which has only a single lane.
Bob Walsh, a bartender at the White Horse Tavern in the neighborhood, predicts “giant traffic jams” and “a total mess,” though eventually he believes that “we’ll work it out.”
“We always do,” he said.
Jonathan Warner, 23, who works in information technology on 14th Street, took a more realistic position. He knows that life in the neighborhood will be hard, but he also knows that the subway system is riddled with problems and if closing the L line will yield better service, then the looming upheaval would be worth enduring.
“Everyone, whenever there is a crisis, has to play their part,” Warner said, “to make sure the city as a whole keeps functioning.”