How Will the L Train Shutdown Impact the Environment?

Despite residents' concerns about additional traffic, officials claim the upcoming subway shutdown will actually "result in a beneficial temporary impact to air quality.”
August 10, 2018, 4:25pm
New York City already has a lot of traffic. Photo by Nycretoucher via Getty
New York City already has a lot of traffic. Photo by Nycretoucher via Getty

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

To a casual observer, the current plan for the L train shutdown might sound bad for the environment. Congested as New York is now, it’s almost a given that road traffic will increase, with at least some commuters hopping into private cars and other drivers rerouted to side streets. And then there are the additional buses themselves: 200 in total, of which only 15 will be electric.


But according to a 125-page Supplemental Environmental Assessment (SEA) recently put forth by the MTA and DOT, any worries about the environmental impact of the shutdown are unfounded.

In the federally mandated SEA, the agencies argue that the alternative service plan (ASP) will “not result in significant adverse environmental impacts.” They do not believe the shutdown will negatively affect greenhouse gas emissions, traffic, or noise, due to the other transit options available and the shutdown’s temporary lifespan and, in fact, go so far as to say that it would actually “result in a beneficial temporary impact to air quality.”

That major takeaway was greeted with skepticism at the MTA headquarters in lower Manhattan on Monday night, when the agencies held a public meeting for feedback. Many of the same stakeholders behind a lawsuit against the MTA and DOT for the shutdown’s impact—which VICE has previously reported on—stood at the lectern and assailed the agencies responsible for the SEA. (Although one of the lawsuit’s claims stemmed from a lack of an environmental statement, which hadn’t been released at the time.)

"Saying is not the same as doing… the MTA is paying lip service to us without addressing any of the residents' concerns regarding pollution, safety, congestion, access to emergency vehicles, and the impact of diverted vehicles, especially trucks, onto neighboring side streets in the Village, Flatiron, and to the neighborhoods surrounding the Williamsburg Bridge,” said Judy Pensin, the co-chair of the 14th Street Coalition, a plaintiff in the suit.


Mainly, the concerns were with 14th Street, the major crosstown thoroughfare under which the soon-to-be-shut L train runs in Manhattan. Starting in January, a proposed “busway” will see buses and local deliveries only from 5am to 10pm every day, with exemptions for emergency vehicles, as well as pickups and dropoffs for residents who live there. Residents were skeptical of police enforcement, and argued that the numbers writ large just didn’t add up.

“The beneficial temporary impact on air quality defies logic: 80 diesel buses an hour, traffic backed up and idling on the side streets, and the study reveals that we're actually going to see a decrease in pollution?” said David Marcus, another member of the Coalition. “Intuitively, I don't know who's going to buy into that one. And it's not backed up with any real data—someone made it up."

Another contingency had qualms with the resulting traffic and routes of the four new shuttle buses that will pass over the Williamsburg Bridge and circulate parts of downtown Manhattan. During the shutdown, only buses, trucks, and HOV3+ traffic will be able to cross the Manhattan-Brooklyn overpass, within those same daily hours of 5am to 10pm. Where the bridge lets out in Manhattan, many key streets—like Delancey, Kenmare, and Houston—will be redesigned to fit bus lanes.

But those in attendance said that the streets are already slammed. "Fifteen out of 200 buses is an absolutely unacceptable token toward environmental responsibility. Please don't be reckless on this,” said Georgette Fleischer, founder of Friends of Petrosino Square, a group in the area. She cradled her infant daughter, Augusta, in her arms. "I'm here because I don't want my daughter to get asthma."

Most of the individuals who spoke were older and lived in lower Manhattan. They came from block associations, community boards, and citizens’ groups. They held double-sided, marked-up pages of notes and remarks in their hands, and waited for their names to be called. When someone delivered a zinger, or finished speaking, the rest would clap and cheer. The shared sentiments sounded somewhat similar, and carried phrases like “government takeover” and “excluded.”


"I'd like to make a suggestion that all of you be forced to live in our neighborhoods during this process,” said one visibly frustrated resident, Roberta Gale. “Because if you're not ready to walk in our shoes, and experience what we're going to be experiencing, you don't know what's gonna be going on.” She later exclaimed: “Shame on all of you!”

The format of the meeting was strange. Concerned citizens each had three minutes to speak, and they faced a countdown clock reminding them how much time they had left. Once they finished their remarks, Robert Marino, the acting VP of government and community relations for New York City Transit, thanked them and brought the next person up. Marino never replied to the arguments directed to him and his colleagues, and only told the person when they went over the time allotted. That was it.

Then again, the SEA was sort of strange, too. In the report, the ASP for the L train shutdown is weighed against a “No Action Alternative,” or a situation where the agencies simply do nothing. Which, of course, will yield positive results for doing something, no matter what that something actually is.

But that doesn’t answer valid complaints about congestion and traffic that were voiced on Monday evening—even if they were brought up by folks who rail against any new bike lanes and are often criticized for NIMBYism. As often is the case with these meetings, Marino started off by saying that the plan is still being finalized and feedback would help shape the end result.

But with only six months left before the shutdown, some in the crowd still felt they were being brushed aside. As the meeting drew to a close, one of the residents sitting behind me remarked to his friend. “They keep saying ‘Thank you for your comments,’ but it really should be: ‘Thank you for your comments, and we give a shit.’”

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