In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down 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.
Now that people are finally accepting the impending L train shutdown in 2019, the realities of what that means are starting to seep in.
Like the recent admission from the city’s Department of Transportation that Manhattan’s 14th Street, which will see no L train service at all, will become the busiest bus corridor in the country when the shutdown is in full swing. Or the assertion from an independent assessment of the mitigation plan that the tens of thousands of people living in Williamsburg should expect to add (at least) 35 minutes to their daily commute. Or the city and state’s belief that the majority of the affected 225,000 daily riders will divert to alternate, already-crammed subway lines.
That last bit of bad news was the subject of a community board meeting last week, when, for the first time, officials from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) directly addressed local residents’ concerns that in addition to north Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, the L train shutdown will make commuting in Long Island City and its surrounding neighborhoods a living hell. (VICE reported on this issue last August, before the official mitigation plan was released.)
The night began with a presentation from Judy McClain, the MTA’s senior director of service planning, who went through the same slideshow that has been presented to other community boards in the shutdown’s impact zone. It detailed data-centric service plans—temporary bus routes; new ferry service; HOV3+ lanes; and more—as well as preparations in place for the subway stations and lines that will see this massive overflow of passengers. “[Riders] can take the G and connect to the 7, and E/M in Long Island City,” said McClain.
"That's what we're worried about,” Denise Keehan-Smith, CB2’s chair, quickly interjected.
Before taking questions, McClain explained the work being done at the station that matters most to this conversation: Long Island City’s Court Square; a transit maze where four subway lines (G/7/E/M) connect, which saw an average of 23,317 daily passengers in 2016. The focus was on crowd control: "We know there's going to be big transfer movement. We know that if you go out there today, it's congested,” said McClain.
Starting this summer, the agency, she said, plans to take out an aged automated walkway that takes up half of the long, bustling corridor between the G train, and the rest of the train lines. The stairways leading up from the platform to the mezzanine will be widened, she added, and two staircases will be added; once the shutdown ends, in July of 2020, an elevator will be installed there. McClain also noted that a free transfer would be given to passengers between the G at 23rd Street-Ely Avenue, and the 7 at Hunters Point Avenue.
But the proposed fixes, the community board members contended, still do not get at the heart of the problem, which, really, is just service. “I live in Long Island City, and my closest station is [Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue]. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 trains passing just to get on, during a snow day, for example,” said Jeremy Rosenberg, a member of CB2’s transportation committee. “So I'm curious: how many more times do you expect we'll have to wait once tens of thousands of people from Brooklyn start joining?"
McClain tried to explain that, by the time the shutdown starts, in April of 2019, the 7 train will be running along the new Communications-based Train Control (CBTC) signal system—the second subway line in the city to do so, the first being the L. Many critics say the decades-old signal system that most subway lines rely on is one of—if not the—biggest causes of the system’s current state of emergency. “We’ll have a couple of more 7 trains by then,” she said.
“What’s the timeline on that?” asked Jordan Levine, another member.
“Second quarter, I believe.” (In other words: end of June.)
The room erupted in laughter. The community board has waited six years for the signal system to be installed, members said, all the while dealing with a constant state of woe. (Access Queens, a transit advocacy group present at the meeting, has even started a Facebook group: 7 Train Blues. It has nearly 3,000 members.) So having it operational three months from now seemed far-fetched—although McClain clarified that, with testing, it was more like November.
The agency reps then added that there’s room on the M train as it is, but the E train is already running at maximum capacity. Options to expand service, however, are being explored, McClain said. (Although the signal system upgrade on those lines will likely take years, she confirmed.)
The members appeared frustrated, not just with what the shutdown could wrought, but what this area of New York City will face in the coming years. According to several reports, Long Island City has witnessed the most apartment construction in America since 2010, with thousands of additional units in the works. If there’s no infrastructure in place to handle the shutdown, what does that mean for the entire region’s future? “I don’t think people realize how far the sprawl is going,” said Mary Torres, another committee member who worked in real estate.
Torres and others suggested adding an express bus, which would take passengers from Long Island City and nearby neighborhoods through the Midtown Tunnel to Manhattan. Although, they argued, the shutdown wasn’t the sole reason they needed the bus, it could provide a good excuse for installing it. “We’re putting ten thousand people in without adding any additional infrastructure,” said Torres. “We need the express bus anyway.” (Other suggestions include free walking transfers between Queensboro Plaza and Queens Plaza—two busy terminals nearby.)
McClain said she’d take the ideas back to the powers that be, and consider them when crafting the agency’s final plan, which is due in late June. After it felt as if many of their concerns went unanswered, the community board members and advocates present appeared eager to follow up with the city and state. “While Access Queens appreciates the MTA’s work so far to mitigate the impact of the L train shutdown, these actions are not yet sufficient for Queens,” said Melissa Orlando, the group’s founder, in a statement later.
Denise Keehan-Smith, the board’s chair, had one last question.
“So... when will you be back?”
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