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Tunnel Vision

NYC's Future Leaders Weigh in on How to Handle the L Train Shutdown

At a community forum the candidates running for open city council seats offered their thoughts on the coming clusterfuck.

John Surico

John Surico

Image by Na Yon Cho

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.

Not only is New York's subway system meltdown coming at an inopportune time for the city, as its population grows at the fastest rate since the 1920s, but it also happens to land on an election year. Every electable office in New York's politburo—City Hall, the comptroller's office, all 51 seats in City Council—is up for grabs this November. So naturally, the city's transit woes have leaked onto the campaign trail. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who many expect to easily win re-election, has made a "millionaire's tax" for subway fixes a key part of his platform.

With a 6-1 party split, today's Democratic primaries will largely decide who'll be running the city next year. And in District 2 and District 4—which, combined, cover a large portion of the landmass along Manhattan's East Side—one of the issues that matters most to voters will come in 2019, when the L train goes offline for 15 months.

How to handle the impending shutdown, and the hordes of people that it will likely unleash onto the streets, was the topic of a forum held at the New School late last week in downtown Manhattan. Hosted by Transportation Alternatives, the roster of candidates running for the two open Council seats offered prescriptions to a problem everyone is trying to solve.

The conversation had three major focal points: buses, bikes, and the proposal to make 14th Street, under which the L train runs, into a car-free "PeopleWay" (an idea that VICE has covered in this space before). None of the candidates for District 2—Carlina Rivera, Mary Silver, and Jorge Vasquez—endorsed that idea, which involves banning private car traffic on the crosstown thoroughfare during the shutdown, due to concern about emergency vehicles and access to services.

"We have people who have mobility issues that need to get around," said Vasquez, an attorney for the city's Commission on Human Rights. "We have hospitals and clinics on 14th Street. So why can't I drive my mother for her diabetes treatment? There's nothing wrong with it."

When asked by Christopher Robbins—the forum's moderator, and part of the winning design team behind a car-free proposal for 14th Street, in a competition held by Transportation Alternatives—how the streets will handle a spike in private cars, the candidates' responses appeared murky; all three offered support for bus-only and HOV lanes, but how this would offset an increase in vehicular traffic was less clear.

"I think we have to look at a bus lane to make sure cyclists are safe, and also encourage education and enforcement for the cyclists as well. We have to look at how to get people as quickly as possible across the street," said Rivera, a community activist. "I think, again, looking at shuttle service, and how to get mass transit service improved and expanded, without overburdening adjacent side streets."

In regards to creating a protected bike lane along 14th Street, Silver, a local attorney and education advocate, hedged, and instead called for a mandatory helmet law. "There are concerns about bikes on sidewalks," she said. "I want to underscore that responsible cycling is the responsibility of everyone who gets on a bike." The other two candidates, Rivera and Vasquez, supported a protected bike lane in theory, but with caveats of preference to those with limited mobility, and bus lanes.

Meanwhile, Vasquez was the only one of the three to not support congestion pricing—a recent proposal by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that would charge cars for entering certain parts of Manhattan in order to reduce gridlock and pay for infrastructure fixes. (While the details of Cuomo's plan have yet to be revealed, the last unsuccessful pitch by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008 called for an $8 fee on all drivers entering the borough below 60th Street during peak hours.)

For District 4, the scroll of candidates was far larger with seven in attendance, each of whom had a differing vision of L train alternatives. Of the candidates, three (Vanessa Aronson, Keith Powers, and Maria Castro) advocated for the "PeopleWay" on 14th Street, arguing that it was desperately needed along the clogged corridor. But not without exceptions.

"I do think that the plan needs to take in place the needs of the local businesses on 14th," said Aronson, a former diplomat and schoolteacher. "We need to have a time for deliveries to come through. We also need to ensure that our NYPD is enforcing traffic flow, north and south. We also should really, before we do this, conduct a study to see how it would impact the streets around it."

The remaining candidates—Rachel Honig, Barry Shapiro, Jeff Mailman, and Bessie Schachter—were hesitant to jump on board, and also expressed the same worries as the candidates in District 2. "Certainly, we'd have to evaluate the congestion, but I think that a 24/7 car free solution may be problematic," said Honig, a PR executive. "But I'm exploring a compromise in terms of hours of cars, so we can move people most efficiently as we can."

Again, every candidate supported the expansion of express bus lanes to accommodate traffic flow—which became the politically safe slogan of the night. Aronson went further, with an idea for a free shuttle bus service that would run along 14th Street, depositing commuters at other functioning subway lines. Schachter said the number of buses in the impacted area should triple, and everyone called for bus improvements for disabled or elderly New Yorkers.

Bikes, in fact, proved controversial with this crowd, as a question about a protected bike lane on 14th Street largely devolved into a reprimand of bike safety and enforcement. "I got a call last week from a resident who's afraid to leave his house because he doesn't want to cross 1st Avenue," said Honig. "No one should have to live in fear of this city." Both Honig and Castro even called for the licensing and inspection of cyclists citywide, but when pressed for details, were unable to say which agency would be responsible for that seemingly immense task.

While City Council has little say over the full-scale mitigation plan that is expected in the coming months, its job is mostly to speak on behalf of residents to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and Department of Transportation (DOT), the two agencies responsible for it. What that could achieve is not necessarily clear, but if the jeers and boos from constituents to certain answers were any indication, expectations are high.

However, like the agencies they would oversee, several candidates refused to commit to any proposals without first seeing the numbers. "In terms of diverting car traffic, this is something that I'd work with transit experts and evaluate data," said Mailman, who works for another Council member. "Just see what all the options are."

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