New Yorkers Are Suing Over the Subway Shutdown
It was only a matter of time.
Illustration of metro construction circa 1890 via Getty.
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.
The L train shutdown in New York is, perhaps, one of the greatest confrontations between city and citizen of late, with the potential to disrupt hundreds of thousands of commutes. In certain areas—namely north Brooklyn and lower Manhattan—the impending transit crisis will force government agencies to drastically reallocate street space in order to accommodate throngs of people, and could have ripple effects elsewhere. Buses and bikes will be all over the place; according to a study, Manhattan’s 14th Street will become the country’s busiest bus corridor. New Yorkers will be forced to resituate themselves with routines that will very likely look unidentifiable to the ones they have now. In short, the shutdown could create chaos.
So, really, it was only a matter of time before somebody sued.
The role of that ‘somebody’ has been filled by about two dozen community groups in lower Manhattan, led by labor lawyer Arthur Schwartz who officially filed a lawsuit in federal court last week seeking legal recourse for the L train shutdown’s impact. The 48-page complaint lists the city, state, and federal transit agencies as defendants, and lobs a number of grievances against the shutdown’s mitigation plan, which VICE has reported in detail here.
The lawsuit claims that the L train closure work, which is receiving federal funds, did not undergo the proper environmental impact statements (EIS) required by federal, state, and city laws. Arguing that many subway stations will not see an elevator built during the shutdown, the lawsuit also resonates with another major federal suit in progress, where federal prosecutors are claiming that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not adding an elevator when renovating a station in the Bronx (which is a serious issue).
Other claims state that the shutdown will damage the “fragile infrastructure” of the West Village’s age-old brownstones, that over-congested streets will hinder emergency services, and heightened bike traffic will endanger senior citizens.
“This governmental action, by both a New York State Authority and the City of New York, promises to create unprecedented dislocation affecting hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” Schwartz writes in the complaint, “most notably 150-200,000 residents of north-central Brooklyn, including Williamsburg and Bushwick, who commute, on a daily basis to their jobs in Manhattan utilizing the NYCTA’s L Train; and hundreds of thousands of residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and Soho, who will have the fabric of their neighborhoods disrupted by a huge increase in the number of busses (diesel busses at that), the closure of streets, the elimination of automobile access to 14th Street, and the creation of a two-way protected bike lane on an already over-congested side street.”
When talks of an actual lawsuit first starting making headlines, transit advocates scoffed, deeming it needless NIMBYism disguised otherwise, which distracts from the immense challenges posed by the L train shutdown. It was time to be proactive, not reactive, said critics, and a lawsuit would only slow down a process that has already been fraught with issues. “We can’t let the whims of a few self-interested West Village residents void the needs of hundreds of thousands of transit commuters across the city,” Joe Cutrufo, the communications director of Transportation Alternatives, told amNY.
At the press conference announcing the lawsuit, Schwartz fought back against accusations of NIMBYism, arguing that neighbors’ rights are of significance, too. “It’s not about NIMBYism at all,” he told reporters. “If we’re selfish, it’s because we don’t want to breathe in air pollution. We’re selfish because we want to get to hospitals on time. We’re selfish because we don’t want to hear noise 24 hours a day.” (VICE reached out to Schwartz to comment for this story, but we have yet to hear back.)
In response, Scott Gastel, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, a defendant in the lawsuit, pointed to a letter written to Mr. Schwartz dated March 1, 2018. “DOT and our partner agencies are complying with all applicable environmental review requirements for this project,” writes Eric Beaton, a DOT deputy commissioner. He adds later, “If DOT decides to consider making any of the temporary measures permanent, we would, of course, conduct further evaluation and community engagement.”
Following up with that, Gastel said in a statement to VICE that the L train shutdown is “not just an issue for north Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. This unprecedented challenge will be felt Citywide, requiring hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to think about their commutes and their streets differently. DOT and MTA will continue to work with stakeholders over the next year to improve the plan. This follows extensive community outreach since the closure was announced.” In media reports, the MTA has issued a similar response.
But the big question here is whether or not this lawsuit could disrupt plans for the L train shutdown.
For answers, I reached out to Benjamin Kabak, whose transit blog Second Avenue Sagas is famous for taking deep dives into issues like this. In his review, Kabak says that the lawsuit’s EIS argument—which, he says, is its best one—largely falls flat for a few reasons. Bike lanes are specifically exempt from federal environmental laws, and temporarily shutting down traffic lanes to buses during peak hours—which is a big part of the plan on 14th Street—isn’t technically “new construction,” which would then require an EIS. The Federal Transit Administration has also indicated that no such statement is needed, he said, which could hold up well in court.
After consulting with lawyers familiar with New York State and federal environmental law, Kabak told me that the lawsuit is “very likely meritless,” but warned that it “could slow down the process enough to make DOT/MTA consider settlement.” He continued, “I think it could survive a motion to dismiss, but would ultimately be a loss for the plaintiffs.”
VICE will be following the lawsuit closely, and will provide updates as they come up.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Transportation Alternative's communication director. He is Joe Cutrufo, not Joe Cartufo.