Richard Barone of Regional Planning Association, one of the transportation experts on hand at “What the L?” listened to community members’ feedback (Photo: Nicole Disser)

Since word leaked in January that the MTA was planning to shut down L train service for over a year in order to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy, the residents, small businesses, and restaurant and bar owners who belong to the grassroots L Train Coalition have desperately wondered what the extended vacation will mean in real terms. For almost a year now, they’ve been locked in a push-and-pull with the MTA and elected officials, all in an effort to get the facts straight and prepare for the impact. At a meeting last night dubbed “What the L?”, coalition members took matters into their own hands and unveiled a report that proposes a 14th Street “transitway” that would be closed to private vehicles and other measures to stave off the L-pocalypse.

More than six months after the MTA’s first public L train forum, the agency still hasn’t released a formal plan for its own mitigation efforts. Save for a few vague promises to increase subway service on nearby lines like the JMZ, and something-something shuttle buses, the MTA hasn’t offered much in the way of possibilities for relief, either.

During that time, the coalition has been working with a team of professionals and transportation experts from the Riders Alliance and from another nonprofit, the Riders Alliance and the Regional Planning Association (RPA), which deals with the “urban research and advocacy” having to do with large transportation and infrastructural projects.

Representatives from NYC Economic Development Corporation discussing ferry service expansion (Photo: Nicole Disser)

Representatives from NYC Economic Development Corporation discussing ferry service expansion (Photo: Nicole Disser)

After wrapping up a series of surveys conducted with local business owners, residents, and commuters, they’ve compiled the results into a “community consensus proposal” that outlines their recommendations for addressing the shutdown’s impact, from the perspective of locals. The report measures the proportion of patrons who depend on the L train to access area businesses and also outlines measures that would prevent gridlock.

As you know by now, the $700 million tunnel-repair project means that, starting in 2019, service will be completely suspended for 18 months between Brooklyn and Manhattan, from Lorimer to 8th Avenue. Severing the L, a major artery that carries 225,000 people between the two boroughs each day of the work week, will have major consequences for those Brooklyn neighborhoods that– thanks in part to the L– have seen enormous growth in the last decade.

Not exactly a round table, but you get the idea (Photo: Nicole Disser)

Not exactly a round table, but you get the idea (Photo: Nicole Disser)

In addition to the 1,000 residents and commuters the planners reached out to, the study also includes a survey conducted amongst 100 area business owners. Turns out, more than half of them “believe that they will lose between 25 percent and 75 percent of heir business while the L train is closed.” The RPA package calls attention to another, less discussed impact on these same businesses too: 75 percent of them have employees who rely on the L train to bring them to work.

Piecing together transportation alternatives in a way that coincides with actual ridership patterns is a daunting task. “We can’t just double the number of M trains,” explained Richard Barone, VP for transportation at RPA, who served as the meeting’s designated subway guy. Though the M might seem like an easy way to make up for lost L trains, it has tradeoffs when it comes to the F; likewise, the A train has limits too.

As such, the plan has made way for a more holistic approach that includes bikes, ferries, ridesharing, and carpooling as alternative options, in addition to subways and buses under the MTA’s domain.

(Photo: Nicole Disser)

(Photo: Nicole Disser)

“There’s been such a vacuum of this kind of comprehensive thinking,” said Jon Orcutt, a transportation expert and former DOT policy director. That might be an understatement since the MTA’s inflexibility is compounded by its transparency problems. According to Orcutt, the MTA is stockpiling a large fleet of buses, but they haven’t shared the exact number with the community planning group, so there’s no way to know if what they have on deck will be sufficient.

Ideally, said RPA president Kate Slevin, the city would overhaul the major transportation corridors and transform them into “complete streets” that make way for dedicated bus lanes, bike paths, carpool lanes, and pedestrian sidewalks. “In reality, though, transportation is a system,” she said. Some streets will be better suited for bus routes, while others might benefit from being shut down to car traffic altogether. Meaning, $5 Uber rides alone can’t solve our L train woes.

Specifically, the mitigation plan calls for closing “all or significant portions” of 14th Street to private cars and transforming it into a “transitway” that would give priority to much more efficient forms of transport such as buses and bikers. Other proposals include enacting overnight truck deliveries to alleviate daytime traffic, setting aside dedicated bus lanes across the Williamsburg Bridge, and setting up free transfers between buses and ferries.

However, some of the fix-it proposals are unfortunately a bit gummy, lacking the sort of teeth that the L Train Coalition’s initial series of demands seemed to have. The planners suggest launching a marketing campaign “similar to ‘Shop Second Avenue'” (obviously a great idea, because clearly nobody knows that Bedford Avenue hath haberdasheries and artisanal soap shops), as well as getting the city and state to work with chambers of commerce and local businesses, and, of course, increasing train service, adding in ferries “with more regular and publicized schedules,” and creating designated bus lanes across the Williamsburg Bridge. None of these recommendations are all that inspiring.

What’s more, the MTA was nowhere to be found last night at Williamsburg’s Automotive High School. However, several electeds, including Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and State Senator Daniel Squadron, contributed to the community plan. At least two of them, Council Member Antonio Reynoso from Bushwick and Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, were present last night. The coalition remains frustrated by the MTA’s perceived lack of transparency, but the meeting was proof that bypassing the agency and working directly with transportation experts and elected officials, might be the most effective– if not completely screwy– way to get things done.

Even while the MTA made a concerted, if not brief effort, to be more transparent during their own public forums, there was still a sense that officials were somewhat disconnected from the real needs of real people. The presentations were fraught by a certain awkward tension, jargony missteps delivered in thick, esoteric language, and bureaucratic double-speak. At the MTA’s Brooklyn forum back in May, Lentol was proof that it’s not just MTA officials who are out of touch when he emphasized the importance of maintaining direct transportation routes between Times Square and Bedford Avenue, “because Williamsburg is happening!”

Thankfully, the new RPA/L Train Coalition alliance seemed a little bit more hip to the needs of the everyman L train riders, although their focus was unevenly aimed at North Brooklyn. The numbers that appear in the report, in and of themselves, are useful, in that they help clear up the inconsistent predictions thrown around at coalition meetings in the past, offered by everyone from self-appointed experts to tiptoeing elected officials, all of whom suffered from the same drought of reliable information. According to the RPA handout, each rush hour L train carries 2,000 people (at 15 trains per hour, that’s 30,000 riders), and to replace just one L train, it would take either five ferry boats, 18 articulated buses, (i.e. the giant ones), 668 carpools, or 2,002 cars. (In a word: dang.)

Aside from a few weak recommendations, the RPA study and proposal package does have one other glaring shortcoming, however, which calls to light the larger issue of Canarsie residents who have largely been left out of the remediation discussion as well as the L train info sessions. Back in May, the MTA organized what looked like a last-minute meeting in Canarsie, which some complained the agency failed to promote properly. Gothamist also reported that Canarsie residents pointed out that the RPA coordination effort was focused on North Brooklyn at the expense of neighborhoods located farther out, which also happen to be home to people of color and low-income families.

(Photo: Nicole Disser)

(Photo: Nicole Disser)

At the meeting, however, RPA reps seemed like they were making an effort to actually consider the concerns of Canarsie residents too. The study found that a significant portion (11 percent) of residents living near Broadway Junction (within a short walking distance of up to three-quarters of a mile) travel to Jay Street-MetroTech in Downtown Brooklyn for work (that’s almost double the number of people living near Lorimer and Myrtle-Wyckoff who commute to that same stop) and the recommendation follows: “Any solution should consider shifting the transfer point for the 14th Street corridor to someplace in Brooklyn so that L train riders from Canarsie to Bedford […] can access direct transit services (likely buses) to their final work destinations.”

It ain’t perfect, but the community consensus proposal is a start, and things are looking better than they were back in February, that’s for sure. The meeting demonstrated that groups like the coalition don’t need to wait around for the great lurching MTA to make a decision– and, in fact, it seems like public demand is what led to the MTA to engage with the impacted communities in the first place.

While the community plan is far from binding, it’s not just hypothetical, either. The fact that elected officials and their reps made themselves known served as a reminder of the seriousness of the proposals. Now, the challenge is not only figuring out the incredibly complex puzzle of gridlock but figuring out how to pay for such a massive fix, which will require coordination between the city and the MTA and across all levels of government. That would mean the creation of an “inter-agency working group” to ensure effective, consistent communication across leadership levels and neighborhoods, from Canarsie to Williamsburg– something that might prove to be the most difficult task yet.

As Orcutt said: “Now, we just really need [the MTA] to help fill this vacuum.”