Photo by Jon Cronin
Woodhaven Resident Paul Capocasale speaks out against the SBS plan.
Right: Queens DOT Commissioner Nicole Garcia takes questions.
By Jon Cronin
Woodhaven residents made sure the City Department Of Transportation understood their true vehemence for the Select Bus Service proposal along Woodhaven Boulevard at a town hall meeting organized by the Woodhaven Business Improvement District and the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation at the American Legion on 91st Avenue on Nov. 30.
Queens DOT Commissioner Nicole Garcia was present, and politely nodded and took notes as residents shouted their issues with the plan. The proposal to dedicate one lane of traffic to buses during rush hour, the sacrifice of left turns from the boulevard on to Jamaica Avenue, the increase of residential street traffic that those left turn sacrifices would incur and bus stops on the median strips were criticized and have consistently been the main issues residents have cited.
Jose Vasquez, a Woodhaven resident who formed a group with fellow resident Paul Capocasale, called the Residents Task Force for a More Informed Safer Better Woodhaven, said he got 375 signatures from residents to petition against the SBS proposal. He explained to each signer what the proposal is, which he claims bus rapid transit advocacy group the Rider’s Alliance does not. The Alliance has boasted a petition in favor of SBS with 6,500 signatures.
Vasquez stated he has witnessed Rider’s Alliance members asking bus riders, “Do you want better bus service? Sign here.” Vasquez also noted that when buses show up in Woodhaven they are already full because of such a high ridership population from the Rockaways.
Josselyn Atahualpa, community organizer for the Rider’s Alliance, stated after the meeting, “We go over the proposal and explain the benefits when getting petition signatures. Bus riders are ready for improved bus service, safer streets, and faster commutes.”
Martin Colberg, president of the WRBA, noted, “Change is good, but it has to be positive change for everyone.” He is looking for a plan where “everyone can get to work faster and safer.”
Maria Thomson, president of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District, said if left turns are eliminated, “Jamaica Avenue is gonna die because it’s not gonna get any traffic.” She added that the taxes those businesses pay keeps property taxes down in Woodhaven.
Kenichi Wilson, Transportation Committee chairperson for Community Board 9 felt it was important to note the difference between the SBS and the bus lane that runs along Woodhaven Boulevard from Eliot to Metropolitan avenues, which is part of the congestive corridor study. He said those two projects run parallel and he wishes that he had been informed before that bus lane went down.
Capocasale noted, “With a lane missing there will be an accident every day.” He believes there should be better transportation, but “We need to spend money on the corridor properly.” He added, “This is a crazy plan, period,” and regarding bus stops in the median asked, “Do you want your 13 year old son in the middle of the corridor as he chases his girlfriend around?” He suggested, “Make a plan that’s really safe.”
After listening to some input Garcia said, “We want to balance safety and mobility.” She noted that there have been 17 fatalities on the corridor since 2009 and four at the Jamaica Avenue/Woodhaven Boulevard corner. She added that the DOT has put the project on hold for a year while they consider more community input and is hoping to see the beginnings of implementation at the end of 2016.
Thomson then asked Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) to explain his plan for sending buses down a paved version of the old Rockaway subway line. Miller explained, it was not a plan, but an idea and not his own, but Domenick Rafter’s, editor-in-chief of the Queens Tribune who proposed the plan as a reporter several years ago.
Lew Simon, a Rockaway civic leader, said he proposed a plan in 2013 that would create an HOV lane for buses and cars. He noted, “SBS is not for us. We don’t need it.”
Alex Blenkinsopp, WRBA and CB 9 member, wanted Garcia to answer specifically if it was a question of “whether or how” the SBS plan will be implemented. Garcia responded by saying it is a question of how, which the audience replied to with grumbles and aww’s.
When asked why, Garcia said SBS improves safety and customer service for those who ride the bus. She continued to speak, but could not be heard over the grumbling of the audience at her statement. She said they will look at the recommendation of the WRBA to implement a bus way along the old Rockaway line and can see, “There is certainly interest in the room and a conversation to be had.” She added the DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg will be hearing about all the recommendations and opinions she heard at the meeting. “I have an excellent relationship with my boss,” she said.
Phil McManus, another transportation advocate for a reinstated railroad on the old Rockaway line shouted, “The DOT and the City of New York tells people what to do,” adding, “The whole route doesn’t want this.” He called the DOT “dishonest” and advocates for more buses and more roadways.
Al Rosen, a Woodhaven resident, stated that he believes the MTA is just using this to buy themselves new buses without having to put it in their capital budget.
Although the DOT has stated they will hold off on the SBS implementation for a year, opponents to the plan were curious to find out if parts of the plan would debut this year. Richie Vogle, a Woodhaven resident, asked, “Are you going to hold off doing anything before you get community input?”
Garcia responded, “My agency is committed to being responsive,” adding that they are aiming for a 2017 implementation. Vogle insisted, “Are the designs already cast in stone or are we wasting oxygen here?”
Garcia stated that community input into the designs, “Will be considered,” and “You are not going to see SBS improvements in the next three months.”
Ed Wendell, a former WRBA president, said 100 years ago the city began the discussion of turning Woodhaven Avenue into Woodhaven Boulevard and the residents were able to postpone it for 25 years.
Many times throughout the night audience members pointed out that a representative from the MTA was not present to answer questions on bus service, trains, and transit improvements in general.
Garcia noted that she will be sharing that night’s information with her counterparts at the MTA. “It’s not by design that they are not here tonight,” she said and added that the MTA will have representatives at future meetings.
Thomson concluded the evening by telling the audience, “You have made an impression.”
Reach Reporter Jon Cronin at (718) 357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin