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Queens Community Board Continues Secret Shenanigans to Raise Money to Kill Northern Boulevard Bike Lane

12:01 AM EDT on September 17, 2018

The city installed this really good bike lane to protect cyclists along a dangerous stretch of Northern Boulevard, but the local community board keeps meeting in secret to undermine it. Photo: Laura Shepard

They just won’t take know for an answer.

Several rogue Community Board 11 members — fully aware that the city has rejected their substandard alternative plan for a bike lane on a treacherous stretch of eastern Northern Boulevard — secretly met with Council Member Paul Vallone last week in an effort to raise money for their bloated, $9-million scheme because they hate the city's existing protected bike lane so much.

The rest of the community board, including members of a transportation committee that had long ago approved the city's safety redesign, learned about this meeting from a Vallone newsletter.

The lack of transparency — and the bid to raise money for a plan already rejected — alarmed several board members, who accused CB11 Chairwoman Christine Haider, District Manager Joe Marziliano, and transportation committee chairman Bernie Haber of shadiness in their effort to attack the safety redesign.

“No matter how people feel about these issues, everyone should be outraged that a small group of three unelected people should be able to skirt the system so much to set up back room deals that may put human lives at risk,” John Kelly, a member of the transportation committee who was not at the secret meeting, told Streetsblog.

But it's par for the course for this car-centric board.

One member of the board, Ben Turner, was removed as co-chair of the transportation committee in the spring, likely because he supports the city safety redesign on Northern Boulevard.

“There’s a general lack of transparency in the way this board operates,” Turner said, regarding the secret meeting with Vallone. “It’s real cronyism. It captures why we need term limits. ... All they seem to care about is the privileges of drivers."

Eastern Queens cyclists are safer since the city installed a protected two-way bike lane near Joe Michaels Mile. Photo: Laura Shepard
Eastern Queens cyclists are safer since the city installed a protected two-way bike lane near Joe Michaels Mile. Photo: Laura Shepard

He also blasted the idea of trying to raise $9 million for an inferior capital redesign.

"There are better ways this money could be spent, including lead remediation in public schools, improvements for parks, and libraries," he said.

Still, Haber’s plan is the board’s top capital priority item for Fiscal Year 2019, according to Marziliano. “Community Board 11 remains committed to seeing this project through,” he said, adding that DOT put the budget for Haber's proposal at a stunning $6.5-$9 million.

The secret meeting with Vallone was not the first time a rump contingent from CB11 withdrew to the proverbial smoke-filled room to make policy in secret. In June, 2017, the full community board approved the city's plan to remove a lane of car traffic on westbound Northern Boulevard between 233rd Street and the entrance of Joe Michaels Mile, a popular cycling and walking path along Little Neck Bay. DOT wanted to make the roadway safer for cyclists after a driver killed Michael Schenkman, a 78-year-old cyclist, along that stretch in August 2016.

But a few months later, a CB11 leadership group attempted to hold a secret meeting — a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law — until Streetsblog got the scoop, prompting the board to give 72 hours public notice. At a later meeting, the board rescinded its approval of the plan and backed Haber’s expensive “sidewalk plan.”

In September, 2017, the DOT installed its protected bike lane anyway, choosing traffic calming and cyclist safety over the arguments of the car-owning minority.  Local cyclists celebrated the installation, which removed one lane of eastbound car traffic to improve the notoriously dangerous section of Northern Boulevard, but anger over the DOT's plan led to last week's meeting with Vallone.

That meeting was the latest effort by Haber and others to raise money for an alternative proposal that has a huge pricetag and many flaws.

Haber has been on the community board for 50 years and has said he does not think speeding is a problem on Northern Boulevard. His plan would restore the lane of traffic for motorists, who speed aggressively on that stretch, and put the bike lane on the north sidewalk. Haber's plan does not call for widening the bridge over Alley Creek, which is far too narrow for a two-way bike path. Instead, Haber's plan recommends caution signs.

The CB11 plan would not call for widening this bridge over Alley Creek, even though cyclists cannot pass each other, as this demonstration shows. Photo: Laura A. Shepard
The CB11 plan would not call for widening this bridge over Alley Creek, even though cyclists cannot pass each other, as this demonstration shows. Photo: Laura  Shepard

Vallone's Communications Director Lionel Morales said the Council Member is on board with Haber's plan because “the councilman will side with the community board on any issue that comes before the community board because they really have the pulse of the community.”

In reality, CB11 skews significantly older and whiter than the area at large and neighborhoods within the expansive CB11 borders are not equitably represented, according to publicly available data.

Haber took exception with Streetsblog's suggestion that he was being secretive. By law, he is responsible for updating the transportation committee, but said did not do so because “there was nothing to report on."

"Everyone knows the plan for the bike lane we proposed," he added. "The important thing is just trying to get the money.”

His access to capital funds suffered a huge blow on Thursday when sidewalk plan supporter — and street safety pariah — State Senator Tony Avella was defeated by former City Comptroller John Liu in the Democratic primary (which is tantamount to victory). In response to questions from Streetsblog, a Liu representative said, "John supports more protected bike lanes and greenways for pedestrians skaters and cyclists alike. ... Once lanes and ways are established, they must be well-maintained."

For its part, DOT said in a statement last year that it would indeed maintain its current bike path.

“DOT is open to continuing the discussion about board member Bernard Haber’s concept, however, DOT’s plan, which incorporated much of the board’s previous feedback and received a vote of support this summer, allows the agency to immediately deliver critical safety benefits for the community and all street users."

A DOT source said on background that the agency is willing to look at the CB11 plan, but such a scheme would likely be even more expensive than the board believes because of wetland mitigation, land acquisition, and potential bridge reconstruction.

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