Busway Blues: Judge Halts City’s Transit Plan for 14th Street

An appeal has slowed down the M14 Busway yet again. Photo: Google Maps
An appeal has slowed down the M14 Busway yet again. Photo: Google Maps

A judge has ordered the city to halt its plans to convert a long stretch of 14th Street into a bus route — dashing, at least for now, a basic improvement of service for long-suffering transit riders and emboldening community residents who frequently fight the impact of street redesigns that seek to favor the many over the few.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told reporters she was “disappointed” at the ruling, which delays her agency’s July 1 rollout of bus-only rules between Third and Ninth avenues. The city initially hoped to ban all cars and trucks from the roadway, but reverted to a fallback position by allowing through trucks and car pick-ups and drop-offs along the stretch in question.

The lawsuit against the city argued that the DOT did not do sufficient environmental review.

“Closing 14th Street to vehicular traffic would not only cause horrific traffic jams on 12th Street, 13th Street, 15th Street, 16th Street, 17th Street, 18th Street (a street with an MTA bus depot at the corner of Sixth Avenue), 19th Street, and 20th Street, it would also cause traffic on north-south avenues including Eighth, Seventh, Sixth, Fifth, Fourth, and Third Avenue, and Broadway, and Park Avenue,” the suit, filed by lawyer Arthur Schwartz, said. “The traffic will bring with it air pollution and noise pollution.”

The city says it did extensive review — though it is unclear if state environmental review rules even apply to a simple conversion of a roadway to a busway. Plus, the city cited the project’s main imperative: Speeding up travel for tens of thousands of bus riders every day. Advocates for transit highlighted that point:

“Our streets are choked with traffic that brings our city to a standstill. When people look at our streets and wonder why we can’t fix them, this [lawsuit] is why,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “At every turn, smart decisions by experts that will help hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers get derailed by handfuls of know-nothing NIMBYs with deep pockets and time on their hands. This is what holds New York back: self-styled ‘progressives’ whose belief in fairness stops on their block.”

In her ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower may have been quibbling with the city’s legal requirement to do a “hard look” at environmental impacts. Schwartz told Streetsblog that when Rakower issued her ruling on Friday, she told city lawyers that she felt the city’s traffic analysis was insufficient.

“They had written a five-page analysis that said there wouldn’t be a significant [traffic] impact on the side streets, but she said it was not a true ‘hard look,'” Schwartz said. “Now they have more time for a hard look instead of platitudes.”

Rakower’s ruling is in place until the next hearing on Aug. 5, but Schwartz believes his suit will succeed on the merits — even though it is the first of its kind.

“The busway plan is the first of its kind, too,” he said.

Others believe Rakower will rule in favor of the city.

“The 14th Street hypocrisy has got to stop,” said Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director at Riders Alliance. “There’s no way neighbors can claim they care about their fellow New Yorkers while also throwing up endless barriers to faster, more reliable commutes.

“New York’s working people can’t afford to litigate their right to decent bus service,” he added.

Transportation Alternatives’ Senior Director of Advocacy Thomas DeVito added that Rakower’s ruling on “a frivolous lawsuit from a small group of very wealthy New Yorkers” left transit riders “in the lurch.”

“This sort of small-minded and self-interested behavior — prioritizing private car use for the most privileged New Yorkers over the basic needs of the city — has degraded the public transit system to the sorry state it is in today,” DeVito added

“That this small group of West Village residents and their lawyers have used every dirty trick in the book to delay and forestall needed improvements is shameful,” he added. “That they also hide behind progressive values, calling idly for the advancement of mass transit while doing everything in their power to stop its progress, is worthy of absolute derision.”

Meanwhile, Schwartz added a footnote, telling Streetsblog that he hoped to change the perception of him as a lawyer defending wealthy Chelsea and West Village landowners who not only want to stop the busway, but eliminate the pair protected bike lanes on 12th and 13th streets.

“I do not want to eliminate the bike lanes,” Schwartz said. “I want them to be better by narrowing the buffer so that the city can install actual protection so that trucks don’t park on them.”

That image-cleansing contradicts Schwartz’s own court papers, which demanded that the city “bring about the restoration of the 12th and 13th Street streetscapes to their former condition.”

After initial publication of this story, the Department of Transportation issued this statement:

Our plans for 14th Street are a centerpiece of our Better Buses plan, with the important goal of increasing bus speeds. Today’s disappointing ruling will affect tens of thousands of M14 bus riders each day. We understand from MTA that M14 Select Bus Service will be moving forward this Monday, but the ruling means that for the first time ever, SBS will operate without the trademarked dedicated lanes that have dramatically increased bus speeds and reliability on SBS routes around the city. … We are confident in both our traffic analysis, and that the court will recognize that we followed all correct procedures — allowing this critically important safety and mobility project to proceed.

— with Dave Colon

14th Street – TRO by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

  • AMH

    Good god, will we ever reach a point where we can get any minor improvements within a reasonable timeframe? And “narrowing the buffer so that the city can install actual protection”? How does that make any sense? Let’s install a nice wide landscaped buffer for protection with additional trees!

    On second thought, I suppose I should not look for any sense in a comment from Arthur Schwartz.

  • Angry East Villager

    Eat shit, Schwartz. Know that the neighborhood hates you and we will continue to fight you and your fellow entitled kind.

    Signed:
    East Village resident whose elderly, low-income, immigrant Mom relies on the M14A

  • Knut Torkelson

    Just a reminder that NIMBY and pro climate change/anti transit activist Arthur Schwartz is the Treasurer and Political Director of the NY Progressive Action Network (NYPAN). Just in case you ever think about donating to or volunteering with that organization, know there’s plenty of other great groups working on progressive issues that don’t employ this deplorable POS.

  • Andrew

    How does State Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower get to work?

    Does she receive and take advantage of special perks, such as a parking placard, that might influence how she chooses to get to work?

  • snobum

    Can we all just pay for Schwartz to move to Florida or Texas? Somewhere he can have all the car lanes and parking he wants.

  • Simon Phearson

    It would help if the story went into more detail on the nature of the injunction here. I have no idea if this is a preliminary injunction, a temporary restraining order, or some other kind of relief that might be relevant in disputes of this kind.

  • ohnonononono

    She appears to be lucky enough to own a condo within a 5 minute walk of her office according to city public records at https://a836-acris.nyc.gov

    Doubt she takes the bus too often.

  • HamTech87

    Sadly, another defender of car culture would quickly take his place. Like in the Netherlands 40 years ago, this won’t be easy. https://twitter.com/notjustbikes/status/1144351266144997377

  • mikecherepko

    There is a bus depot on 6th and 18th? And that means buses shouldn’t have easier access across Manhattan? And the judge thought this was a high quality argument?

  • HamTech87

    Anecdotally, I heard of a past justice who had a parking placard and used it all the time. So my guess is she has one for her car, even if she doesn’t use it to commute to work.

  • s

    Drop them a line or give them a call. Be polite but firm.

    https://nypan.org/about/contact-us

  • JarekFA

    It’s a TRO.

  • JarekFA
  • mikecherepko

    I guess the judge thought it was a high quality argument because of its length. You know the suit took a “hard look” because it is 39 pages long.

  • William Lawson

    How about North Korea where he truly belongs

  • Joe R.

    Well, if the conflicts in the Middle East keep heating up, we might see massive increases in oil prices, which as far as I’m concerned would be a great thing. We might actually see a lot less driving with $10 per gallon gas. We’ll also see much quicker adoption of electric vehicles. Yes, it’s going to be a battle. Any advantage we can get will be welcome.

  • Joe R.

    I’m just wondering what would happen if the city went ahead with the project anyway? The courts can rule all they want against it, but what power do they have to physically stop it from being implemented? Are they going to get the NYPD to come in with jackhammers and break it up? I doubt it.

    DOT should just go ahead and do it. They’ll eventually win in the courts as this lawsuit has no merit.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, a Central American banana republic where influential people regularly manipulate judges would be more appropriate. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some shady business involved in this ruling. Schwartz never struck me as an above board kind of person. As an example, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree:

    https://www.thevillager.com/2017/06/district-leaders-son-busted/

  • Larry Littlefield

    Now the goal will be to drag out the lawsuit for years. In case anyone fails to understand the political philosophy at work, the real political philosophy of New York:

    The State of New York represents feudalism, American style.

    Under capitalism, you get what you earn, at least in theory. Those who believe that people need an incentive to work and innovate can agree with that. Under socialism, you get what you need, at least in theory. Those who believe that we are all part of one human family can agree with that. But over time, when you have the same group of people in power, both capitalism and socialism degenerate into feudalism, under which the privileged expect to continue to get what they have been getting, and perhaps a little more, whether they need it or not, deserve it or not. For those who have real needs, and who produce real earnings, it’s just tough luck. The feudalism of unearned privilege explains much about the state of the State of New York, where all past deals are set in stone.

    They have the street for themselves, therefore it’s theirs.

  • walks bikes drives

    Staff members at the DOT who had a hand in implementing the project after the injunction will be jailed for contempt of court. Yeah, that’s a no go. Only Trump would do that.

  • Andrew

    There is a bus depot on 6th and 18th?

    No.

    And that means buses shouldn’t have easier access across Manhattan?

    No.

    And the judge thought this was a high quality argument?

    Yes. (Perhaps because the judge relates personally with motorists but not with bus riders.)

  • Joe R.

    And only Trump would be able to get away with it.

  • Andrew

    I’m just wondering what would happen if the city went ahead with the project anyway?

    Went ahead with what project? SBS service on the M14 starts on Monday. All of the physical infrastructure is in place already. There’s nothing to go ahead with or to not go ahead with. It’s finished already.

    The injunction presumably bars the city from enforcing the bus lanes (i.e., any summonses issued would be invalid). But – here’s the thing – DOT already announced that “Camera enforcement violations will be preceded by a 60 day warning period.”

    So as long as the injunction is lifted by the end of August, this will have virtually no impact on actual enforcement. (The NYPD could have, in theory, enforced the law even during the 60-day period, but we all know how frequently that happens.)

  • Joe R.

    I hope you’re right, and not that the injunction requires the city to physically rip out the infrastructure within a certain time frame.

    I’m sure we’ll eventually prevail in court, perhaps even before the 60-day grace period is up, so the net effect of this injunction will be nil. Schwartz needs to have his head handed to him a few times to put an end to this kind of nonsense once and for all.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The question is will the courts allow this to be dragged out for years, or are we passed that?

    The history is bad. Take the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit, for example.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/our-efficiently-inefficient-system-of-injustice/

    The recent precedent up in the Bronx is better — an actual court date.

  • Emmily_Litella

    How does electric vehicle adoption help? Free street parking will then be set in concrete with sidewalk charging stations more common than muni-meters. They will remain until the whole city is swallowed by a rising ocean.

  • This is absurd: speaker Johnson asked for this to be an 18 month pilot specifically for the purpose of evaluating performance and impact .running the pilot is the best way to do it.
    If traffic on side streets was awful, DOT could have changed the rules overnight…

    On the other hand the community has been asking for reasonable mitigation on side streets ( turn lanes, neck downs ) over the last 18 months but DOT did not respond.

    Meanwhile the SBS on 34 th street works very very well. The most pleasant way to cross Manhattan in 15 minutes!

  • Right on. Need to see much higher price for oil. That would be a good place to apply huge tariffs !

  • Joe R.

    Electric vehicles will help my lungs. In the warmer months the smell of auto exhaust is so bad I can’t even go out until after the sun goes down.

  • cjstephens

    Do we know that she even owns a car? Remember, most New Yorkers don’t. Let’s not make unfounded personal attacks.

  • jojo

    The first priority of the DOT should be to fix the streets in Manhattan which are a mess of pot holes and bumpy terrain. The buses and large trucks are partly to blame for ruining our asphalt streets. Secondly there are so many steel metal plates covering holes on the streets and avenues that must remain during off hours when construction workers are in between jobs. However these steel metal plates are not held in place by black top in many incidents which add to the crazy roller-coaster ride thru Manhattan on your vehicle of choice. Why is the DOT not cracking down on these issues? No they are concerned about causing more congestion mayhem on Manhattan island by closing down 14th Street for buses. If it was not for the abandoned plan to shut down the L train completely no one would have thought that we needed only buses on 14th street. More city and MTA workers trying to justify their jobs.

  • Andrew

    Improving service on a busy bus route does not constitute “causing more congestion mayhem on Manhattan island.” On the contrary, the better the transit service, the fewer trips people make by private car, and it’s private cars that cause congestion.

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