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

An appeal slowed down the M14 Busway, but a ruling on Friday may jumpstart it. Photo: Google Maps
An appeal slowed down the M14 Busway, but a ruling on Friday may jumpstart it. 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

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