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DOT Again Scrubs Fifth Ave. Busway Forum After Pushback

12:01 AM EDT on September 23, 2020

Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

The Department of Transportation abruptly cancelled a presentation about the now-delayed (and watered-down) Fifth Avenue busway that had been set for Monday night — weeks after bailing on the idea that the strip would be car-free in deference to luxury retailers on the famous strip.

After quietly changing the car-free, bus-only plan to a version that included one lane of through traffic, DOT told the Community Board 5 Transportation Committee last month that it would bring an updated plan for the busway on Sept. 21. But on that very morning, it was scrubbed, a source told Streetsblog.

Originally, the DOT championed a Fifth Avenue busway so it could change the corridor from 57th to 34th streets — including the stretch where the city painted a Black Lives Matter mural in front of Trump Tower — into a car-free busway by restricting traffic to bicycles, transit, and emergency vehicles while forcing private vehicles to turn off at 57th Street. The project would mimic the successful 14th Street busway, which started as a pilot last year, but was made permanent in June.

The busway would make commutes faster for nearly 110,000 people a day, but DOT reps said last month that noted mom-and-pops like Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Tiffany and Co, Coach, and Rolex, have concerns about restricting private cars on the thoroughfare because they still want shoppers to be able to drive directly to their storefronts along one of the world’s most expensive streets (though parking is already restricted along the stretch).

DOT did not address specific questions, but sent over a statement: "We continue to review the project and look forward to providing updates with next steps."

Insiders believe the delay has something to do with the pushback.

“I think they need more time, they’re still working out all the challenging political dynamics,” said one person familiar with the issue and the community.

Back in June, Mayor de Blasio announced with urgency that the city would install five busways in commercial districts in order to make commutes easier and faster for essential workers and the buses’ predominately low-income, minority riders — including on Fifth Avenue.

But not only did DOT delay the Fifth Avenue busway from its original start date in July to “later this fall,” it also is still unsure what the actual traffic restrictions would be, presenting to the board last month a watered-down version. 

“One of the real concerns we’ve heard so far about a busway with private vehicle restrictions is its impact on retail, in particular during COVID recovery. And that is something that is being looked at very carefully,” said Ed Pincar, DOT’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner, during DOT’s first presentation to the board on Aug. 24.

Let's break down what happened. The DOT's original plan for Fifth Avenue between 57th and 34th streets (graphic below) allowed for cars to drop off or pick up passengers, but it also created a third dedicated bus lane on the strip:

DOT's original plans for Fifth Avenue between 57th and 34th Streets. Source: DOT
Graphic: DOT
DOT's original plans for Fifth Avenue between 57th and 34th Streets. Source: DOT

But he DOT quietly edited out that third dedicated bus lane in its August presentation to the local community board, replacing it with a travel lane, which will likely cause the problems that travel lanes do: double-parking, for example, when the "drop-off" lane is occupied.

The DOT quietly edited out its plans for a busway in its August presentation to the local community board. Source: DOT
Graphic: DOT
DOT's updated plans. Source: DOT

The DOT similarly cancelled a “town hall” to promote its long-overdue busway planned for Main Street in Flushing at the last minute after the local council member appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement to push back against the plan. That busway, now more than three months behind schedule, is slated to start this month or early next.

Only one of the mayor's much-hyped five new busways has been built — the one on Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

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