Small Businesses Demand Compensation for L Train Closures

The lure of Williamsburg is that it’s just one short subway stop away from Manhattan. But when the trains are not running, it might as well not exist. It’s hardly “the vibrant street scene” envisioned in the 2005 rezoning for the neighborhood, and unfortunately it’s the businesses that are left holding the bag. The Williamsburg neighborhood depends on the L train.

The final straw occurred this past November when there was a non-disclosed scheduled shutdown for construction by the MTA, regrettably, on the busiest shopping days of the year: Thanksgiving weekend’s Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. What were the managers at the MTA smoking?

Unfortunately, the MTA relies on 10-year-old records, from a period when very few people came to the neighborhood on weekends. In the meanwhile, ridership has increased a whopping 141% above capacity. There are as many people using the L train on weekends and late nights as during rush hours. It has become just about the most crowded subway line in the city.

At a February meeting on the issue held in Williamsburg [see related article in this issue], there were a lot of ideas about how to get the MTA to redeem itself, including extending the deadline for small businesses filing quarterly sales taxes. But the idea we think has the greatest potential to help local merchants was suggested by Howard Blumberg, of the clothing shop Peachfrog. He suggested the MTA give local businesses free advertising on the L train. We even suggest they might also place ads on many subway lines with maps on how to transfer to the L train to Brooklyn for great shopping.

The cost to the MTA to implement the idea is a pittance compared to what the shutdowns have cumulatively cost merchants.

A manager at Radegast Beer Hall, Tim Hudock, broke it down into dollars and cents. He said the beer hall does 50% of its business on Saturdays, and that for the Thanksgiving weekend shutdown they experienced a 122% loss when compared to earnings for the same Saturday last year (calculating in their 61% growth this year).

“That could be someone’s salary. That’s someone with a wife and kids at home,” said Hudock, adding, “If that’s what happened to us, then the entire neighborhood is feeling this.”

Williamsburg’s many new businesses are the most dramatically affected by the shutdowns because they’re just getting started. James Rosen, owner of The Woods and the new restaurant Masten Lake, said, “We took about an 80% hit, and for a three- month-old business, it’s almost impossible to swallow.”

An organizer for Bushwick Open Studios 2011 described their nightmare, when they spent five months preparing for their 5th annual event, only to be bushwhacked when the MTA gave notice of a weekend shutdown one week before the event. Another casualty of the L train shutdown was Taste of Williamsburg, which went from a huge success one year, to zip the next, due to the train shutdown.

“Why are the trains shut down? What are they doing?” Peachfrog’s Howard Blumberg asked facetiously, “washing windows?” For years the MTA has been touting the implementation of the Japanese-designed CBCT system, which has computers running the trains.

For a project that was announced as completed in 2005, the MTA has now finally fessed up that while they completed the signal work, they didn’t have the upgraded trains to run with those signals. So for all these years they have been running subway trains on two separate signal systems, the old and the new. This is according to an insider source, who wishes to remain anonymous. Now we are told they do have the upgraded trains, but have to remove the old signal system, hence the shutdowns. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but with the MTA, you never know.

—The Editors