Promised L Train schedule adjustments for March
In mid February, a meeting was held at the Cubana Social Club in Williamsburg and attended by State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, and District Leaders Lincoln Restler and Linda Minucci, among others. The meeting brought together community leaders, business owners, and private citizens to discuss the recent controversy surrounding the MTA’s ongoing shutdown of the L train, a train whose weekend ridership, Squadron announced, has jumped 141% since 1998, according to stats found on the MTA website.
The shutdowns have been due, for the most part, to the implementation of the Communication Based Train Control System (CBTC), which the city has been working on for the better part of the decade, a project that was initially scheduled to be completed in 2005. While shutdowns have been the subject of much complaining and frustration among locals, a particular recent shutdown provoked Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick residents to wonder why the MTA’s project has taken seven years longer than it was supposed to, and whether the MTA cares about its ridership.
North Brooklyn residents also wonder if adequate alternate transportation has been provided to keep the flow of commuters traveling in and out of the neighborhood during shutdowns. Shuttle buses taking riders to other train lines have been put in place on some weekends. Other solutions proposed include reinstating buses on the Williamsburg Bridge and implementing shuttles to Long Island City, connecting riders with the 7 train. Increasing ferry service was also suggested, along with the possibility that ferries could honor Metrocards or offer vouchers.
President of the East River Ferry Service, Paul Samulsky, who attended the meeting, explained that he would like to participate and that all options are under consideration, but that the company is still in a three-year trial phase. “The Metrocard type of approach,” he said, “is something we proposed the very first day we got involved with business, because it makes sense. If we could’ve done it on our own, we would have already.”
Another demand was that the MTA never shut both the L and G trains down at the same time.
Assemblyman Lentol said he was having his staff in Albany draft a bill that would prevent the MTA from scheduling any subway shutdowns during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and he asked that Senator Squadron support a bill in the State Senate. “They’ll think twice about shutdowns during that week,” said the Assemblyman.
In 2006, after a rash of regular shutdowns, the L Train Business Owners Association was formed to help local businesses dialogue with the MTA regarding the dates of future L train shutdowns. According to Amy Cleary, director of communications for Lentol’s office, it worked temporarily, opening the lines of communication between the MTA and local business owners. However, those lines have since closed, and this past November, the tension between local business owners and the MTA came to a head.
From November 26th to 28th, the Saturday and Sunday following Black Friday, the L train was closed. In addition to being the busiest shopping weekend of the year, Saturday, November 27th was the second annual Small Business Saturday, an American Express–sponsored, Bloomberg- bolstered event that encouraged holiday shoppers to patronize mom and pop stores instead of major chains.
“The MTA kept our neighborhood businesses in the red on the most important shopping weekend of the year,” said Lincoln Restler, Democratic State Committee Member for Brooklyn’s 50th Assembly District, who was contacted by a number of North Brooklyn businesses following the shutdown.
One such neighborhood business owner is William Norton, who, along with partner Harold Blumberg, owns Peachfrog, a discount fashion warehouse on North 10th Street, three blocks from the Bedford L train stop.
Many small businesses reported similar losses of 80% for the weekend compared to the same time last year. “This is a mom and pop neighborhood and that’s why people like it here,” he said. Norton calculates Peachfrog’s losses amounted to at least $20,000, adding that this is the weekend when businesses make a large portion of their income for the year. “Many of us were just starting to crawl out of the hole.”
Pema Kongpo, whose eponymous boutique is on Bedford Avenue, says, “Every time the L closes you see a significant change, but that weekend it was especially apparent. For us it was not like a Black Friday sale.”
With American Express offering a $25 credit for qualifying small businesses, many business owners advertised and prepared specifically for that day.
“Helping small businesses thrive is the biggest thing we can do to put our economy back on track,” said Mayor Bloomberg at a press conference for the event.
Paper Magazine, which was responsible for putting out the official Small Business Saturday shopping guide for New York City, listed The Future Perfect, a furniture store on North 7th Street in Williamsburg, as the first entry under recommended Williamsburg shopping destinations. Chris Beard, manager at The Future Perfect, said, “I’d say we lost about half our businesses that day. And we’re lucky to have a really good location. I feel for the stores that are a little further out.”
Lexi Oliveri, who opened her boutique, Antoinette, on Grand Street only a few months ago, said the Black Friday weekend was especially pivotal for the future of her business. “Look, Black Friday is obviously a huge shopping weekend, but whereas the large businesses open midnight that Thursday, the small businesses prepared for that Saturday,” said Oliveri. “We advertised for Small Business Saturday for the month prior. With the train closed, we just didn’t have a shot.”
When asked why the train was closed that weekend instead of the next weekend, Deidre Parker, press secretary for the mta, replied with the following statement:
“There are a lot of variables that go into making our work schedule. Especially if work has been postponed from an earlier date due to inclement weather. All of our divisions and departments, including our outside contractors, work together to make a schedule for the year. Also note, we cut back significantly on the weekend service diversions between Thanksgiving and New Year’s in order not to interfere with shoppers and tourists.”
According to Caitlin Dourmashkin, manager of the Northside Business Owners Association, little advance notice was given regarding the closings.
“While the mta had reached out to some public officials, the Merchants Association and many of the business owners did not know about the shutdown until signs were posted in the local subway station,” said Dourmashkin. According to Amy Cleary, it wasn’t until early November that Lentol’s office was made aware of the shutdowns.
Owners of businesses have suggested ways that the MTA might offer recompense for the damage done by the closings. William Norton suggests the mta offer one car’s worth of advertising to local Williamsburg businesses. When asked about the possibility of such a gesture, Parker responded, “If they feel they have a claim they can reach out to our Government and Community Relation Unit and/or our law dept., Torts and Claims.”
Above all, local business owners expressed a desire for the MTA to be more mindful of their plight. Cleary, after being contacted by Oliveri and other business owners, became a conduit for some business people to dialogue with the mta after the shutdowns. According to Cleary, the problem may be systemic.
“What they don’t seem to notice is that this area has become a destination, the area has changed and needs to be treated with respect for the economy here. I don’t know how they can close any train on Small Business Saturday with the economy being the way it is.”
Having been instrumental in starting the L Train Business Owner’s Association in 2005, Cleary is particularly close to the problem.?“This is the kind of behavior we worked so hard to get them to stop five years ago. It just feels like we’ve lost all of that momentum. They’re just back to closing the train without any consideration for the community.”
Cleary explained that her office once asked the MTA to give concrete reasons for the closures. “We were told that consumers don’t care. I find that they do care,” she said, recounting a time when the G train was down for the weekend and the MTA reported that large portions of concrete beneath the train were crumbling, and that the entire weekend was needed for the new cement to dry. “It helped people to understand. I think people are owed these kinds of explanations.”
The official reason behind the Black Friday/Small Business Saturday closings was necessary track repair and signal improvements. The MTA claims that there will be only two more L train closings for 2012 and that these closings will complete the work on the train’s CBTC system. Asked why the CBTC has taken nearly seven years longer than initially promised, the MTA replied via email:
“When the installation of CBTC was finished in 2005, we still needed to keep the old signaling system in place because we didn’t have enough new tech trains to meet the ridership demand on the L line. So there was a combination of new and older tech trains. Now, there are enough new tech trains to operate on the L with all CBTC-equipped trains. We are nearly finished removing the old way-side signaling equipment, which we expect to be completed in the next two weeks. Along with the removal, some track work is also being performed.
According to an anonymous source with experience working for the MTA, Parker’s explanation for why the CBTC system has taken so long is accurate, but the root of the problem runs deeper. Media outlets intent on demonizing the MTA have been unwilling to ask appropriate questions to get to the bottom of it. According to our source, higher-ups at the MTA, hoping to please constituents, find analysts willing to put unrealistic end dates on projects. Money, according to our source, is also very much at the heart of the problem. Projects like the Second Avenue subway line and CBTC were green lighted during the Clinton years, when a surplus of federal and state money was available for them.
“These projections are made under a best-case scenario,” said our source. “Politically, no one wants to kill these deals.”
According to Cleary, there may be evidence that the MTA is changing its ways.
One of the two remaining shutdowns for the year was scheduled for March 10th-12th. When the Northside Merchants Association alerted the MTA to the fact that the many art events in conjunction with the Armory Show fell on those dates, the MTA moved 11 different construction projects in order to accommodate the festival. Meanwhile, the MTA has begun closing other lines during the hours between midnight and 8am. “I don’t think we can look at one instance as a pattern yet, but I think it’s a good sign. We’ll just have to wait and see,” said Cleary.
Notably, no representatives from the MTA were in attendance at the meeting at Cubana Social Club, and though local politicians seemed in legion with business owners, working with them to come up with possible solutions, there was reason to wonder whether they’d actually be received by the MTA. Assuming that Squadron, Levin, Lentol, and Restler follow through in bringing these issues and suggestions to the attention of the MTA, then the ball is truly in their court.
The fact remains, no subway service, no commerce.