Kate Hinds is an Associate Producer for WNYC News. She also reports for WNYC and Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project that combines the work of multiple newsrooms to provide coverage of how we build, rebuild and get around the nation.
NYC Kills Fast Bus to LGA
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - 12:50 PM
(UPDATED) Less than a year ago, New York officials vowed to bring fast buses to an infamously slow route route to LaGuardia Airport. But after push back from elected officials and community boards, the MTA says it's now formally killing the project.
The plan unveiled last year would have brought state-of-the-art "bus rapid transit" to the city, with special bus lanes, priority signals, and off-board payment, all of which have made buses almost as fast as subways in some parts of the world.
But the MTA released a statement Tuesday conceding the project wouldn't move forward.
"There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date," reads the statement. "As a result, NYCDOT and MTA New York City Transit have decided not to proceed with the M60 Select Bus Service project at this time."
It's a blow to bus riders seeking a faster route across 125th Street. And that's most of them: only 11% of M60 riders take the bus to the airport, with the brunt of ridership concentrated within Manhattan on the 125th Street corridor. Moreover, it's not a zippy ride: the M60's schedule says the ride from Morningside Heights to LaGuardia should take 42 minutes, but that's optimistic.
"At times the bus moves as slow as 2.7 mph," says the DOT's project website, "which is slower than the average walking speed." M60 buses are at a standstill 60 percent of the time.
But the death of the M60 SBS route wasn't entirely unpredicted.
According to Community Board 11's website, between September and June, the city held 12 public meetings about the M60. (A NYC DOT spokesman puts that number at 50 when you add in meetings with elected officials.) But the community boards themselves weren't ultimately on board with the plan, and some residents didn't want to see the M60 prioritized over what they felt were more pressing transportation needs in the area.
By June, the plan had been downsized considerably from true Select Bus service to some non-continuous bus lanes across 125th street, commercial loading zones and some left turn restrictions.
A few months before that, state Senator Bill Perkins sent NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan a letter, saying the DOT's outreach process "served to inform, not gain consensus." He wrote he wanted the agency to "slow down" and work more cooperatively with the community.
Speaking by phone Tuesday, he said nothing had changed since the letter. But he wanted to make it clear he had no objection to SBS. "There was never any anti-SBS sentiment," Perkins said. "Quite the opposite." He said the community was excited by the prospect and wanted faster buses, but felt stymied by what he called a lack of collaboration by the DOT.
"Ultimately it became clear to people, as they became more and more frustrated -- by the unilateral way the DOT was performing, that they were not being taken into consideration."
"Don't invite me to the party and tell me to stay in the bathroom," he added.
Perkins also said area residents and business owners want to see the DOT first complete a study about how SBS will affect the neighborhood -- and what the economic impact on local businesses might be.
This view was echoed by Henrietta Lyle, the chair of Community Board 10. "The Community Board is prepared to work with NYCDOT on a comprehensive study plan," she said. "Up until now, NYCDOT was on a fast track to implement the 125th Street improvements without adequate or appropriate input from community leaders and other stakeholders."
The M60 SBS plan never received full board approval from any of the neighborhood's community boards.
Cate Contino, a coordinator with the Straphanger's Campaign, a transit rider advocacy group, said she was disappointed the project had been scrapped. "This was predominantly a project for 125th Street," she said, "which is in desperate need for better transit."
According to the MTA, over 32,000 people ride the M60 -- roughly equivalent to ridership on the M34, which crosses 34th Street.
Perkins said he would reach out to the DOT and see if the SBS process could be restarted. "We want to see a successful SBS in the neighborhood," he said. "I'm personally invested in this. I'm a public transportation user. I don't have a car. I have a MetroCard. I preach it!"
"This can’t be the end of the conversation," said Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tr-State Transportation Campaign. "We want to...make sure there are some bus improvements that come to Harlem."
NYC DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow says that will happen. "We still hope to work to address these issues and improve bus service throughout the corridor in dialog with the community," he said, adding that the city is launching a new bus route in Queens in September to serve LaGuardia.