Drivers trying to get to Whitestone and Malba have ended up in the Bronx, according to some accounts, as residents complain signs announcing the closure of the Third Avenue exit on the Whitestone Expressway come too late or are too confusing.
“The signage stinks and they have to fix it,” said Community Board 7 Vice Chairman Chuck Apelian at a board meeting Monday night in Flushing.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it’s working on making adjustments and changes where necessary as part of an ongoing process.
“Our engineers, operations personnel and contractor have been driving through and assessing the area since before the closure began,” said MTA spokeswoman Judie Glave.
The agency has already made some changes, adding detour signs and more notices along the highway. More are to come.
“The closure is just a week old so some tweaking should be expected,” Glave added.
The MTA posted overlays on existing signs, such as “All local trucks must exit” next to the 20th Avenue sign on the Whitestone Expressway. More “Last exit” signs are on the way as well, Glave said.
The agency also put eight variable message signs leading up to the exit to alert drivers. They’re the main source of complaints.
The glowing orange warnings are distributed in threes along the Cross Island Parkway and Whitestone Expressway, telling drivers the Third Avenue exit is closed and to use the preceding exit. But in some cases, they’re not visible until the last second, according to Apelian.
The VMS before the Utopia Parkway exit is literally right before the off-ramp, giving drivers in the left lane no time at all to swing across and get off.
The MTA has also put one VMS at the Third Avenue exit, which Apelian claims is too late for drivers already approaching the bridge. They have no choice but to cross.
Another sign at the toll plaza alerts the public to speak with a Bridge and Tunnel officer if they end up in the Bronx by accident. The MTA will refund the $6.50 tolls of wayward drivers, giving them a stamped ticket that allows them 15 minutes to make the turnaround. Otherwise, they can request a refund by mail. Motorists who paid in cash should request a receipt.
As a test, Apelian casually navigated the drive as any consumer would, and found the signs wholly inadequate.
“Most people drive to work in a coma and you don’t really pay attention to how you get there,” he said. “I sometimes get to work and I don’t even remember driving there.”
The lackluster signage has made victims of some notable figures, including Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) and borough president candidate and former Councilwoman Melinda Katz, who admitted at the CB 7 meeting she unexpectedly ended up in the Bronx.
“You have to have large signs, you have to have repetitive signs and in better locations so the drivers will notice,” Apelian said.
The board has been working with the MTA’s director of bridges east, Raymond Webb, ahead of the closure. It has full confidence the problem will get fixed, said District Manager Marilyn Bitterman.
The exit was closed to all traffic starting Jan. 7. It will remain unusable for approximately two years as the MTA’s Bridges and Tunnels reconstructs it as part of a $109 million Capital Improvement Project.
The closure makes Utopia Parkway, Exit 34, the nearest exit for drivers on the Bronx-bound Cross Island Parkway, and 20th Avenue, Exit 15, the closest for drivers and trucks on the Whitestone Expressway.
Glave said drivers will inevitably get used to life without the Third Avenue exit, but the MTA will do more to make the tweaking easier.
“As in any change, there is also a period of adjustment as drivers familiarize themselves with the new traffic pattern,” Glave said.