Last week marked a milestone in the relationship between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and residents of western Queens.
In a packed town hall-style meeting on Feb. 17, six top MTA officials sat down face to face with residents, responded to an onslaught of questions and complaints and promised to help mitigate the disruptions caused by service cuts on the 7 line.
The 7 has been shut down between Manhattan and Queensboro Plaza for four consecutive weekends, and is slated to be closed for another three, while construction crews work on the tracks. A shuttle bus runs from the Vernon/Jackson subway stop to Queensboro Plaza, where passengers can catch the N train into midtown, but LIC residents and business owners complain that the shuttle is slow, unreliable and takes riders out of their way.
At last week’s meeting, organized by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), transit authority officials said they would try to run the bus on a continuous loop, rather than having it stand idle between trips. They also said they would try to reschedule construction in the tunnel under the East River, so that the noisy exhaust fan, which ventilates the tube while workers are inside, wouldn’t be running at night when residents are trying to sleep.
Finally, the MTA pledged to give elected officials and Community Board 2 more advance notice of future service disruptions and to engage in “meaningful discussions” with those parties about how to minimize disturbances for residents.
The transit authority’s promises might not sound earth-shattering, but they could be an important first step toward alleviating a tempestuous relationship with the community. Last week’s meeting was the first time in years that the MTA has met with the public in western Queens to discuss 7 line disruptions. Unlike many town hall meetings, which involve residents venting and officials defending their positions with canned statements, this forum spawned dialogue and resulted in concrete promises.
At least one promise was kept: The MTA’s fan was shut off for the weekend.
The frosty relations between the transit authority and Queens residents aren’t new. For the past several winters, the MTA has shut down the 7 between Grand Central Station and Queensboro Plaza on weekends for track maintenance. Every year, the community complains, arguing that the cuts leave residents stranded and businesses smarting. And every year, the MTA’s response is the same: Sorry, but the repair work is necessary. (The catch phrase is, “If we don’t work on the trains, the trains won’t work.”)
A few weeks ago, it looked as if this year would be no different. The transit authority announced 10 consecutive weekends of closures, which it said were necessary to install new tracks and replace an 80-year-old switch, the mechanism that shifts trains from one track to another. As usual, the subway wouldn’t be replaced with a bus, due to the expense and traffic congestion in midtown.
As in years past, residents protested, accusing the MTA of ignoring their needs. They said they feel cut off from the rest of the city, with commute times into Manhattan increasing tenfold in some cases. Businesses and arts institutions complained of a sharp drop in patrons.
The community reiterated those concerns — sometimes in vehement tones — at last week’s meeting.
“Who wants to come to Long Island City when it takes them 45 minutes to get here from Grand Central?” asked one resident, adding that LIC’s main selling point is its proximity to Manhattan.
Richard Mazda, artistic director of the Secret Theatre in LIC, and Angel Gil Orrios of Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside, both said the subway cuts cause their audiences to dwindle, especially since the MTA rarely gives notice of disruptions more than a week or two in advance.
“The MTA has hit me badly every winter,” Mazda said. “Our business is the weekends.”
Residents chided the transit authority for scheduling cuts to avoid the baseball season, saying it’s wrong to favor Mets fans over year-round residents. The work wouldn’t take as long to finish in the summer when the days are longer, they argued. The MTA says buses couldn’t accommodate the volume of people who flock to Citi Field, which is why track work must happen in the winter.
The transit authority also said buses into Manhattan to replace the 7 line during outages aren’t an option.
“Buses carry a lot fewer people than are on a train,” said Peter Cafiero, the MTA’s chief of operations planning. He added that congestion around Grand Central Station would make it hard for shuttles to pick up and drop off passengers.
LIC residents aren’t buying that, though. Two weeks ago, the Hunter’s Point Merchants Association launched its own shuttle service into midtown, in hopes of picking up the MTA’s slack, and the bus has had no problems with midtown traffic — causing the community to question whether the MTA’s claims are valid.
In addition to complaining about suspended service, residents blasted the MTA for the noise the repair work is causing. The exhaust fan which ventilates the tube is regularly on between midnight and 3 a.m., they said, causing a racket which makes for sleepless nights. Sometimes it runs for more than 10 hours at a stretch.
“If you were not a state agency, you would be violating the law,” LIC resident Edward Sadowsky told the MTA at last week’s meeting, referring to regulations curbing after-hours noise.
The fan is used during emergencies and when workers are in the tunnel. After residents questioned why tube work must happen at night, the MTA agreed to reschedule as much of it as possible so the noise is restricted to daylight hours. Transit officials also said a quieter fan could be purchased for $300,000.
The complaints brought up at the meeting weren’t new. But for the first time in years, not just the media, but also MTA officials, were listening.
“We heard you loud and clear,” said Lois Tendler, vice president of government and community relations at the MTA. “I understand the feeling that you guys in Long Island City are being picked on. … I can’t make all the pain go away, but I certainly would like to believe that we can make it better.”
Many in the community see the meeting as an important first step but not a final solution.
“You have to do more than just hear us,” Van Bramer said. “You have to change the way you’re operating.”