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14th Street busway supporters blast lawsuit as ‘ignorant’

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The bus and truck priority was originally set to launch on July 1

Monday would have been the start date of the city’s 14th Street ‘busway’ if a judge had not temporarily blocked it Friday.

Transportation advocates gathered along 14th Street on Monday—on what would have been the start date of the thoroughfare’s bus-prioritizing revamp—to blast a lawsuit that has slammed the brakes on efforts to speed up bus rides for thousands of daily commuters.

The city planned to restrict access on 14th Street between Third and Ninth avenues to mostly buses and trucks with three or more axles, but a judge temporarily delayed the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) plan just three days before its launch as part of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of neighborhood residents.

That group argues that the city has not thoroughly studied the impact on surrounding streets and maintains that the pilot program, which the suit says amounts to “PR material,” will push a wave of car traffic onto nearby residential streets and clog them with air pollution, noise, and vibrations.

But delaying the busway, riders and transit advocates say, hurts the some 27,000 daily commuters who rely on the often sluggish M14 for crosstown service.

“It’s not just PR if you’re late for work and miss a doctor’s appointment because the M14 gets stuck in traffic,” Ben Fried, with policy think-tank TransitCenter, said at the protest on 14th Street and First Avenue. “The people who brought this suit should feel nothing but shame that they are delaying this critical transit improvement for their own neighbors and they need to drop this suit immediately.”

The busway is an equity issue, advocates say, and note that the pilot program is meant to enhance service on an infamously congested road for bus riders who have a median income of $28,455 and whom 75 percent are people of color, city data shows. It would be “ignorant of the issues of racial-economic justice” in the city to dash a program that would improve travel times and cut greenhouse gas emissions because a cadre of neighbors don’t want to deal with a higher density of traffic on their streets, according to Danny Pearlstein with transit advocacy group the Riders Alliance.

“It’s what people deserve and it’s a false equivalency being made between two million daily bus riders and the elite of Greenwich Village and Chelsea,” said Pearlstein. “What bus riders need and deserve is a faster bus trip.” Pearlstein was late to Monday’s news conference after delays on the L train and then a 25 minute trip to travel nine blocks on the M14 bus.

City Council member Keith Powers, who represents a swath of Manhattan’s east side, also called for the suit to be dropped and said Monday should have been a “special day for transportation” in the city.

Arthur Schawrtz, the attorney representing the community groups suing to stop the busway, says slower bus speeds are worth the sacrifice if it means residential streets will see more traffic and its residents inhaling more car exhaust.

“To me, if my kids have to breath in more polluted air to speed up the buses, I’d rather they be slower, and it’s not because my kids are rich or poor or live in a nice part of town or don’t,” said Schwartz, who lives on 12th Street with his children. “These are residential streets and they have to be treated like residential streets.”

The lawsuit claims that the city’s plans violate environmental law because the project did not go through a comprehensive review, but DOT maintains that it is “confident in both our traffic analysis, and that the court will recognize that we followed all correct procedures,” the agency said in a Friday statement. State Supreme Court Judge Eileen Rakower sided with the groups represented by Schwartz Friday and issued a temporary restraining order until she is able to review additional documents, which the city must provide by July 12, and then reconvene on August 6.

If the busway was enacted, private through traffic would have been banned on the thoroughfare between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. to allow the bus-centric street design during the L train’s Canarsie tunnel reconstruction. City officials project the busway would speed up travel times by some 30 percent; it was meant to launch in conjunction with the new M14 Select Bus Service. That route began Monday with off-boarding fare payments and all-door boarding, but chopped 16 stops to allow for swifter service.

Schawrtz points to the M14 SBS service as a “middle ground” and says the city should monitor whether the service truly makes a difference for riders before “experimenting on residential streets” with a busway.

Though Schawrtz also takes issue with SBS service and is representing Disabled In Action and other disability advocates in a suit against the M14’s new SBS route, arguing that the MTA should overlay the SBS route with a local M14 route instead of entirely eliminating 16 stops. Schawrtz expects to file that suit in state Supreme Court later this week, he said