Plans for bus-only lanes along 125th Street were put on hold earlier this summer—but some elected officials are trying to reignite the project.
Since the Department of Transportation folded the project, three local politicians have sent letters to the DOT asking for the plan to be restarted, and local organizations remain supportive of improvements in bus services.
In August, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, and City Council candidate Mark Levine all wrote letters supporting bus-only lanes and Select Bus Service along 125th Street.
“I urge you to advance this project soon. The longer this project is delayed, the more opportunities are missed to improve the daily lives of my constituents,” Espaillat said in his letter.
DOT and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority first proposed speeding up service along 125th Street—where a bus moves on average at 2.7 miles an hour—in September 2012. Over the course of the next year, the transportation agencies and the elected officials disagreed over a number of points, as the plan was modified and ultimately scrapped.
DOT and MTA wanted to open up the exclusive bus lane only to the M60, while politicians and locals wanted the lane available to all of the buses that travel across 125th Street. Community Board 11 also wanted the MTA to include a provision to reroute the M35, which runs between Harlem and Randall’s Island.
In May, State Senator Bill Perkins called for an “emergency town hall” to urge the DOT and MTA to “slow down” their plans. In response to the meeting, the agencies agreed to shorten the dedicated bus lane—from Lenox to Third avenues, instead of from Morningside to First avenues—and ease proposed left-turn restrictions.
In June, CB11, which represents much of East Harlem, voted not to support the revised plan. The board disagreed with the MTA over the relocation of a heavily congested bus stop on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.
In his letter, the board wrote “We have been disappointed with NYCT’s response to possible relocation sites suggested by working group members,” a sentiment of noninvolvement echoed by many other community members at the time.
Eventually, DOT and MTA canceled the plan in July. Perkins had said he was pleased with the agencies’ shrunken revision after his town hall, but after they pulled the plug on the project, he said it was “unfortunate that they made that unilateral decision … it actually is something that the community wants.”
There’s a “very unique combination of community leaders who were all on board to make this happen,” Perkins said, “and so it’s unfortunate that that type of leadership was not taken advantage of.”
DOT spokesperson Seth Solomonow said in an email that more than 50 meetings with local communities took place in 2012 and 2013, producing “dramatic revisions” to the original plan.
Perkins countered by saying that hosting a meeting doesn’t mean that people are listening.
In their letters to DOT, Espaillat noted that 74 percent of Community Board 9 residents do not own private vehicles and 67 percent rely on public transit. Mark-Viverito wrote that 70 percent of Community Board 11 residents commute via public transit, calling the cancelation a “huge disservice to my constituents.”
City Council member Robert Jackson, who was quoted by StreetsBlog as being “pleased” with the cancelation in July, said “the community felt that the proposed plan clearly did not address [the issues of] the major artery.”
Jacob Carlson, a transportation equality coordinator at WEACT, a Harlem-based environmental advocacy group, said, “A lot of the community had questions that were unanswered and felt as a result that many of their concerns were not being incorporated … DOT did include a number of their concerns but didn’t include others with no clear reason why.”
He said the meetings at the time “really divided people’s input into little pockets,” with each group wanting different changes. He cited CB11 as an example, noting that board members had wanted to include the M35 in the plan and were disappointed when they heard that Select Bus Service was only intended for the M60.
The lane, however, would still be open to other local lines, including the the M100, M101, and Bx15.
Both Perkins and Jackson said they supported the idea of the bus lanes and looked forward to finding a plan that they could agree on with the DOT and MTA.
For the time being, the M60 and other buses on 125th Street won’t be getting any faster, and cars will still have four lanes of unrestricted travel.
“It makes it more difficult,” said Amber Ali about the lack of bus lanes. Ali rides the M60 every weekday from Harlem to Queens. “I know after a certain hour, it can take 30, 40 minutes—even two hours.”
Lonzel Green, who rides the M60 five times a week, said “they should do it” and called the cancelation a “bad idea.”
But drivers are not too happy about the red bus lanes replacing two car lanes. Tiffany Smalls, a Harlem resident and driver, said reducing car lanes would just make traffic worse for everybody.
“There’s only two lanes” in each direction, she said. “If you take out one, it’s just going to make it worse.”
Smalls said it can take her up to 30 minutes to drive from Second Avenue to Seventh Avenue. She also said that that bus lanes could decrease the amount of available curbside parking.
But Green thinks that shouldn’t be a problem, given how much double-parking happens on the street.
“You can’t find parking on 125th anyway,” he said.
Avantika Kumar contributed reporting.