June 5, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
The majority of Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee voted in favor of the city’s safety improvement plan for Skillman and 43rd Avenues last night.
The Department of Transportation’s proposal, mainly involving the installation of protected bike lanes through the two avenues while eliminating roughly 120 parking spaces, received five votes in the affirmative, with two votes against the measure, during the committee’s June 4th meeting.
The vote comes after the DOT amended its controversial plan three times since its initial iteration was released seven months ago. While many supported the plan in all its forms, outcry was mainly due to the number of parking spaces needed to be eliminated, and its potential effects on businesses and residents.
The committee’s vote will serve as a recommendation for Community Board 2 during its final meeting before the summer break on Thursday, where the 49-person board in its entirety will vote on the city’s proposal.
The 5-2 vote was met with surprise from many on both sides of the issue, as it was believed that the transportation committee would steer away from supporting the DOT’s proposal.
Pat Dorfman, the former executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, and an outspoken critic of the plan, said she was shocked by the outcome, believing that the five people who voted for the proposal, led with a motion by committee member Jordan Levine, went against “the strong opinion” of the majority of the neighborhood.
“We expected Levine to support the DOT measure, as he has been forthright in support all along, but those four, confidently in favor of something so upsetting to so many here, blew us away,” Dorfman said.
Dorfman, who recently formed “Queens Streets”, a group that advocates for parking spaces to be retained in the neighborhood, claims to have “hundreds of pages” of signatures from people and neighborhood organizations against the plan.
Juan Restrepo, Queens organizer for Transportation Alternatives, the activist group at the forefront of the case for protected bike lanes and other safety measures, said the vote was a “good sign,” and shows that there are many people who haven’t been vocal about their support.
“A lot of times, the main board goes based off the recommendation of the subcommittee,” Restrepo said. “That’s not a sure bet, but a 5-2 decision is very one-sided.”
He said that the Thursday meeting, which will be attended by DOT technical experts who will explain the proposal’s goals, will be another chance for the public to understand that the redesign is about enhancing safety for everyone.
“I think a lot of people, not just community board members, will come in under one impression, and are going to be very surprised that all along, this is what we’ve been talking about,” Restrepo said.
Denise Keehan-Smith, head of Community Board 2 and its transportation committee, largely spoke to several facets of the plan she and the community have taken issue with during the majority of the two-hour meeting. She also read out suggestions that were collected during the board’s public bike lane workshop two weeks ago.
Keehan-Smith, who voted against the DOT’s proposal along with committee member Jeremy Rosenberg, asked why the protected bike lanes couldn’t be moved to Northern Boulevard or Queens Boulevard.
“I am opposed to this plan,” Keehan-Smith said. “I don’t like most of it.”
In another motion, both Keehan-Smith and Rosenberg voted to have the protected bike lanes go on Northern Boulevard instead. The five committee members who voted for the DOT’s proposal–Jordan Levine, Claudia Chan, Osman Chowdhury, Steven Raga, and Santiago Vargas–voted against this measure.
Northern Boulevard, Keehan-Smith said, is in need of more traffic calming, given the number of accidents that have taken place there recently. Protected lanes on Queens Boulevard, she added, would satisfy requests from LaGuardia Community College faculty and students made last week, when the DOT presented its plan for Thomson Avenue.
But Nicole Garcia, DOT Queens Borough Commissioner, said a plan has already been conceived for Skillman and 43rd Avenues that can be implemented as soon as this summer. The agency, she added, has already made changes after the incidents on Northern Boulevard, and is continuing to look at the stretch.
Furthermore, both Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard would have to be studied to see if protected lanes are feasible, which could take several months or years. At the request of the majority of the committee, however, Garcia said the agency will look at whether the two throughways, including Thomson Avenue, can also accommodate protected bike lanes.
“We’d have to do a study, and obviously just like Skillman and 43rd, there are trade offs, and I don’t know what those trade offs are going to be,” Garcia said.
Other questions Keehan-Smith raised include whether Skillman and 43rd Avenues can get signals that give preference to pedestrians and cyclists, enforcing no thru-truck traffic on Skillman Avenue, and adding speed cameras near the two schools also on Skillman Avenue.
While Garcia said she will take back the questions to the agency, the DOT’s proposal is most likely the final design.
The full vote will be taken on June 7, but as the community board serves an advisory role, the outcome of Thursday night’s meeting may not have a major impact on the plan.
Mayor Bill de Blasio overruled a 2016 Community Board 4 vote against protected bike lanes on Queens Boulevard, with Council Member Daniel Dromm also expressing support for the plan. And recently, the DOT said at a Community Board 6 meeting that it would not require the board’s vote to move ahead with Phase IV of the Queens Boulevard redesign, citing mayoral priority.
“We want to implement projects with the support of the community boards we’re in,” Garcia said at last night’s meeting. “Community board votes are advisory, but we find that this discussion, your feedback, always makes for a better project.”