April 11, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
The controversial plan to add protected bike lanes and other safety features to Skillman and 43rd Avenues has been modified yet again.
The DOT presented the revised plan to a skeptical Community Board 2 Transportation Committee on Monday just weeks after it held a contentious town hall meeting regarding the proposal at P.S.150.
The latest plan—the third released publicly—would result in the total loss of 116 parking spaces through the two avenues, which would make way for protected bike lanes, pedestrian islands, and other safety features. The plan shown at the town hall said between 117 and 129 spaces would need to be eliminated.
Of the 116 removed spaces in the new plan, 66 are along what the DOT calls the “neighborhood corridor”, shown in the slide as two blue lines. The original plan, presented in December, saw 114 spaces eliminated in the neighborhood corridor, for a total of roughly 160 combined in the two avenues.
The agency said the updated plan stems directly from feedback received at the town hall and after subsequent conversations with P.S. 11, elected leaders, and local businesses and attempts to make the plan “right-sized” for the neighborhood.
“We really took to heart what we were hearing from you, from the local businesses, in how we can balance safety, the parking needs, the needs of the bicyclists, and the pedestrians,” said Nicole Garcia, DOT Queens Borough Commissioner.
She said the agency is looking for the board’s support to put the traffic calming measures in place, noting that the plan has come a long way. “We’d really like to get your blessing because we think it’s going to have a really positive impact on the community,” Garcia said.
But the DOT spent most of its time with the board answering questions raised by the community on the plan and its features, including who called for it, traffic on Skillman Avenue, and skepticism regarding the number of cyclists recorded using the two avenues.
Garcia said the plan was put forth in response to “a pretty loud call” by local stakeholders who asked for protected bike lanes along the corridors.
Craig Baerwald, a DOT project manager, added that the agency was asked about the feasibility of protected bike lanes through the corridor mainly after Gelacio Reyes’ death one year ago and a cyclist injury days later at the same intersection.
Denise Keehan-Smith, CB2 Chairperson and head of the Transportation Committee, said at the onset that the board would not be voting on the proposal that night, and largely pushed back on many of the points raised by the DOT.
“I don’t want people dying either, but you’re really gnawing away at the pure fabric of this neighborhood,” Keehan-Smith said.
The board challenged the DOT’s count of 1,400 cyclists and more on Skillman and 43rd Avenues in a 12-hour period in May. Keehan-Smith said many residents felt the numbers were misleading, as the day the agency counted saw a Bike to Work Day event.
Baerwald said the cyclists were counted on the two-way portion between Van Dam and 32nd Place, just off the Queensboro Bridge, where it can be assumed that Skillman and 43rd Avenues served as a connection point for many of the riders. He added that over 5,400 cyclists use the Queensboro Bridge daily between April and October.
“Of course, not every one of these cyclists is using 43rd and Skillman, but it’s that important connection between Queens Boulevard and neighborhoods to the west and east,” Baerwald said. “And that’s what the importance of this project is.”
The board also questioned how a protected bike lane would have prevented Reyes’ death, as he was struck at an intersection.
Baerwald said protected bike lanes add several safety features beyond a path for cyclists, including tightening the roadways and slowing cars down. “You can’t say for sure what would happen here or there, but we do see injuries at intersections come down with our protected bike lanes,” Baerwald said. “You can’t argue against the data.”
While Reyes’ death prompted the community, including Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, to call for safety features and protected bike lanes, Garcia said the incident is not isolated.
“He’s not the only one whose been injured or had a crash on 43rd Avenue and 39th Street,” Garcia said. “The map says it all.”
The DOT Queens Borough Commissioner was referring to a slide in the presentation that said roughly 300 people had been injured through the two avenues from 2012 to 2016. “These are corridor-wide treatments,” she said.
Keehan-Smith and several board members also rejected a portion of the plan to eliminate a travel lane on Skillman Avenue between Roosevelt Avenue and 49th Street. They argued that the existing traffic, double parked cars, and the morning and afternoon frenzy at P.S. 11 make the concept untenable.
Baerwald said the agency took several extensive looks at this location, and found that traffic capacity could be maintained without creating backups. The new design would actually allow cars to drive around a double parked vehicle and force vehicles to slow down near a school zone, he said.
He added that protected bike lanes against P.S. 11’s curb would not be a danger to crossing students, as shown by several protected bike lane projects by schools in Williamsburg and around the city. The hill at this portion of Skillman Avenue, in addition, ensures that cyclists are going at slow speeds.
But the Transportation Committee Chair called this feature and many others unrealistic, and asked if the agency can scale back their approach for the two avenues or work section by section.
“Do you understand my hesitation?” Keehan-Smith said to the DOT. “There’s so much opposition to this, and I get it—people are concerned.”
Pat Dorfman, Executive Director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, was granted a few minutes to speak at the meeting by Keehan-Smith. Dorfman has been one of the key figures against the DOT’s proposals, believing that the loss of parking spaces will be an affront on local businesses.
“If I wasn’t executive director of the chamber, I’d probably be in support of this,” Dorfman said. “But there’s such an outcry. It’s exploding. It just feels like somebody upstairs wants to have 10 more miles of protected bike lanes and this is where we want to put them.”
Garcia wholeheartedly denied that the push for the plan was coming from the mayor or other high-ranking officials.
The meeting saw several transportation advocates who vouched for the DOT’s plan, many of whom resented the board’s continued push-back on a plan they say has changed considerably since it was introduced in November.
Macartney Morris, Chair of the Transportation Alternatives’ Queens Activist Committee, told the Sunnyside Post after the meeting that he was frustrated to see CB2 raise what seem like “delay tactics packaged in a guise of concerns”.
He said the DOT has reduced the number of parking spaces that would be lost as a give-back to the community.
“Any logical, fair person looking at the situation would observe that the DOT has nearly bent over backwards to accommodate the concerns, whether its parking loss or whether its P.S. 11 or 150 focused on the safety of school children,” Morris said.
The transportation advocate said the board doesn’t entirely reflect the community’s voices, citing the support he’s heard from local residents and data that shows a small percentage of area residents who actually use their car for commuting to work, for example.
During the meeting, Morris pushed for a long-time Sunnyside resident, Roz Gianutsos, to speak after Keehan-Smith granted Dorfman some time. “I wasn’t against Denise giving Dorfman a chance to speak,” Morris said. “But I want to make sure that she’s giving that chance to everyone else.”
Gianutsos recounted an incident where she was hit by a car while cycling near her home, and said the community needs “a diversity of options” for getting around. She urged the board to take the plan “seriously”.
Keehan-Smith, who said the board has been “taking it seriously since November” requested that the DOT hold another town hall to discuss their project, which Garcia said she’ll have to bring up to the agency.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the DOT said: “We are reviewing the comments we heard at last night’s CB2 meeting to determine next steps, and we will be in touch with the board.”