March 29, 2014 By Christian Murray
The MTA heard the message loud and clear at a special meeting Thursday that the Long Island City community wants a shuttle bus that goes directly to Grand Central on weekends when the No. 7 train between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square is closed.
However, MTA President Carmen Bianco told the 200 attendees at PS 78Q that a shuttle bus to Grand Central was unnecessary, claiming that many residents don’t want to go there and that it would not save much in the way of time.
“We know a lot of riders are not going to Grand Central but other places,” Bianco said. “It would benefit a limited number of people with only a limited gain in time.”
However, political leaders and residents were dumbfounded by these claims.
“Are you making that up?” asked State Sen. Mike Gianaris, referring to Bianco’s claim that the shuttle to Grand Central wouldn’t save much in the way of time–as opposed to the existing route where passengers have to take a shuttle to Queensboro Plaza and then a train. “Is this anecdotal?” Gianaris asked.
Bianco said that he had data to support his case and the MTA’s decision was based on that. However, Gianaris said he found it difficult to believe and wanted Bianco to share that data with the community.
A skeptical Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said the data would make for some fascinating reading. He also polled the attendees whether they thought a shuttle bus was needed. The audience overwhelmingly replied yes.
The MTA executives spent most of the 2 ½ hour meeting explaining why the work—which will be completed in 2017– was necessary.
Bianco said that the MTA had to install a new communication system (called the Communications-Based Train Control), so it could increase the number of trains it could run per hour as well as enhance safety and reliability.
Bianco said the new system would increase the No. 7 train’s capacity by about 10%—or by about 2 trains per hour. Currently, there are 500,000 riders who use the No. 7 train each business day, with 27 trains running per hour at its peak.
The communications work has been taking place in the Steinway Tube, a narrow space that connects Queens to Manhattan. The tunnel doesn’t have room for workers while the trains are operating so it needs to be closed when repairs and upgrades are made.
Also, while the communications system is being put in place, the MTA said it is repairing the tunnel which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Furthermore, it is replacing the elevated tracks, since many are past their 25 year life expectancy.
Despite the comprehensiveness of the MTA’s plan, some residents viewed it as too short sited. They wondered how long the upgraded system would be able to accommodate the increased ridership—given all the new development in Long Island City and elsewhere in the borough.
Several residents said that the 10% increase in capacity– or 2 trains per hour– is not much and were fearful that the MTA would put them through further cuts in years to come when it had to cater to a larger population.
Meanwhile, Richard Mazda, who runs the LIC Arts Open, asked Bianco a direct question: “Can you please promise the community not to close between May 13th and 17th next year?” Mazda explained the significance of the LIC Arts Open festival—which features music, dance, visual art and theater —and the economic benefit to community.
Bianco reportedly told Mazda ‘You got it.’
But Mazda, a long-time critic of the MTA, didn’t let Bianco off the hook. “Maybe tonight’s meeting would have been better being a consultancy meeting in November,” he said. “When you announced the cuts [in December] it angered people by what was perceived as a cynical late announcement that didn’t give us a change to have a voice.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Lusskin, the president of the Long Island City Partnership, called on Bianco to change the schedule for the weekend of May 17, which is when the partnership is having its inaugural Vernon Blvd block party and when the 2014 LIC Arts Open takes place. The LIC Flea will also be open.
The number 7 train on that weekend will be down between Times Square and 74th Street—a more severe closure than the typical Times Square to Queensboro Plaza shut down.
“It’s one weekend, one day when Long Island City is all coming together,” Lusskin said. She said “it’s a body blow.”
Bianco did apologize to the community for the service outage. “We know this isn’t easy, I know this is disruptive…Let me apologize for the inconvenience to you.”