Yesterday I wrote about the need to shut down the #7 line through the Steinway Tunnels between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square for eleven weekends from January to April, and for five weekends in the fall, as articulated by the MTA staff who attended a Town Hall organized by City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer. The MTA convinced me: they showed how the emergency weekend shutdowns allowed them to improve reliability on the line, and made an argument that Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) will improve train frequency and reliability.
Okay, so what do we do in the meantime? For years, every time they have to shut down the Steinway Tunnels, the MTA planners’ response has been the same: run shuttle buses from the bypassed stations to Court Square and Queensboro Plaza. This turns a ten-minute ride from Vernon-Jackson to Grand Central into a 45-minute odyssey. There is a better way.
In 2009, Cap’n Transit observed that according to Google Maps, a car driven from Penn Station through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel could get to Broadway and 21st Street in Astoria, the 39th Avenue station in Astoria, the 46th-Bliss Street station in Sunnyside or the Greenpoint Avenue station in Greenpoint in ten minutes without traffic, or thirty minutes with traffic. Following a similar suggestion for Red Hook in 2007, he suggested that the MTA run shuttle buses through the tunnel and along 34th Street instead of – or in addition to – up Jackson Avenue to Queensboro Plaza.
Last year I suggested to Jimmy that he ask the MTA. He did, with support from Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, Council Speaker Christine Qunn and State Senator Mike Gianaris. The MTA gave a lame response and that was the end of it.
On Tuesday night, I asked the MTA staff directly for a tunnel bus. Jimmy again supported my request and offered to contribute city money for it. I was heartened to hear several other residents echoing my request. Peter Cafiero, Chief of Operations Planning, said that they had looked at the issue, the bus would get stuck in traffic, and it would cost $50,000 a weekend to run buses through the tunnel every ten minutes. Their usual solution is to run buses to the nearest station, and that’s what they plan to do this time.
To me this sounds like an excuse to avoid trying something different. Jimmy (I’m pretty sure it was him, although it might have been one of the other town-hall speakers) said that it was a failure of imagination, which pretty much sums it up. The planners have no incentive to do anything beyond a shuttle bus, so they’re not going to try and make things any easier for residents.
Here’s why I don’t think the tunnel buses would have to cost so much or get stuck in traffic. The request that Jimmy made last year was for a bus to Grand Central. It kinda makes sense to run a bus to Grand Central since that’s the next stop on the #7 train, but to do that they’d have to run four blocks west on 39th Street, three blocks north on Madison Avenue, five blocks east on 42nd Street and six blocks south on Second Avenue, all in mixed traffic. Yes, that would make them slow and unreliable.
If instead the buses ran west on 34th Street to Penn Station, around the block on 35th Street and back on 34th, they could travel the entire way on exclusive bus lanes. True, sometimes the lanes are blocked, but they’re a lot quicker than fighting with cars and trucks on Madison Avenue and 42nd Street. This would allow riders to transfer to the subways at Park Avenue, Herald Square and Penn Station. Grand Central, Times Square and Bryant Park are a one-stop subway ride or a short walk away.
I hope that Cafiero and his staff will consider 34th Street and not Grand Central as the logical route for the tunnel buses. If they do, I expect that they will find the buses to be cheaper and more reliable on that route.