CB2 votes down safety plan for Skillman, 43rd avenues
by Benjamin Fang
Jun 13, 2018 | 309 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Department of Transportation (DOT)’s plan to transform Skillman and 43rd avenues in Sunnyside and Woodside was soundly defeated at a Community Board 2 meeting last Thursday night.

In a 27-8 vote, the board voted to oppose the proposal to add protected bike lanes, pedestrian islands and other street safety measures along the corridors.

For nearly four hours, community members engaged in a spirited debate, which often became tense and heated. Those in favor of the plan spoke about the lives that were lost or injured along the avenues, including Gelasio Reyes, who was killed by a drunk driver while biking on 43rd Avenue last April.

Residents and business owners who opposed the plan cited the loss of parking, potentially dangerous conditions for schoolchildren, and impact on local businesses as some of the reasons for their position.

The DOT formed the proposal last year in response to Reyes’s death. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and leaders of the community board, including Chairwoman Denise Keehan-Smith, called for protected bike lanes on 43rd Avenue and a “comprehensive study” of the area.

Queens DOT Commissioner Nicole Garcia said the agency has since hosted a town hall, a community workshop, and several outreach efforts for residents, small businesses and schools along the avenues.

She praised the board for voting in favor of the Queens Boulevard safety plan in 2015, which has resulted in zero fatalities on the “Boulevard of Life.” Since the changes, what was once known as the “Boulevard of Death” has seen a 63 percent decline in pedestrian injuries.

“We think it’s going to save the lives of children, of seniors,” Garcia said. “This project isn’t about a bike lane, it’s about all street users. The people who benefit the most are the pedestrians.”

Sean Quinn, DOT’s senior director of bicycle and pedestrian programs, said between 2012 and 2016, there have been two fatalities and 283 injuries, including 61 pedestrians, along Skillman and 43rd avenues.

Calling protected bike lanes the “gold standard” of street safety, Quinn said on average they reduce crashes by 17 percent and pedestrian injuries by 22 percent. He added that studies show they don’t slow down travel times for motorists.

In his presentation, Quinn said the plan would take away 116 parking spots in the area, which he conceded was a tradeoff. But he added that the original plan would have taken away 54 more parking spots, and that DOT changed its plan after community feedback.

CB2 members immediately criticized the plan. Member Patrick O’Brien said they’re being asked to vote on a plan that is not yet complete. Though the board voted in favor of the Queens Boulevard redesign, O’Brien said members felt “burned” because DOT did not respond to the board’s requests for improvements, an assertion with which Garcia disagreed.

Other board members like Sheila Lewandowski said coming up with an overhaul plan in just four months was “not enough time.” She said DOT has not proven trustworthy after the Queens Boulevard project.

Several CB2 members also suggested adding bike lanes on Northern Boulevard instead of Skillman or 43rd avenues. Chairwoman Keehan-Smith said there have been recent fatalities along Northern Boulevard as well.

Quinn, in response, said that’s not what DOT was asked to address after Reyes’s death last year. Garcia added that the agency installed pedestrian islands and leading-pedestrian intervals (LPIs) on Northern Boulevard last year.

“So we don’t feel this is rushed,” Garcia said. “We think we have been hyper-responsive to something the community and elected officials asked for.”

Community members and business leaders also testified both for and against the plan.

Patricia Dorfman, founder of the new ad-hoc group Queens Streets and former executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, said civic groups, parent-teacher associations, churches, mosques and business groups all oppose the proposal. She said she would instead support bike lanes on Northern Boulevard.

Manny Gomez, chair of the Sunnyside Chamber, said DOT hasn’t listened to the community’s alternative requests, such as painting the bike lanes green and changing the light to allow bikes to go before cars.

“We’re definitely concerned that this is very harsh for our community. Why can’t we start with the baby steps?” Gomez said. “I’m sorry, but this proposal doesn’t make any sense for all of the community here.”

Parent and school leaders also expressed their opposition, including PS 150 PTA co-president Diana Dumitru and PS 11 PTA co-president Mindy Bichler-Green. Both elementary schools are located along 43rd Avenue.

Bichler-Green said she fears protected bike lanes would cause a nightmare for drop-offs and pickups and increase traffic congestion.

“Having protected bike lanes adjacent to our elementary school is dangerous,” she said. “We are worried about our children’s safety.”

Sunnyside resident Dirk McGee, on the other hand, framed the vote into two camps. Voting in favor would mean supporting safer streets. Voting against means backing the status quo.

“The status quo in this city kills people, that is what we want to rectify,” he said. “This proposal will save lives.”

Macartney Morris, chair of Transportation Alternatives Queens Committee, reminded the board that Reyes’s death prompted the street safety plan in the first place. Keehan-Smith, however, responded that “bike lanes would not have saved his life because he was hit by a drunk driver in an intersection.”

Morris, who attempted to play an audio recording of Keehan-Smith’s words during the April 2017 press conference calling for a comprehensive study, walked off the stage, but not before getting in a message to CB2 members.

“I beg you, people are dying,” he said. “Please save them.”

Prior to the board vote, Keehan-Smith said the CB2 Transportation Committee initially voted 5-2 in favor of the plan. But two members “changed their mind,” altering the recommendation to four against and three in favor,” she said. The board overwhelmingly voted against the proposal.

After the meeting, Morris called Keehan-Smith’s actions “shady,” and said CB2 was operating in a disingenuous and unfair manner.

“We don’t live in a democracy if people are pressured after a vote and they change their minds,” he said. “I think tonight was a shameful moment for Queens politics. The complete shady way that Chairwoman Denise Keehan-Smith has operated this process, to me, de-legitimizes the vote from beginning to end.”

Dorfman said though the vote went in her favor, she didn’t feel “any triumph” on her side. She said she immediately wants to work to get more safety measures, including possible bike lanes on Northern Boulevard.

“Who is against bike lanes? More and more people are riding bikes,” she said. “But these particular streets, they’re not set up for it and it’s disruptive for everybody.”

Both Morris and Dorfman said they’re both eyeing what position Van Bramer will take on the project. Both Congressman Joseph Crowley and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan have already come out against the plan.

Morris noted that the mayor and the DOT have never overridden a community board decision without the backing of the local council member.

“All eyes are on Jimmy Van Bramer,” he said. “People in safe streets community have held him up as an ally, as a Vision Zero leader. This is the moment of reckoning.”

As of press time, Van Bramer’s office has not yet taken a position on the plan.

In a statement, a DOT spokesperson said they were “disappointed” that CB2’s full board vote did not reflect the Transportation Committee’s vote.

“Over the past few months, DOT reworked the design to preserve as many parking spaces as possible, and in some instances, including in the commercial core, with no no parking loss on the south curb of Skillman Avenue and north curb of 43rd Avenue,” the spokesperson said. “We will review our options for moving forward.”
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