At Transpo Hearing, Council Members Ask for More Select Bus Service

A rendering of one option for Webster Avenue Select Bus Service. Future SBS routes, whether on Webster or elsewhere, appear to have a lot of support based on a City Council hearing this morning. Image: NYC DOT/MTA

The New York City Council has learned to stop worrying and love the bus lane. In a transportation hearing held this morning on the topic of outer borough transit, not a single person, whether on the council or testifying before it, had a bad word to say about NYC’s Select Bus Service program, which has consistently increased speeds and ridership where implemented. In a span of just a few years, SBS appears to have become a permanent and popular part of New York City’s transit toolkit — and one that will continue to expand.

For proof that SBS has earned the approval of city politicians, look no further than Queens Republican Eric Ulrich. “Queens is getting the shaft,” he declared at this morning’s hearing. “Why don’t we have BRT on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevard?”

Even after a reminder from the MTA that previous plans for Queens Select Bus Service on Merrick Avenue had been rejected by some local merchants, Ulrich didn’t let up. “I’ve been in office three years,” he said. “My constituents are still stuck in traffic.”

Ulrich wasn’t the only council member in attendance asking for DOT and the MTA to bring his constituents better bus service. “Are there any plans to have any additional SBS routes on Staten Island, other than the Hylan Boulevard one?” asked Debi Rose hopefully. Flushing’s Peter Koo wondered whether plans to improve bus access to LaGuardia might bring his constituents SBS service.

And Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca’s only critique was that Select Bus Service doesn’t go far enough. After endorsing each stick in the SBS bundle — bus lanes, off-board fare payment, signal prioritization and camera enforcement — Vacca urged DOT and the MTA to run Select Bus Service lines across borough boundaries to form an interconnected system with more opportunities for transfers.

Vacca also called for additional efforts to speed express buses. “They get stuck in the same traffic as everybody else,” he said, leading riders to turn to their cars. “That’s exactly what we want to avoid.”

The closest you could find to a complaint came from Staten Island’s Vincent Ignizio, who called the faded-away red paint on the Fordham Road bus lanes an eyesore in need of repainting. But rather than arguing against SBS, Ignizio told Vacca that the City Council and its finance committee should look into funding for ongoing bus lane maintenance. Though Ignizio fought against preliminary plans for a busway running in the median of Hylan Boulevard in 2009, he supports the current SBS design for the corridor.

With all the clamoring for better bus service, a few nuggets came out about what improvements might be in the pipeline. In addition to already announced plans for future routes along Nostrand Avenue, Webster Avenue, and Utica Avenue, here’s some of what’s on tap:

  • In Manhattan, DOT is working on improvements to Madison and Fifth Avenues. Bus lanes are in place along both roads in Midtown, but older, curbside designs don’t function as efficiently as they might. According to DOT Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and Planning Bruce Schaller, a proposal to reexamine bus lanes, turning lanes and loading needs on Madison should be before the local community board in the coming months. On Fifth Avenue, the agencies are still in “problem-solving and perhaps invention mode.”
  • The city’s original SBS route in the Bronx is on track to get even better. Already, Fordham Road SBS has boosted bus speeds by 20 percent and ridership by ten percent. But the corridor currently only has bus lanes along half the route. According to New York City Transit Chief of Operations Planning Peter Cafiero, bus lanes will be added to Pelham Parkway when that road is reconstructed, boosting travel times on the Bx12 between Pelham Bay Park and the Bronx Zoo.
  • Plans to improve bus access to LaGuardia Airport are still taking shape. Right now, though, efforts appear to have focused on two bus lines in particular, said Cafiero: the Q33 from Jackson Heights and the M60 from Upper Manhattan. The mention of the M60 should be encouraging news to the Harlem residents fighting for Select Bus Service on 125th Street, where that bus route begins before hopping over the Triboro Bridge into Queens. The MTA would also like to improve connections from the Bronx to the airport, said Cafiero, but that may depend more on how much money is available for the project.
  • Staten Island traffic tends to flow a bit more smoothly than in other parts of the city, so rather than pursuing corridor-wide treatments, the MTA and DOT are more interested in unclogging particular chokepoints. The area around St. George, as buses converge on their approach to the ferry terminal, is of particular concern, said Cafiero. That said, transit signal priority, which gives buses a little extra green time at intersections and has cut bus trip times by ten percent, will be extended further down Victory Boulevard later this year, according to Schaller.

Also discussed during today’s hearing were MTA plans to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station along existing Amtrak tracks, which the agency is seriously pursuing. Hudson and Harlem line trains would stop at W. 125th Street and in the 50s between 10th and 11th Avenues. New Haven Line trains might make four stops in the East Bronx. “The really irresistable thing about it is it’s using the existing network,” said MTA Director of Planning William Wheeler. “This is a project that doesn’t require new tunneling.”

Such a program, which has the strong support of both Vacca and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., wouldn’t be able to begin until after the completion of East Side Access at the end of the decade. The MTA is still analyzing the project’s feasibility and cost, said Wheeler, and the project is not yet funded.

Transit advocates testified in support of both a Select Bus Service expansion and the Metro-North improvements, as well as a few ideas of their own. Many suggested reduced fares on commuter railroads within New York City. The Regional Plan Association’s Jeff Zupan suggested that the MTA pursue policies to speed buses citywide. “The MTA could create a more widespread system of fast buses not by going line-by-line-by-line,” he said, but with “acceleration of the purchase of low-floor buses” and “the wider use of proof-of-payment systems to allow people to quickly enter and exit through multiple doors.”

Of course, said Zupan, neither his ideas nor anyone else’s are likely to become reality so long as the MTA remains underfunded and on the brink of a fiscal collapse. “None of these ideas,” he said, “no matter how good, will be implemented without money.”