Manhattan CB 6 Urges MTA to Restore Blue Lights to Select Bus Service

Manhattan Community Board 6 has adopted a resolution in support of a state law to bring back flashing blue lights on Select Bus Service buses. The reso also urges the MTA to explore options to restore the lights in lieu of legislative action.

A bus at the launch event for the first Select Bus Service line, in the Bronx, in 2008. Photo: Brad Aaron

SBS buses went into service in 2008. The buses and their flashing blue lights — which help riders distinguish between SBS and local buses — operated without incident for four and a half years, until the MTA brought SBS service to Staten Island’s Hylan Boulevard. Last January, the lights were switched off after City Council Member Vincent Ignizio complained that motorists, himself included, were confusing SBS buses with emergency vehicles.

Though an obscure state law limits the use of flashing blue lights to volunteer firefighters, no legal action was taken to get the MTA to stop using the SBS lights. A 2010 Daily News story about the regulation provoked no official response. No bus driver was ever ticketed for using the lights. An MTA spokesperson told Transportation Nation that the agency had received all of one complaint from the public, after the launch of the inaugural SBS line in the Bronx.

Ignizio was a leading critic of the effort to bring SBS service to Hylan Boulevard. In 2009 he co-signed a letter to NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan complaining about proposed median bus lanes and boarding platforms on the grounds that they would take away parking. In response, DOT and the MTA altered Hylan Boulevard SBS significantly, nixing the median lanes in favor of non-continuous curbside lanes. Ignizio purportedly approved of the watered down version of Hylan Boulevard SBS, which launched last August.

According to Ignizio himself, his argument against SBS lights amounted to anecdotes and the support of 100 people on Facebook. Ignizio told Transportation Nation that he personally asked then-MTA chief Joe Lhota, currently a Republican candidate for mayor, to have the lights turned off. In January the MTA issued this statement:

Reacting to specific concerns, MTA New York City Transit has agreed to turn off the flashing blue lights that have served to alert riders to the arrival of Select Bus Service buses (SBS) since the speedier service was introduced. This measure is being taken to eliminate the possibility of confusing the vehicles with volunteer emergency vehicles, which are entitled by law to use the blue lights. We are currently in the process of developing an alternate means of identifying SBS buses.

MTA administrators, bus drivers, and bus passengers say SBS service has degraded since the lights were shut off. “What’s happening is the people now are confused and they don’t have their tickets ready,” said an MTA manager to Capital New York. “They’re holding the buses up while they’re getting their tickets, which increases the dwell time.”

Passengers, deprived of one of the Select Bus Service’s distinguishing physical characteristics, now have a harder time telling regular buses from select ones and end up “running from bus to bus, in between buses.” said the bus driver. “Tourists are completely confused.”

A bill from Assembly Member Micah Kellner would authorize the MTA to use blue lights. The bill has three co-sponsors and no companion bill in the Senate. Staten Island State Senator Andrew Lanza also lobbied Lhota to have the lights switched off.

The CB 6 resolution [PDF] was approved by the full board last week, and was sent to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leaders Jeff Klein and Dean Skelos. It says bus riders are “unable to see and distinguish an approaching SBS bus several blocks away … something especially important after dark or in inclement weather.” Further, the reso urges the MTA to “explore all avenues” to restore the blue lights in the meantime. The MTA has said it is looking for an alternate color.

City Council Members Dan Garodnick and Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represent districts served by East Side SBS, have asked newly-named MTA chief Tom Prendergast to bring back flashing lights, regardless of color.

So far though, the Facebook campaign to have SBS lights restored has just 27 likes, compared to Ignizio’s 100.