Crashes Highlight the Hell’s Kitchen Bus Crunch

Last Monday, a left-turning coach bus driver struck two Spanish tourists in the crosswalk at 47th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan, sending them to the hospital with critical injuries. On Thursday, another bus driver crashed into scaffolding a few blocks away, causing minor injuries to passengers. The local community board chair says that without adequate bus facilities, neighborhood streets are getting overwhelmed.

The topic came up at a hearing last week where regional transportation leaders weighed New York’s big transit challenges, but only piecemeal solutions seem to be in the works at this time.

The bus driver in last Monday’s crash, 37-year-old Richard Williams, rolled over the leg of 62-year-old Maria Bagona and critically injured Maria Aranzazu Madariaga-Fernandez, 50 in the crosswalk. The women, relatives visiting New York from Spain, had planned to return home on Tuesday but were hospitalized.

The Post reported that the turning driver had a green light, neglecting to mention that the pedestrians would have also had a walk signal. In an interview from the hospital with the Daily News, the women set the record straight. “We were waiting to cross,” said Madariaga-Fernandez. “When the light turned, we started to cross. Suddenly, there was a bus… and it hit us.”

Williams received two summonses from NYPD: one for failure to yield and another for failure to exercise due care, according to Gothamist. He is not facing any charges. A spokesperson for bus operator Trans-Bridge Lines told AMNY that Williams was taking the empty bus to a parking lot on the west side. The company has higher-than-average safety ratings from US DOT, according to the Lehigh Valley Express-Times.

But that’s little solace to Community Board 4 chair Christine Berthet, who points out that 47th Street is not a designated truck or bus route and that there is no bus layover lot on that block. ”Some of the streets we have are used regularly as shortcuts,” she said. ”Our residential streets see 60, 70, 80 buses at peak hours.”

More than 8,000 bus trips bring at least 350,000 commuters to the West Side daily [PDF]. That keeps a lot of cars off the road, but with the Port Authority Bus Terminal at capacity, local streets are now bearing the brunt of buses maneuvering around the neighborhood throughout the day.

Bus safety was on the agenda at the CB 4 transportation committee meeting on Wednesday, and Berthet says a representative of Trans-Bridge Lines came to the meeting. “[He] was very apologetic,” she said. ”It was very respectful of them to show up.” Berthet said the board plans to send letters to DOT, NYPD and Trans-Bridge Lines about the crash and bus traffic in the neighborhood generally.

The long-standing issue got the attention of officials at the MTA  Reinvention Commission hearing last Tuesday, where both DOT Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and NJ Transit Executive Director Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim answered questions about buses in Hell’s Kitchen from Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Veronica Vanterpool.

“I get it at a very granular, local level, which is there is a lot of unhappiness right now with the current way we have so many buses flowing into the city,” Trottenberg said. “We’re struggling to accommodate them all on the street. The bus facilities we have are not adequate to the task.”

Trottenberg said she is working with the Port Authority on pedestrian safety near the bus terminal, and Hakim said NJ Transit is working with the Port Authority to find more layover locations so buses don’t have to go back to Weehawken during the day. Hakim said NJ Transit buses just gained access to a parking lot on 11th Avenue.

More substantial solutions, like an expanded bus terminal, had been nixed from the Port Authority’s capital plan [PDF]. Under pressure from advocates and lawmakers, the authority has set aside funds for some upgrades. In the long term, Berthet said the city needs more rail capacity across the Hudson instead of relying on an overloaded bus terminal.

In the meantime, Berthet has fought for street design changes to calm traffic in the neighborhood. CB 4 has been working with DOT to add more split-phase traffic signals, which hold back turning drivers so pedestrians can cross with an exclusive phase. It’s a solution that could have prevented last week’s crash, and Berthet says it should be standard at most intersections, not something the city examines on a case-by-case basis.

“There’s a massive problem,” she said. ”We don’t want to have to wait until there are injuries and deaths.”