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Who Killed Kumar Ragunath? Police Seek Suspect as Advocates Call for Action

Photo: Jimmy Van Bramer/Twitter

State Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer join neighborhood and street safety advocates to call for the arrest of the hit-and-run driver who killed Kumar Ragunath. Photo: Jimmy Van Bramer/Twitter

Kumar Ragunath, 64, came to New York from Guyana in 1987. Five years later, he and his wife bought a house in Jamaica near Richmond Hill. He loved to play cricket and listen to Indian music, and he kept working through his retirement to help fund college for his six grandchildren. Ragunath had been out of work since August, but recently found a job at the Queens Plaza Holiday Inn.

Photo: Nasha Ragunath via DNAinfo

Photo: Nasha Ragunath via DNAinfo

On March 7 at about 10:25 p.m., he was on his way to his second day of work at the hotel when he crossed Northern Boulevard near 40th Road in Long Island City. Ragunath was outside the crosswalk when the driver of a dark-colored Chevy Blazer in the westbound right-hand lane hit him. The driver kept going. Ragunath was taken to Elmhurst Hospital Center, where he was put into a medically-induced coma and died the next day.

Now, police are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the driver who killed Ragunath. Local elected officials, neighborhood advocates and street safety activists gathered today at the crash site to call for Ragunath’s killer to be brought to justice and for safer streets, especially in the growing Long Island City neighborhood and along Northern Boulevard.

Northern Boulevard has a long record of fatalities and injuries: Last year, 8-year-old Noshat Nahian and 3-year-old Olvin Jahir Figueroa were both killed by drivers on the street. Tri-State Transportation Campaign ranked it as the second most deadly street in Queens for pedestrians. Last month, after a curb-jumping hit-and-run driver seriously injured five people at a Northern Boulevard bus shelter, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer called on DOT to make the street a priority in its Vision Zero initiative. As at last month’s event, Van Bramer was joined by State Senator Michael Gianaris today.

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Cuomo Announces $67M for Bike/Ped Projects, Including Pulaski Bridge

Image: NYC DOT

[Editor's note: Streetsblog will not be publishing Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.]

Via the Tri-State Transportation Campaign: Earlier this week Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $67 million in funding for walking and biking infrastructure statewide, after advocates had pressed the state to follow through on the recently passed complete streets law with actual resources. These are federal funds that will be distributed by the state DOT.

One of the local projects that will receive funding is the protected two-way bike lane on the Pulaski Bridge, which will double the amount of space for walking and biking on this increasingly well-used connection between Queens and Brooklyn. The state contribution is $2.5 million, with the remaining $625,000 provided by the city.

NYC DOT revealed the design for the bikeway in December, and Assembly Member Joe Lentol, who has fought for the project since 2012, sent out a press release today with the news that Brooklyn Community Board 1 voted in favor of the plan earlier this week. Lentol says work on the project should begin once the weather warms up and construction season resumes. Here’s his full release:

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Next Year, Peds and Cyclists Won’t Have to Fight for Scraps on Pulaski Bridge

One southbound lane of the Pulaski Bridge would be converted to a two-way bikeway under the plan. Image: DOT

A southbound lane of the Pulaski Bridge will be converted to a two-way bikeway in NYC DOT’s plan. Image: NYC DOT

By this time next year, people walking and biking across the Pulaski Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens won’t have to share a single narrow path. With a new, two-way protected bike lane spanning the bridge, cyclists will have a safe route and pedestrians will have the existing 8.5-foot wide pathway exclusively for walking. No more fighting over scraps of street space.

The only remaining milestones are final approval from state DOT, followed by NYC DOT moving ahead with a contract for construction — though the agency isn’t sure it will finish the project in time to help people looking for alternatives to the G train during a scheduled closure next summer.

The news came at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Brooklyn Community Board 1 transportation committee, which voted unanimously to support the project [PDF]. DOT also presented the plan at the transportation committee of Queens CB 2, which is waiting for more design details before taking a vote but expressed support for the project earlier in the planning process.

The need for more space for walking and biking is clear: In 2009, DOT added new striping for pedestrians and cyclists to the already-busy sidepath. Since then, the number of cyclists crossing the span has more than doubled, while the number of pedestrians has increased 47 percent, according to DOT counts.

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On the Queens side, the bikeway entrance to the bridge will be carved out of this car ramp and the planted traffic island.

The path will run on the west side of the bridge, replacing one of three southbound car travel lanes over Newtown Creek. Existing peak-hour traffic volumes on the bridge can easily be accommodated in two lanes, DOT’s Hayes Lord said, and the new two-lane configuration, matching the number of lanes on speed-plagued McGuinness Boulevard, will reduce merging and speeding by drivers as they drive into Brooklyn.

On the Queens side, the new bike path will curve alongside the existing walkway, which hugs a one-lane ramp that drivers use to access the bridge. To make room for the new bike path on the existing ramp, DOT will trim back the size of a Greenstreets traffic island at the bridge entrance. Drivers using the ramp will merge with southbound traffic from 11th Street entering the bridge, instead of continuing in the same lane as they do today.

Earlier this week, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer called for safety improvements in this area, near the intersection of the Pulaski Bridge, 49th Avenue, and 11th Street.

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Eyes on the Street: Vernon Boulevard Bikeway Upgrade

DOT crews at work on Vernon Boulevard near Hallet's Cove this morning. Photo: Gil Lopez/Instagram

Buffered bike lanes on Vernon Boulevard in western Queens are getting upgraded to a buffered two-way bikeway. Gil Lopez was near Hallet’s Cove this morning when he snapped a photo of DOT crews installing the bike lane, which when complete will include flexible posts to keep out car traffic.

The two-way lane will run from 46th Avenue in Long Island City to 30th Drive in Astoria, though it will give way to shared lane markings on opposite sides of the street near Queensbridge Park and Rainey Park. The disruptions to the bike lane will add back some parking spaces removed when the Vernon Boulevard bike lane was installed in 2008. Cyclists looking for a protected route on those sections are directed to more circuitous waterfront bike paths in the parks.

This isn’t the only bike route upgrade on track for western Queens: On November 7, Community Board 2 is scheduled to take up a proposal to expand bike lanes in Long Island City and Sunnyside. These plans, developed by DOT after a series of workshops with the community board, will improve connections to the Pulaski Bridge, Queens Plaza, Hunters Point, and Sunnyside.

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Lentol: DOT Will Finalize Design for Pulaski Protected Bike Lane This Year

DOT is drawing up plans for a dedicated bike lane on the Pulaski Bridge, according to the office of Assembly Member Joe Lentol, and should have a final design ready before the end of the year

The current layout of this Queens-Brooklyn link squeezes pedestrians and cyclists onto a narrow shared path, while motorists speed along on six lanes for auto traffic. A year ago, Lentol asked DOT to consider adding a two-way protected bike lane, and has since worked with Transportation Alternatives staff and volunteers to build support for the project. After the proposal cleared a traffic analysis, DOT conducted an engineering study, presumably focusing on how to protect cyclists from car traffic and make it safe to bike across the bridge’s wide expansion joints.

Today Lentol announced the final design will be presented to Community Board 1 in Brooklyn and CB 2 in Queens before the year is out. ”The bike lane construction slated to begin in late spring or early summer of 2014 will allow for cyclists and pedestrians to be enjoying a safer journey over the bridge sooner rather than later,” Lentol said in a press release.

“We have been working on obtaining a dedicated bike lane on the Pulaski Bridge for over a year now and I am happy to say it is finally coming to fruition,” Assemblyman Lentol added. “The safety of bike riders and pedestrians on the bridge has always been of my utmost concern.”

“I applaud Commissioner Sadik-Khan for her vision in creating a more pedestrian and cyclist friendly transportation infrastructure for New York City,” Lentol concluded.

We’ve asked DOT to confirm the project timeline, and will update here when we hear back.

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Progress for Safer Streets From Queens and Manhattan Community Boards

Last night, the full board of Manhattan Community Board 6 passed a resolution in support of a DOT plan that would fill in a gap between two sections of Second Avenue’s protected bike lane by replacing a car travel lane with parking from 23rd Street to 14th Street. Across the East River, Queens CB 1′s transportation committee was receptive to community requests for traffic calming on 21st Street in Astoria and Long Island City, asking advocates to come back with more specific requests.

If CB 1 requests a study from DOT, 21st Street in Astoria, seen above at 37th Avenue, could become safer for pedestrians. Photo: Google Maps

The CB 6 vote was surprisingly close. Although official numbers from the board will not be available until next week, reports from last night’s meeting indicate that the tally was 15-10, with two abstentions, meaning the plan was just three votes away from deadlock.

Although the plan adds parking and would not significantly affect traffic flow, according to DOT, a source said that there was resistance among some board members to a bike-related proposal or anything that might slow down travel times on the avenue. In the end, the resolution passed, and the buffered bike lane will be converted to a protected lane. Streetsblog has asked DOT when the project will be implemented; we’ll let you know if we hear anything back. Update: DOT says “implementation is scheduled to begin at the end of this month.”

In Astoria, Queens CB 1′s transportation committee was very receptive to a presentation by volunteers from Transportation Alternatives, Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, Mount Carmel Church, Ravenswood Senior Center and Queensview Co-Op. The groups are asking for shared lane markings for bicyclists and better crosswalks and intersections for pedestrians.

“We got really strong support,” volunteer Juliana Roberts-Dubovsky said. “They recognize that it’s a dangerous street.” Although the committee did not pass any resolutions last night, it asked the TA volunteers and their neighborhood partners to come back with more specific proposals and requests before the board approaches DOT.

“Transportation Alternatives is going to come back, and then the motion will be presented to the full board,” district manager Lucille Hartmann said, adding that while the volunteers will meet again with the committee, the resolution will only go before the full board. “The consensus was that this area requires some changes,” Hartmann said. “The board will support the work that Transportation Alternatives is doing.”

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Tonight: Kips Bay and Astoria Community Boards Consider Complete Streets

There are two community board meetings tonight on complete streets plans in Manhattan and Queens.

21st Street in Astoria and Long Island City could become friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians if CB 1 takes action. Photo: DNA

The full board of Manhattan CB 6 is considering a resolution, passed by its transportation committee on Monday, to support a DOT plan to fill in a gap on the Second Avenue protected bike lane. Currently, the avenue from 23rd Street to 14th Street has a buffered bike lane, while sections to the north and south are protected by a lane of parked cars. DOT’s plan would remove a car travel lane and replace it with parking.

The public is invited to give brief comments to the full board tonight before it takes up the resolution. CB 6 has a history of slow progress on livable streets, so encouragement from users of the Second Avenue bike lane could help make the difference tonight. The meeting starts at 7:00 p.m. at 550 First Avenue.

In Astoria and Long Island City, Transportation Alternatives volunteers have been gathering signatures for a petition to Queens CB 1 asking the board to request a redesign of 21st Street to include shared lane markings for cyclists and safety improvements for pedestrians. If the board requests a redesign, DOT says it will consider it.

CB 1 has been downright hostile to livable streets in the past, so demonstrating local support for a complete streets design on 21st Street is important. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at 45-02 Ditmars Boulevard (the entrance is on the 46th Street side). If a resolution passes committee, it will go to the full board, which is scheduled to meet on October 15.

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Pulaski Bridge: Six Lanes for Cars, One Cramped Path for Peds and Bikes

The Pulaski Bridge is a vital link between Queens and Brooklyn. Since it was built 60 years ago, pedestrians and cyclists have been relegated to a narrow path. The shared path was good enough for some time, but when Greenpoint and Long Island City started growing rapidly a few years ago, that ceased to be the case. With more people walking and bicycling between boroughs, the path has become cramped, uncomfortable, and now — at times — even dangerous.

Currently, NYC DOT is studying the possibility of putting a two-way bike path on the south-bound side of the roadway, which would open up the current path for people walking. It presents a few tricky design obstacles, but a plan to make it happen is reportedly nearing completion and will soon be presented to the local community boards.

Rush hour is when you see the worst crowding. On a recent commute home, I took 15 minutes of footage for this Streetfilms Shortie. As you can see, the path is full of people going both directions — runners, bicyclists, walkers, subway commuters and even quite a few rollerbladers. This isn’t the worst of it — I’ve seen the path much more congested.

While observing the ped/bike interaction (and in most cases it is extremely gentle and cordial — in all my years I’ve never seen more than a few words exchanged between users), make sure to also take note: there is no traffic congestion on the roadway. I’d say the numbers of cars that pass over the Pulaski barely justify two lanes in each direction. Three lanes is overkill. Repurposing one car lane for bicycling will not hinder car traffic and should even help calm drivers as they transition to McGuinness Boulevard in Greenpoint, which has a terrible safety record.

Just in case the community boards need a reminder of why this project should move forward, I thought it was prudent to grab this footage.

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On Eve of NYPD Hearing, Van Bramer Calls for Thorough Crash Investigations

Elected officials and community leaders from Long Island City gathered to press for safety improvements and better crash investigations in the wake of a pedestrian death on Queens Plaza. Photo: Stephen Miller

Two weeks after a woman was killed while crossing Queens Plaza, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, joined by other elected officials and community leaders, stood at the busy intersection to call for better NYPD crash investigations, safety measures from DOT, and a citywide zero-tolerance policy for pedestrian deaths. Van Bramer’s press conference comes just days before the City Council’s public safety and transportation committees hold an oversight hearing on reforming NYPD crash investigations.

On September 13 at approximately 9:45 p.m., a woman NYPD identified as Karen Pheras, 20, was walking across Queens Plaza when the driver of blue 2009 Honda CRV struck her at the intersection of 27th Street and Queens Plaza North. Pheras was pronounced dead on arrival at Mount Sinai Hospital, according to LIC Post.

The 69-year-old driver has not been identified by police. NYPD did not respond to a request for information about the investigation, but it’s unlikely there will be charges in the case. “The police have at this point determined that the woman crossing the street was crossing against the light,” Van Bramer said.

“They believe there was no wrongdoing on the driver’s part,” said Van Bramer deputy chief of staff Jason Banrey. “After he hit her, he swerved. We don’t know if he was speeding or not.”

In addition to the crash that killed Karen Pheras, a woman was critically injured by a driver on Queens Plaza in July. Just yesterday, Alexander Ciszewski, 18, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while skateboarding alongside a truck in Long Island City. In March, 16-year-old Tenzin Drudak was killed on the sidewalk on Thomson Avenue by a driver who said he was distracted by a spilt drink. After pressure from local leaders, including Van Bramer, DOT installed pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection where Drudak died.

This morning, Van Bramer was joined by State Senator Michael Gianaris, Democratic borough president nominee Melinda Katz, Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director Noah Budnick, and community leaders from the Long Island City Partnership and the Dutch Kills Civic Association. They had three requests for DOT:

  • Additional time for pedestrians crossing Queens Plaza, which already has countdown clocks.
  • More signage so pedestrians are more aware of the bike path and know not to walk in it.
  • Expansion of a $6 million DOT traffic safety study Van Bramer says is planned for the Court Square area to include Queens Plaza and Dutch Kills. (The Department of City Planning is already undertaking a comprehensive transportation study covering western Queens, including Queens Plaza.)

Update: DOT spokesperson Nicholas Mosquera said in an e-mail that there is no study matching Van Bramer’s description. The agency’s planned work in Long Island City includes a DDC-managed study of Hunters Point, but “it would not be feasible to significantly increase the study area at this stage,” Mosquera said. DOT is, however, looking at adjustments to the intersection of 27th Street and Queens Plaza North, including signage.

Update 10/2/2013: After an initial misunderstanding about the study in question last week, DOT again rejected Van Bramer’s request to include Queens Plaza. The DDC-managed Hunters Point study, which has an estimated budget between $3 million and $4 million, is close to completing the contract registration process, so “it would not be feasible to significantly increase the study area to include Queens Plaza at this stage,” Mosquera repeated. “I hope this clears things up.”

Referencing a July press conference asking DOT for traffic calming in Dutch Kills, Gianaris hammered DOT for not taking action sooner, but Van Bramer quickly pivoted back to NYPD investigations.

“Despite DOT’s efforts to make the city safer,” he said, “We have a growing epidemic where pedestrians aren’t safe on the sidewalks and in the streets.”

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Queens Residents, Elected Officials Ask DOT for Traffic Calming in Dutch Kills

The Dutch Kills neighborhood sits on the northern edge of Long Island City, hemmed in by Northern Boulevard and Queens Plaza, with the East River to the west and Astoria to the north. Dangerous traffic is an everyday presence — and not just on the main arteries nearby. After a number of car-on-car crashes, neighborhood advocates joined with elected officials yesterday, calling on DOT to implement traffic-calming measures.

The aftermath of a May 2012 crash at 39th Avenue and 29th Street in Dutch Kils. Photo: Jean Cawley

Until recently, the area was heavily industrial, but it is seeing a surge in new development. “Now, the neighborhood’s full of hotels, residences, and new businesses,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris. “We see the problems coming. Now is the time to do something before somebody gets killed.”

On Tuesday, Gianaris and Dutch Kills Civic Association president Dominic Stiller walked the problem intersections with WPIX’s Greg Mocker. Just hours after the interviews wrapped, Stiller said, there was a crash. “A car ran the stop sign,” he said. “They just don’t stop at stop signs. We want curb extensions. We want stop signs, and we want speed humps.”

The 114th Precinct has issued 26 speeding tickets, 77 citations for failure to stop at a signal and 25 tickets for failure to yield to pedestrians in May, the latest month for which data is available. “We’ve been in touch with the precinct, but right now what we’re focusing on is mostly traffic safety measures,” Gianaris said.

This week Gianaris sent a letter to Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan [PDF], and he says he’s been in regular contact with DOT’s Queens borough office. “They’ve been responsive. They’re taking it seriously, but we’re just trying to get through the bureaucratic inertia,” Gianaris said, adding that DOT told his office that continued new development in the neighborhood makes it difficult to complete a comprehensive study. “If you wait,” Gianaris said, “It’s going to be too late.”

DOT says it is examining the Queensboro Plaza area and the intersection of 39th Avenue and 29th Street for potential safety upgrades, and has deployed street safety managers near Dutch Kills Park.

Residents had discussed applying to DOT’s Slow Zone program with Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, but decided against it. “We ran into some political opposition to removing parking spots,” Jean Cawley, Stiller’s wife, told Streetsblog. Dutch Kills is included in Community Board 1, which has a history of opposing livable streets projects. Cawley said she hopes to build support for the Slow Zone and apply in the future.