DOT: 181st Street Busway is Not Likely For This Year

Coming to Washington Heights this spring! File photo: Dave Colon
Coming to Washington Heights this spring! File photo: Dave Colon

Wait ’til next year?

Department of Transportation officials cautioned that the 181st Street Busway in upper Manhattan is not guaranteed to be built in 2020, another body blow to the Better Buses Restart plan announced by Mayor de Blasio in June.

City and MTA officials presented the latest update on the bus priority street to Community Board 12’s Transportation Committee on Monday night, and admitted that the project is only a maybe for 2020 at this point.

“We’re still hoping to potentially install the busway this year, pending the resources and the weather,” DOT Project Manager Noah Levenson told the panel after admitting that the agency had not finished the sophisticated traffic and parking analysis that goes into the car-free transit priority project.

Another DOT official wouldn’t give a straight answer when asked by a meeting attendee whether the busway would actually be finished this year, given that the agency’s crews stop painting bus and bike lanes once the weather is too cold for the red and green hues to stick to the road surface.

“Obviously, we’re getting closer to the end of marking season and we’re working through a lot of projects,” said Kimberly Rancourt, the director of special projects in the DOT’s Manhattan office. “We want to have the community board’s feedback and want to incorporate it, and we’ll keep you posted as soon as we have updates about it.”

The previous DOT proposal on the busway, which was shown to the 181st Street community advisory board in September, said that the traffic analysis would be finished and presented in October, turned into a final plan for the full community board in November and then installed that very same month.

But after a month of radio silence, the DOT’s presentation on Monday night shifted the timetable: The completion of the traffic analysis and project implementation is now the more-nebulous “Fall/Winter 2020.” (Winter is coming in 50 days, but the painting season typically only lasts until mid-November, even with global warming.)

The DOT's newest schedule for the 181st Street Busway.
The DOT’s newest schedule for the 181st Street Busway.

The DOT has mentioned being overtaxed and running out of time at multiple points in 2020 when it comes to transit and street safety issues, ever since the agency chose to find its budget savings for this year by cutting, among other things, $8.4 million from the Better Buses Initiative. In September, the DOT said that it was pressed for time on multiple projects because of a shorter implementation season. And last week, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the City Council’s Transportation Committee that a hiring freeze and smaller operating budget at the $1-billion agency might delay the city’s e-scooter pilot.

The good news for fans of good bus service is that the CB12’s Transportation Committee was amenable to the presentation, with no members of the board demanding major changes. One meeting attendee, who even described himself as a car owner, still urged the DOT to “please build more of these.” (Flushing commuters no doubt want a guy like that on their community board.)

The proposal has not changed since the DOT revealed a draft to the area’s community advisory board in September. The proposed rules for the busway are:

  • Eastbound car traffic would be banned between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue, while drivers going east between Wadsworth and Amsterdam Avenue would be required to turn right at the next intersection.
  • Westbound local traffic wouldn’t be banned from any part of the street, but those drivers would also need to make the first right turn off the block after they entered it.
  • At the intersection of 181st and Amsterdam Avenue, drivers going east would no longer be permitted to make left turns from 181st onto Amsterdam.

Both the city and the MTA are aware of how important the busway will be for the tens of thousands of bus riders who use 181st Street, which makes the delay even harder to swallow. During the presentation, the agencies mentioned that 42,000 daily passengers ride five different bus routes on the roadway, and buses are mired in traffic.

The average bus speed on 181st Street is an unbearably slow 3.7 miles per hour, which was the same speed as fast-walking New Yorkers

“That’s not doing our bus customers a service,” said Robert Joseph, a planner with the MTA. “This is really a bottleneck area for bus service, not just in Manhattan, but for the Bronx.”

The delay for this busway means that only one of the projects that Mayor de Blasio announced in June and said would be built before October, has actually begun: the Jay Street Busway in Downtown Brooklyn.

The three other busways are caught in various forms of stasis, to the point where two weeks ago the mayor announced that the city wouldn’t finish all 20 miles of busways and bus lanes that were promised this summer. And the total mileage itself was cut to 17.

The Main Street Busway in Flushing, delayed by opposition led by City Council Member Peter “Business Lives Matter” Koo, is supposed to be installed sometime in the next couple of weeks, according to a DOT presentation to Queens Community Board 7 at the end of October. If that busway is installed, it will come almost six months after Mayor de Blasio announced in June that it would be the first busway to be installed under the city’s Better Buses Restart.

The Jamaica Avenue Busway in Downtown Jamaica has been put on pause since late summer, after local elected officials asked the city to move the bus-priority street one block south to Archer Avenue. And in Midtown Manhattan, Fifth Avenue luxury retailers who wanted customers to be able to drive to their stores got the city to scrap the planned car-free busway entirely.