DOT Punts Long-Delayed Fifth Avenue Project to Next Mayor 

A busway and a protected bike lane are on hold until after the holidays. Is the city taking its cues from the New York Post?

Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps
Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

Seemingly taking its cues from the pro-car pundits of the New York Post, the city is punting a long-delayed redesign of Fifth Avenue to the next administration, the Department of Transportation disclosed on Wednesday.

Weeks after the city should have been putting the finishing touches on a new (if much-watered-down) busway, a new curbside protected bike lane and other pedestrian improvements, the DOT now says that the work will begin only “after the holidays”  — meaning, after Mayor de Blasio is no longer in office.

“We have reached a point in the year where what we were planning to do in the next month or two raised a very real risk of interfering with the holiday season,” DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman said during an unrelated press conference on Wednesday in Queens. “Our decision is not to do anything that interferes with that, we will pick up activity after the holidays.”

Gutman said that after speaking with “stakeholders” — that is, the wealthy retailers along the commercial corridor — the DOT decided that it did not want to risk making any changes to the roadway before the inevitable throngs of tourists and other pedestrians flock to the world-famous avenue for the holidays.

“It was a concern raised by various stakeholders, and we try to be responsible and listen to stakeholders. All of us are deeply committed to not do anything that interferes with this being a very successful recovery holiday for merchants on Fifth Avenue,” Gutman said, taking a page straight out of the playbook of Post columnist Steve Cuozzo, who argued in an Oct. 16 op-ed that installing bike lanes before the holidays would be “madness.”

The fight to make any changes to one of the world’s most-expensive streets has been a slog. Hizzoner first announced plans for a full-fledged Fifth Avenue busway — one that would emulate the successful 14th Street busway — in 2020, as one of five, new car-free stretches throughout the city that would help speed commutes for riders, including many essential workers. The city said at the time that the busway, which would serve about 110,000 passengers daily, would extend from 57th Street to 34th Street and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The bus-only thoroughfare was supposed be installed by the end of last summer.

But then, in deference to mom-and-pop retailers such as Hermes and Tiffany and their well-heeled shoppers, the DOT scaled back the design, by breaking it up into two sections, stopping it at 45th Street, and reducing its hours. Private vehicles would be required to turn off Fifth Avenue at 55th and 45th Streets, and the DOT would also implement right-turn restrictions at 51st, 49th, and 47th streets — consistent with holiday-season crowd-control measures. Drivers could still drop off their passengers right in front of a store under the DOT’s plan. The DOT said work would start this past August and wrap by last month.

But that never happened, and it won’t until next year — when a new mayor, and likely a new DOT Commissioner, will take office.

Local business interests also tried to put the kibosh on the entire project. At a meeting in August, the head of the Fifth Avenue Association sought to sway members of Community Board 5 against the DOT plan, arguing that it would delay pandemic recovery — and that the business-improvement district’s long-term vision for the avenue, which includes a robust “greening” of the ritzy roadway, is better, even though it is years away.

“There’s no urgent need to proceed with these changes at this moment,” Jerome Barth, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, said then. “This is not the right time. We’re still in the throes of a pandemic. It’s great we want to upgrade bus speeds a little, but maybe this is not the right way to think about the problem.

The Fifth Avenue Association's long-term vision for the corridor. Photo: Fifth Avenue BID
The Fifth Avenue Association’s long-term vision for the corridor. Photo: Fifth Avenue BID

Barth’s attempt failed. The civic panel’s Transportation and Environment Committee ultimately voted in favor of the scaled-back city plan, finally giving the city the green-light to start work.

But it was too late. The city’s indefinite procrastination of such a much-needed safety project that would help cyclists, pedestrians, and bus riders, is the ultimate slap in the face to vulnerable road users during a time when traffic deaths are on pace to reach their highest during de Blasio’s tenure, advocates say.

“This is ridiculous and yet another example of Mayor de Blasio prioritizing the convenience of drivers over the safety of people who bike and walk. In a year of record-breaking traffic violence, the last thing the administration should be doing is delaying life-saving projects like protected bike lanes and expanded pedestrian space. This flies in the face of the administration’s Vision Zero goals at a time the program needs to be expanded, not shrunk,” said Cory Epstein, spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives.