On Far West Side, Locals Protest ‘Tunnel On-Ramp’ Status

Electronic road signs at the Lincoln Tunnel ‘point to the continued treatment of Hell’s Kitchen as an entryway to the Lincoln Tunnel, rather than a vibrant, primarily residential neighborhood.’

-Letter from Community Board 4 to the Port Authority

Over 43 million vehicles use the venerable Lincoln Tunnel every year, with Ninth Avenue in midtown acting as its major feeder route. But residents and community groups are getting fed up with what they call the “intolerable” traffic conditions that this route creates in Hell’s Kitchen.

Community Board 4 has made traffic-calming suggestions to the Department of Transportation before-with no result, board members said. Now, they’re calling upon City Council member Christine Quinn to make the D.O.T. do something about traffic congestion at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 37th Street.

The board is also calling on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state agency that administers the Lincoln Tunnel, to reconsider the installation of some electronic road signs on Ninth Avenue that, the board says, would be out of scale for the neighborhood and “point to the continued treatment of Hell’s Kitchen as an entryway to the Lincoln Tunnel, rather than a vibrant, primarily residential neighborhood.”

At its June 1 full board meeting, Board 4 approved a letter to be sent to Ms. Quinn requesting her assistance in appealing the D.O.T.’s refusal to install a sign prohibiting left turns from 37th Street onto Ninth Avenue. The problem, according to Jay Marcus, the chair of Board 4′s transportation committee, is that Ramp C, a Lincoln Tunnel ingress, is fed from the far right lanes of Ninth Avenue. Cars turning left from 37th Street onto Ramp C at Ninth Avenue frequently block the intersection during rush hour.

A spokesperson for Ms. Quinn sent The Observer her response to the request via e-mail: “I will be writing to D.O.T. to request that they reconsider the denial of a traffic study for the much-needed traffic signal. D.O.T. has met with my office a number of times on safety concerns at this intersection. Studying a mitigation measure is the least D.O.T. can do,” the e-mail read.

Last January, Board 4 sent a letter to the D.O.T. requesting that left turns be prohibited from 37th Street to Ninth Avenue between 3 and 7 p.m. The D.O.T., in a letter dated April 20, declined to take that action, saying that prohibiting left turns during those hours wouldn’t be feasible.

“It’s our feeling that cars would get to the Lincoln Tunnel quicker if they went south on Ninth Avenue and took other access routes,” said Mr. Marcus. He added that, frequently, cars are lined up on Ramp C while other entrances to the tunnel are largely free of congestion.

According to Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian and bicyclist advocacy group, Ninth Avenue is home to two of the 10 most dangerous intersections for pedestrians in Manhattan, at 57th and 34th streets. In 2004, the group called on the D.O.T. to enhance pedestrian safety by banning left turns from 37th Street to Ninth Avenue and installing a curb extension-or “neckdown”-at the southeast and northeast corners of the intersection.

The Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association community group supported Transportation Alternatives’ traffic-calming plan, calling on the D.O.T. to make pedestrian safety its highest priority.

In a phone call with The Observer, D.O.T. spokesman Craig Chin said that a painted neckdown-basically, more paint on the street for extra pedestrian space-will be installed by the end of the summer, and that his agency is working with the Port Authority to study other safety measures for the Ninth Avenue corridor. Port Authority spokeswoman Tiffany Townsend said that the agency would be receptive to the community board’s suggestions, but deferred to the D.O.T. regarding the specifics. Ms. Townsend also said that the proposed “smart” electronic signs along Ninth Avenue-which can be remotely programmed to display the latest traffic conditions or emergency messages-are necessary because Lincoln Tunnel is a major access point for Manhattan, and the agency consults with the Federal Emergency Management Agency regarding design and placement.

Lee Compton, Board 4′s chair, remained skeptical about the efficacy of the D.O.T.’s plan. “How paint on the sidewalks is going to help pedestrian safety, I don’t know,” he said. Mr. Marcus, speaking later, agreed: “All these [traffic-mitigating measures] are Band-Aids until some serious thought goes into it.”

The Port Authority changed the Lincoln Tunnel access roadway as recently as November 2003, closing some entrances and prohibiting turns at certain intersections. According to Christine Berthet, a member of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, that has only exacerbated the situation. Ms. Berthet said that the redesign merely forces cars to line up at the limited number of access points that the Lincoln Tunnel now affords, namely the intersection at Ninth Avenue and 37th Street. “Everybody is there trying to jockey for a space,” she said.

And no amount of retooling the routes can mitigate the neighborhood’s most pressing problem: the ubiquitous presence of cars trying to get out of one of the most densely packed urban centers in the country.

“We’re running up against the laws of physics,” Mr. Compton said. “There’s only so many cars that can get into the tunnel.”