Who Killed the 125th Street Bus Lanes? Officials Point Fingers While Harlem Sits in Traffic

None of these are coming to 125th Street.

Don’t expect to see one of these on 125th Street.

With buses regularly crawling along 125th Street at less than 3 miles per hour and the vast majority of residents dependent on public transit, everybody agreed that Harlem’s busiest crosstown corridor deserves better bus service. In theory, at least.

But after a year of workshops, meetings, charrettes and other assorted public input buzzwords, the New York City Department of Transportation pulled the plug on a select bus service plan.

“Dear Stakeholder,” the email began. “There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date. As a result, NYCDOT and MTA New York City Transit have decided not to proceed with the M60 Select Bus Service project at this time.”

But the biggest gripe that the various “stakeholders”—the three community boards representing 125th Street, the business improvement districts and the various local politicians, at both the city and state levels—voiced to the media was the attitude of the DOT, which they charged with not listening.

The DOT also took an interesting approach to gaining support for the bus upgrades. In a media blast sent after a day’s worth of bad press, the DOT said that the project had proved impossible despite “more than 50 meetings over the last year producing dramatic revisions to the project.” Dramatic revisions that were not, it would seem, requested by the community.

One of those changes was eliminating the bus lanes from the western half of the project. And while State Senator Bill Perkins’ office said that it was “definitely pleased” with the change when it was announced, according to Streetsblog, a source told The Observer that while the state senator’s office supported the move, neither it nor any of the other local politicians or community boards had asked for the dramatic revision.

The Department of Transportation responded to our questions about who had asked for the change by writing that “most of those concerns were pretty well documented in the stories below,” including links to nine press accounts, none of which mentioned cutting out the western half of the lanes. They also wrote, “We’re not aware of any request from any elected official or community board to reinstate the lane or turn restrictions.”

But when we reached out to State Senator Bill Perkins he told us that he was “disappointed” that the project was “prematurely aborted by one person’s frustration,” and called out DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione in particular for being unwilling to work with the community.

Like many who voiced opposition to the project, Mr. Perkins cited concerns with the process rather than issues with its physical implementation. When pressed, though, he told us, “One of the things that everybody agreed on was that they needed a comprehensive study of the impacts that would take place from the perspective of policing, from the perspective of the business communities, what impact it would have on the trucks, some of the handicapped community.”

When asked if killing the plan wasn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Mr. Perkins bellowed back, “DOT threw the baby out!”

“Nobody walked away from the table,” he continued, “as difficult as it is to work with Margaret Forgione.”

Rather than the glacial three-plus-year rollout of past SBS projects—which are fairly standardized and amount to painted lines on the street, ticket vending machines on the sidewalks and restricted left turns at some intersections—the DOT appeared to be trying to implement the bus lanes by the end of the mayor’s administration, about 18 months after they first started speaking with community boards.

The bus lane does, in some senses, seem to have come at an inopportune time. Select Bus Service is gaining in political popularity. Christine Quinn has made it the cornerstone of her transportation platform, and all of the candidates to replace City Council Member Robert Jackson were supportive of SBS, even if Mr. Jackson himself was not in favor of the 125th Street bus lane.

Mr. Perkins added that “hopefully under new leadership it’ll be supported. It won’t be rammed down our throat because they want it to be done before the end of the administration.”

And then there are those who have welcomed death of the bus lane project.

“We are glad to learn,” wrote Henrietta Lyle, chair of Central Harlem’s Community Board 10, in an email to The Observer, “that the NYC Department of Transportation, at this time, pulled back their plans for the 125th Street Bus Improvements.”

West Harlem council member Robert Jackson told Streetsblog that he was “pleased that they listened to concerns and didn’t move forward with Select Bus Service.”

Meanwhile, East Harlem and Community Board 11 were concerned about an influx of riders from the M35, which serves Ward’s Island, and is popular among those seeking social services. They wanted to see the M35 stop moved away from its current location at Lexington and 125th.

And then there was the pervasive feeling that the improvements mostly benefited relatively wealthy M60 LaGuardia airport riders—nevermind that the vast majority of M60 riders are not going to the airport, and that the bus lane would have been used by all buses on the corridor, with only the off-board fare collection limited to the M60. (While we would love to see off-board fare collection expanded to non-SBS buses across the city, we haven’t been able to find any specific complaints about the lack of off-board fare collection on other bus routes along the corridor.)

In the end, none of the community boards ever endorsed the plan.

The DOT sent a statement from spokesman Seth Solomonow saying, “After more than 50 meetings over the last year producing dramatic revisions to the project but no support from local community boards and elected officials or from most Harlem stakeholders, it simply was not possible to proceed at this time.”