The Department of Transportation announced last night it will not use Pier 42, near Montgomery Street, as a “staging area” for commercial buses. The news came during a briefing by Luis Sanchez, the DOT’s Lower Manhattan Borough Commissioner, before a Community Board 3 committee. Neighborhood activists fighting to reclaim the pier for community recreational facilities were relieved. But there wasn’t much solace for residents increasingly frustrated by the onslaught of privately operated buses in Chinatown and on the Lower East Side. Sanchez said, in removing Pier 42 as an option, there’s no obvious place to move the buses during layovers. What’s more, he explained, federal interstate commerce laws limit the DOT’s ability to restrict the operators.
On any given day, a recent study found, there are between 250-300 privately run bus trips to/from the area, a huge increase over two or three years ago. The consequences have been felt by many residents, who say the buses clog streets, spew exhaust and fill the sidewalks with waiting (and sometimes unruly) customers.
Sanchez said there’s only one assigned commercial bus stop in the neighborhood (at Pike and Division Streets). South Street is a designated layover area. But the buses can legally use any bus stop to pick up and drop off passengers. What they’re not allowed to do is park for extended periods on city streets. During the summer, police cracked down, towing 69 buses. Bus operators seemed to get the message, but once the large-scale enforcement operation ended, the problem resurfaced. A city spokesperson said The Police Department doesn’t have the resources to sustain the crackdown, but will respond to specific problems. To file a complaint about a commercial bus, visit CB3’s web site.
Sanchez said the DOT is seeking the authority to implement a permit system, requiring bus operators to pay fees and prove they have the proper licenses and insurance coverage. The DOT is also looking at designating a few areas where buses could be charged to park. At least one community board member was incredulous that private bus companies are getting away with parking wherever they choose, when residents must pay for the same privilege. State legislation might be one option — giving the city authority to regulate the buses –but working around the federal law protecting interstate commerce will be a challenge. The city is about to begin a comprehensive study, looking at Chinatown specifically, since the “curbside” issues there are unique in Manhattan.
The DOT is still trying to find a suitable layover location, including options uptown, in Brooklyn and New Jersey. They even, half jokingly, considered loading the buses onto the Staten Island Ferry. It’s problematic, however to move the buses “off island,” since the layover periods are often relatively short. The DOT is keenly aware the problem is only going to get worse. There will be a huge influx of tour buses downtown when the World Trade Center memorial opens in the fall of 2011. The upcoming reconstruction of the Brooklyn Bridge will significantly add to congestion. A stretch of South Street, along the East River, will be phased out as a bus layover zone in the spring when the Economic Development Corporation begins resurfacing the sidewalks and expanding bike lanes between Montgomery and Catherine Streets. And, as one resident pointed out, the Chinatown bus business – inexpensive and convenient – serves a vital purpose, and is sure to continue expanding.
Last night, the transportation committee approved a resolution emphasizing the community’s strong desire to see Pier 42 used for recreational facilities. City plans call for transforming the area into an “urban beach and boat launch,” but they have not funded the project. According to CB3, officials are anxious to find a short-term tenant to produce some revenue at the pier. One possibility: a parking lot vendor. Residents in attendance last night opposed that idea, saying the last thing the waterfront needs is more automobile traffic and parking lots. A coalition representing low-income residents along the waterfront released a report in October, calling on the city to redevelop the pier now. Rep. Nydia Velazquez pledged to work with them to find money for the project and to pressure the city to make it a priority.
In a separate, but related discussion last night, the committee weighed how to manage the growing commuter van business in Chinatown. There are at least 7 companies offering shuttle service between Manhattan and Flushing. Two firms have asked CB3 to support their license renewals. Some committee members balked, arguing that the vans are adding to the congestion in Chinatown and undermining the MTA’s subway service. However, David Crane, the committee chairman, said he believed they offered a valuable service. A few months ago, Chinatown residents told CB3, subway service is inadequate – and that the vans provide an important link between their communities. The committee decided not to support one application and refrained from weighing in on the other renewal.