Last week, local residents persuaded members of Community Board 3’s transportation committee to oppose applications for three new intercity bus permits along Canal Street. But no one is rejoicing just yet. This is because the community board’s decisions are merely advisory opinions. The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT), CB3 members say, has approved every single application the board has opposed. Now the focus has shifted to addressing what residents see as the larger problem — an unwillingness on the part of the DOT to recognize that the confined area where Canal and Division streets meet is under siege from the “Chinatown bus” industry.
Battles over intercity buses on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown are nothing new. Local elected officials and community board leaders hoped a new state law, implemented last summer, would improve the situation. The law made it possible for the DOT to set up a permit system and to require bus companies to load and unload passengers in designated areas. According to the most recent report from the city, 17 bus companies have acquired permits on the LES and in Chinatown. While the state law requires community board consultation, the DOT has the sole authority to grant permits. The agency has generally given the boards a role in drafting stipulations (operating restrictions) detailing how the permit-holders are expected to manage their stops. But some community board members, including Transportation Committee Chairperson David Crane, have been reluctant to reject applications out-of-hand. In the absence of community board approval, they say, the city signs off on the permits without attaching any stipulations, meaning local residents are deprived of even a small amount of control over how the bus companies operate.
But last week, responding to an outcry from people who live on and near Canal Street, the panel decided it was more important to make a statement: “enough is enough” in their little section of the Lower East Side. Following three hours of testimony, the committee voted against the proposed permits at 59 Canal St., 50 Canal St. (located across the street from one another) and 139 Canal St. The full board will likely support the decision later this month. Meanwhile, CB3 District Manager Susan Stetzer tells us the committee is scheduled to consider a proposal next month to declare the area over-saturated and to ask the city to steer bus applicants away from the Canal Street corridor.
This week, we contacted the Department of Transportation to find out how it might deal with this type of request. A spokesperson said:
DOT has been authorized by the State Legislature to implement this permit system to help better balance the safety and mobility needs of everyone using the street. Each intercity bus application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Current curb use and proposed bus schedules are part of that review process. DOT also looks at factors such as traffic and pedestrian flow and input from the Community Board and other stakeholders on proposed locations.
In response to our questions, the DOT spokesperson said there is no precedent for designating an over-saturated area, but added that the agency wants to hear from local boards when they think a block or blocks have too many buses. Made aware of the concerns, the spokesperson said, the DOT can take them into consideration during the permit review process.
In general, bus companies operating across state lines have the legal right to use curbside locations to pick up and drop off passengers. They’re empowered by federal interstate commerce statutes. The state law was meant to give the city the authority to tame what was viewed as a “Wild West” atmosphere in which bus drivers pulled over wherever they pleased. The sponsors of the legislation, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Sen. Daniel Squadron, built in the “community consultation” provision. In recent conversations with us, staff members from both offices underscored what may seem like an obvious point — the provision was intended to establish actual community board input, not simply the illusion that local communities have a role in permitting decisions. The fact that CB3 has had no success as of yet in nixing an application has left many residents questioning the effectiveness, or at least the implementation, of the law. Today, Sen. Squadron said he would continue to urge the agency to be responsive to community boards.
The Transportation Department published rules requiring applicants to propose at least three bus stop locations. If the initial locations are rejected by the city, operators have the option of suggesting more possible bus stops. The rules also state that “traffic, pedestrian flow and safety” are among the factors DOT is obligated to consider during permit reviews. Local officials, including City Council Margaret Chin, have asked the agency to provide more specific criteria. That has not yet occurred.
The full community board will revisit the Chinatown bus issue at its full board meeting Tuesday, May 27, 6:30 p.m., at P.S. 20, 166 Essex St.