Last Wednesday, transit advocates in Jackson Heights held their final rally against changes proposed in the draft plan, an hour before the agency held its last forum in the area.
For the last two months, Jim Burke and Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo have led the charge on engaging the neighborhood in the redesign process, handing out more than 15,000 flyers informing bus riders about the proposed changes and mobilizing residents to attend feedback meetings hosted by the MTA.
“We were expecting better buses, faster buses, bus lanes and enforcement of cab drivers blocking buses,” said O’Doherty-Naranjo in front of a crowd at the 74th Street Bus Terminal. “Now I’m just praying to keep the bus I have.”
Much of the campaign against the plan centers on drastic consolidations for the Q49 and Q53 lines, as well as the rerouting of the Q32 and Q33 routes away from the 74th Street transit hub, the only fully accessible station in Jackson Heights.
They say the MTA’s lack of attention to frequency, accessibility, destination and dedicated busways is a huge loss for the city’s most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and physically disabled.
“Many of our neighbors enjoy unprecedented freedom,” said Burke. “A few steps from their door, they can go to Manhattan, Flushing, Astoria, Rockaway Beach and just about anywhere. Some of them haven’t taken a bus in 20 or 30 years.”
As an example of the area’s failing bus system, he pointed to the consistent traffic jams caused by single-occupancy vehicles and taxis waiting for fares that block buses from leaving the Jackson Heights transit hub, which was recently renovated in a $132 million project.
“We need the MTA to stand up to this kind of behavior,” he asserted.
O’Doherty-Naranjo also said misallocation of funds and priorities by the state are critical barriers to effective bus service in Queens.
“This is Governor Cuomo who wants to build a $2 billion AirTrain to take passengers from LaGuardia to Midtown, but won’t spend a dime extra on our buses,” she said. “Well, the reality is those passengers at LaGuardia don’t live here. They’re not going to vote.”
After the rally, the group marched down Broadway to Elmhurst Hospital where an MTA forum hosted by Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz was taking place.
The event was designed to offer constituents an update of the agency’s efforts to improve the redesign plan, as well as a chance to weigh in.
The next day, a coalition of transit advocacy groups, including Riders Alliance, Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Straphangers, announced its list of demands for the second iteration of the Queens Bus Redesign at a press conference in Jamaica.
Meant to guide the MTA’s revision process, the report recommends seven principles for the agency to prioritize, including better route connections, improved stop amenities and more effective communication to riders about the rationale behind the redesign and its potential benefits, which includes making that information available in more languages.
Advocates attacked the cost-neutral aspect of the redesign, arguing that today’s “unacceptable” service merits significant investment in order to make buses more frequent and increase the network’s scope, in particular to provide equity for low-income communities and riders of color.
“What this is doing is taking bus service from one community and giving it to another,” said Riders Alliance campaign manager Stephanie Burgos-Veras. “So that means after the redesign, we’ll still have the same problems.”
Assemblyman David Weprin and Councilman Donovan Richards, as well as representatives for several other elected officials, were also in attendance, pushing for a new approach to the plan.
Weprin criticized the MTA for continuing to collect revenue - a sum that will be even larger when congestion pricing kicks in next year - while at the same time cutting back on bus service for the borough with the most transit desert communities in the city.
Expansion of Select Bus Service and a designated busway along Archer Avenue in downtown Jamaica are two additional projects Richards expressed support for.
He said the Queens bus network needed a revamp “yesterday,” and predicted a long road ahead for the MTA due to the original redesign process being minimally informed by commuters.
“When you start behind the eight-ball without community participation, you’ve already failed,” Richards asserted.