By Bill Parry
Nearly 200 Long Island City residents faced off with the senior leadership of the MTA in a town hall meeting last Thursday at PS 78.
The topic was the contentious issue of the extended weekend service shutdown of the No. 7 subway line into and out of Court Square and Hunters Point during a $550 million makeover project.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority President Carmen Bianco disarmed the crowd early on with effusive apologies and a revised schedule he claimed would affect18 weekends instead of the original 22 the agency announced in January.
Bianco’s presentation illustrated that the agency was doing three projects at once. A new signal system that would allow for 10 percent more trains per hour to help move an estimated half million customers each business day, repairs to the infrastructure of the Steinway Tunnel that was flooded with millions of gallons of saltwater during Hurricane Sandy and necessary track panel replacement, a project that should have been done five years ago.
Bianco also explained that the work could only be done during daylight hours due to worker safety issues on the elevated sections and that the 107-year-old Steinway tunnel was too narrow to allow for trains and workers at the same time.
“This is work we have to do to keep the system safe and reliable,” Bianco said. “Let me apologize to you for the inconvenience. We’ve looked hard at other ways to do this and this is the best option we have.”
The residents and small business owners seemed appreciative of the agency’s explanation during the early stages of the question-and-answer section of the meeting.
Woodside community leader David Rosasco said, “Great civilizations have fallen apart. Sometimes we have to endure the unendurable for safety’s sake.”
But when talk of the transportation alternative began, the mood shifted dramatically. The MTA runs a free shuttle bus from Queensboro Plaza on a loop through Court Square and Hunters Point while the service on the No. 7 is suspended to bring customers to connect with N and Q trains into Manhattan as well as Queensbound 7 trains.
Citizens and political leaders have argued for years that the one shuttle operation is not enough. It is inconvenient for those trying to get to Manhattan and too confusing for inbound weekend visitors so necessary for the many shops, restaurants and cultural institutions.
The answer, they said, is a shuttle bus directly through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel directly to Grand Central Terminal.
Bianco told the crowd that a shuttle to Grand Central was unnecessary, according to agency data he has never presented to the public.
“It would benefit a limited number of people with only a limited gain in time,” Bianco said.
That is when state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) got up from his seat and grabbed a microphone.
“Are you making that up?” he asked incredulously. “Is this anecdotal?”
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) added that the data would make for fascinating reading and, when he asked the crowd if a Manhattan-shuttle was needed, the audience replied yes in unison.
Bianco and the senior staff were unmoved, angering David and Donna Drimer, owners of Matted LIC, a home decorating store and gallery, at 46-36 Vernon Blvd.
“They’re harming our business. Saturday is everything to a retailer,” David Drimer said, adding that the service shutdown during LIC Arts Open and the new LIC Springs! Street festival May 17 could cost their store up to 20 percent of their yearly profit.
“They’re closing down the street for the festival, but you can’t even get there,” Donna Drimer said. “They are completely cutting us off not only from Queens but Manhattan.”
Following the town hall meeting, Gianaris said, “This event was all well and good in that the MTA seems prepared to listen, but we need to see the MTA prepared to act. We need real relief from 7 train weekend closures, and I know many in this community won’t be satisfied without a shuttle bus through the Midtown Tunnel.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.