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Illuminated billboard sparks controversy

Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas says a new illuminated billboard along the side of the Astoria Boulevard subway station puts motorists in danger and must be removed.
Courtesy Simotas’ office
By Bill Parry

The MTA is under fire again in Astoria, not for subway station reconstruction projects or the signal malfunctions that caused delays along the N/W line week, but for a massive illuminated sign hanging over one of the most dangerous intersections in the borough.

State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria), who has waged a perennial campaign to make the neighborhood’s streets safer for motorists and pedestrians, is calling on the MTA to remove the giant, flashing billboard it has mounted on the Astoria Boulevard elevated subway station.

She called the billboard a dangerous distraction for drivers and said it is so big that it violates the zoning law that forbids illuminated billboards over 500 square feet in that area. The MTA’s billboard is nearly 700 square feet, Simotas said.

In a Feb. 21 letter to NYC Transit President Andy Byford, Simotas noted that the location of the billboard, facing the intersection of 32nd Street, Astoria Boulevard and the Grand Central Parkway exit ramp, is “the site with the highest incidence of traffic accidents in our area, according to the 114th Precinct. The MTA’s removal of this glaring distraction would go a long way to mitigate this major safety hazard.”

The billboard hangs in view of drivers negotiating seven lanes of heavy traffic that converge and turn in many directions.

“I know this generates revenue for the MTA, but if the price is safety, then they need to go back to the drawing board and remove the billboard,” Simotas said.

An MTA spokesman said the agency “will respond directly to the assemblywoman.”

In a separate letter sent to city Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick D. Chandler Feb. 21, Simotas asked that he investigate the zoning violation posed by the MTA’s illuminated billboard large size and that he remove the billboard as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) are demanding answers from Amtrak on its failure to properly maintain its properties and address significant public safety risks. Astoria residents have long-expressed alarm over Amtrak’s refusal to adequately manage its properties and mitigate the environmental and infrastructural concerns of the community.

In a letter sent Feb. 20, Crowley and Constantinides urged Amtrak to ITS obligations to the public by repaving and reconstructing the public right of way surrounding 23rd Avenue between 36 and 35th streets, and they included photos of cracked and broken concrete sidewalks.

“It is shameful that a federal agency has such a concerted disregard for the communities it most directly affects and touches,” the lawmakers wrote. “The residents of Astoria deserve to be able to walk on the sidewalk without fear of tripping into a gaping hole. It is a basic expectation that, unfortunately, Amtrak has failed to deliver on. Beyond that, the lack of care and concern for the neighborhoods Amtrak does business in is not limited to this location alone. In fact, Queens is replete with glaring examples of Amtrak’s abdication of their responsibility to maintain their properties.”

An Amtrak spokesman said the agency has received the letter and is in the process of reviewing their concerns, as well as any potential next steps that might be required.

“Our preliminary review indicates responsibility for sidewalk maintenance is the obligation of the agency that maintains the roadway — in this case, the New York City Department of Transportation,” he said. “We look forward to working with Congressman Crowley, Council Member Constantinides and the New York City Department of Transportation on this issue.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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