What the L??! Williamsburg concerned over proposed L train closures

February 19, 2016 • 6 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


The year has started off poorly for the L train. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) recently announced that, due to damaged infrastructure caused by Hurricane Sandy, L train service will be suspended beginning in 2017 for anywhere to 1 to 3 years. This news has Brooklynites and Manhattanites alike aghast. The beloved (or loathed) L train serves Brooklyn and Manhattan from the West Village all the way to Canarsie deep in Brooklyn and is currently one of the most used trains in the system. What’s most shocking is how an announcement with such sweeping consequences could come from the MTA minus a plan, community involvement, or even outreach in place. Needless to say, those communities who rely upon the L train, whether for business or pleasure, are really really upset—and that’s an understatement. One neighborhood in particular absolutely isn’t having it: Williamsburg.

As a Brooklyn economic and residential powerhouse, Williamsburg is gaining on many of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods in terms of both rent and the cost of doing business. Labeled a hipster mecca, Williamsburg is so much more than that. It’s home to thousands of thriving businesses and families, young, old, and everything in between. It’s a community of small businesses. And, with the announcement of L train closures for repairs, Williamsburg is a community rallying to have a voice in the process.

L train closure Williamsburg
image by LWYang (Wikimedia Commons)

However, the community is quickly finding that previously effective tactics of grassroots organization and activism may have met their match in the massive, nebulous bureaucracy of the MTA. Rather than a city agency, the MTA is a state agency operating as a public benefit corporation—basically a publicly-funded quasi-corporation capable of issuing its own debt without voter or legislative approval. Furthermore, the MTA has a CEO appointed by the Governor of New York and a 19-member board—four of whom the Mayor of NYC gets to nominate.

What this means is, first, that your local elected officials on the NYC Council have no say on the MTA budget. Second, because the MTA can issue its own debt, it can often ignore budgetary threats, even though state representatives theoretically have the power of the purse. Finally, since the appointees on the board representing NYC are nominated rather than elected by the Mayor of NYC, yes, you guessed it, they don’t have to listen to you, either.

But NYers don’t give up and they know how to make the right kind of noise.

Coping with the L Train Closure

Following the January 13 announcement about the impending closure of the L, Williamsburg’s local business and residential community kicked into high gear. The Williamsburg small business community is no stranger to fighting for the L train—in recent years, a six-week shutdown of the train caused some businesses to see a 40 percent drop in business. Under the leadership of Dave Rosen, President of the Brooklyn Allied Bars and Restaurants (BABAR), a town hall for businesses and residents was immediately organized for January 26. Politicians, city officials, businesses, and residents descended on the Brooklyn Bowl, a local bowling alley, to get answers. Prior to the meeting, elected officials Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams, State Senators Martin Malave Dilan and Daniel Squadron, State Assembly Member Joe Lentol, and City Council Member Stephen Levin signed on to a letter sent to the MTA in which they declared:

The L train is a critical mode of transportation, the primary subway between north Brooklyn and Manhattan…There is no duplicate mode of transportation. We understand that the tunnel is over 100 years old, that it was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy and that repairs must be made; however, we are deeply concerned that the closure could leave commuters with no means of getting to and from the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area.

The meeting was a great success on the organizational and turnout front, with support from the community and elected officials. Demands for details about the closure were the main thrust of the meeting, and sadly, the MTA wasn’t prepared to offer those details. Indeed, no answers were forthcoming. MTA rep Andrew Inglesby explained, “We do not have a definitive plan yet that can be released to the public.” The public wasn’t satisfied.

Leaping into action, the group pulled together their contacts and began reaching out to businesses and residents, spreading the word about the newly-formed group that emerged from the town hall: The L Train Coalition.
L train shutdown

Within days of the first town hall, a second was planned for February 24, committees were formed, and a press conference scheduled. Remember, these are small business owners, the scrappiest, most ingenious, and dedicated group of people you can find! The L Train Coalition immediately followed up with residential attendees by email and with the small business community via their local Townsquared network with the following call to action, excerpted here:

Thank you for your interest in the L Train Coalition. Our meeting last Thursday proved that this is a far-reaching issue affecting people all throughout NYC, not just those in North Brooklyn. We will continue to fight for answers. As Assemblyman Lentol said, “We need all hands on deck.”

Some take-aways from last week’s meeting:

  • We want answers: the MTA must provide us with information about what is wrong with the L Train tube and the extent of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy.
  • We expect to be included and heard before the MTA makes decisions about how to proceed with repairs, to avoid shut-down at all costs.
  • Our elected officials will continue to put pressure on the MTA, the Mayor, and the Governor for information.

The L Train Coalition’s next meeting is on Wednesday, February 24th at 6:30pm at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center (211 Ainslie Street) where they plan to convene committees and research projects around the key issues of economic impact, transportation alternatives, engineering, commuter/rider outreach, and communications. In their own words, the appeal to the community is simple: “We need more help.”

The inevitable reality of an L train closure is that businesses are going to suffer. They suffered during past during closures, and they will suffer greatly during this one. What’s different this time is the level of organization and the accountability the community is demanding, made possible by technology that encourages small businesses to gather information and act quickly. With the high degree of interaction amongst all the stakeholders, small business owners who would be affected by an L train closure have the voice and community support they need to hold the MTA accountable and provide the answers and services they’ll require to weather this storm.

If you’re a Townsquared NYC member and want to get involved, you can follow the discussion in the #asknyc channel and coordinate with your neighbors there. If you own a business in NYC, you can become a member. For those outside of NYC or if you’d like more information, you can contact the L Train Coalition at ltraincoalition@gmail.com.

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