Thursday, July 24, 2008

MTA Extends Q45 to Atlas Park

Move Comes Despite Overwhelming Opposition from Community

By Conor Greene

Despite overwhelming opposition from many neighborhood residents, the MTA has decided to extend service on the Q45 bus route to the Shops at Atlas Park mall.

MTA Bus Company has decided to reroute the bus south on 80th Street from its final stop at Eliot Avenue to a new terminus in front of the shopping center at Cooper Avenue, beginning on August 31. It will use existing Q29 stops south of Furmanville Avenue and will turnaround using the mall’s internal roads before heading back north.

Controversial Proposal
The proposal generated much controversy since it was unveiled last year, both from residents who don’t want more bus traffic and those who say the mall is getting special treatment because it is owned by MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger’s family.

“This route will enhance the mobility of Glendale residents by providing a direct connection to... the 74th Street-Roosevelt Avenue station,” said MTA Spokesman Aaron Donovan. “We hope it will reduce traffic by allowing residents of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst car-free access to a major retail center.”

Last month, Community Board 5 overwhelmingly rejected the proposal after many residents spoke against it during a public hearing. However, the board acts only in an advisory role, and the MTA made it clear at that point they would continue to pursue the route extension. The decision was announced in a July 11 letter from Joseph Smith, MTA Bus President, to Gary Giordano, the board’s district manager.

“We understand that there remains opposition to the proposed extension,” wrote Smith, adding that MTA decided that the mall provides “a logical southern terminus” for the route. “Bus transit has the flexibility to adjust to changing travel patterns and land uses, and the relatively new Shops at Atlas Park has presented an opportunity to increase the functionality of the Q45 by serving this large shopping center,” he wrote.

Both MTA Bus and MTA Transit have recently adjusted several routes to serve large retail shopping centers in Brooklyn, including Gateway Center Mall and the newly-opened Red Hook Ikea, the agency argued in its letter and a statement announcing the route change. “As with numerous other route changes that the MTA Bus Company has undertaken since it was formed in 2004 that have improved service and significantly boosted ridership, we expect that the ridership on this improve route will be robust,” said spokesman Aaron Donovan. “If it proves to be less than anticipated, we can always revisit this decision.”

The bottom line for the MTA is increasing the usefulness of the overall route, despite the concerns of residents living near the shopping center in Glendale, according to Smith. “We believe that this extension would provide better transportation options to everyone along the Q45 route, and would not make this revision if we thought that it did not provide benefits to the public or results in an inconvenience to our customers,” he wrote.

MTA: Family Didn’t Influence
The MTA also stressed that its chairman didn’t play a role in the process since it directly benefits the mall, which is owned and operated by his son, Damon Hemmerdinger. “Dale Hemmerdinger played no role in the initiative to study bus service to Glendale or to extend the Q45 bus route,” wrote Donovan. “If the route extension had come before the board, he would have recused himself from voting on the matter. In addition, he has had no conversations with anyone involved in planning this route extension.”

Discussions to extend bus service to Glendale and Atlas Park “began many months before Dale Hemmerdinger came to the MTA in October 2007,” noted Donovan. The MTA board did not have to vote on the matter since it only involves changing an existing route, he added.

Atlas Park also claimed throughout the process that the change wasn’t the result of the family’s connections. Damon Hemmerdinger declined to comment through the mall’s public relations firm on the MTA’s decision, but has said previously that the new route will benefit the community as a whole.

“Southern Middle Village and Upper Glendale are underserved by public transportation and a direct connection... to an express subway station isin the overall best interest of all our property values,” wrote Atlas Park spokeswoman Robin Dolch last month. “Discussions about improved bus service are not new and have been underway for at least seven years.”

When announcing the route change, the MTA downplayed the negative effects the additional bus service will have on neighborhood surrounding Atlas Park. “We understand the concerns about increased traffic on the streets in the community,” wrote Smith in his letter to the community board, before noting that “the Q45 is not a frequent, high volume route.”

The route has two buses per hour running in each direction on weekday middays, nights and on weekends. There are three to four buses each hour during weekday afternoons, and up to eight buses per hour during weekday rush hours. New bus stops needed between Eliot and Furmanville avenues “will be widely spaced to reduce the loss of on-street parking,” wrote Smith.

Decision Comes After Several Proposals
Under the final extended route decided on, the bus will follow 80th Street from Eliot Avenue to Cooper Avenue. Buses heading south will turn east at the corner of 80th Street and Cooper Avenue, making its final stop at 81st Street outside the mall. Buses would then enter the mall property at 82nd Street and use its internal roads to turnaround and exit onto Cooper Avenue before
heading north towards Jackson Heights.

This route was settled on after several other proposals, including one extending the route south on residential streets to Myrtle Avenue and 80th Street, were opposed by the community. “We appreciate the community’s input because it... helped us find a better alternative than the route on Myrtle Avenue that we had originally identified,” wrote Donovan. “We feel comfortable that this extension will make the route more useful to more Queens residents and will provide a more attractive alternative than the one we had originally proposed.”

Residents and Officials React
At the community board’s June 11 public hearing, residents made it clear that they don’t want the route extended through their neighborhood and accused the MTA favoring the needs of the Hemmerdinger family. After finding out that the rerouting had been finalized, residents reacted similarly this week.

At the community board’s June 11 public hearing, residents made it clear that they don’t want the route extended through their neighborhood and accused the MTA favoring the needs of the Hemmerdinger family. After finding out that the rerouting had been finalized, residents reacted similarly this week.

Dolores Capace of Glendale said that attending a recent City Council hearing on bus routes made it “crystal clear that there are no rules or policies that the MTA must follow with respect to this bus modifications.” She noted that the majority of residents, community board members, civic leaders and local officials publicly opposed the route change. “The MTA decided to ignore the community and extend this bus route anyway,” she said. “This just adds another layer of community mistrust.”

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association and a community board member called the public hearing “a sham,” adding that “this is another example of government disregarding the will of the people and doing as they please.”

Earlier this month, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi wrote to MTA Bus Company to express his “concern” regarding the proposed route change. “The expansion, which the vast majority of local residents oppose, raises serious concerns regarding traffic congestion through a perpetually gridlocked section of 80th Street from Furmanville Avenue to Cooper Avenue,” he wrote. “The proposed expansion... will be harmful to the quality of life of my constituents and I am unequivocally opposed to its implementation.”

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