Volume 16 • Issue 37 | February 13 - 19, 2004

The second winter of bridge discontent

By Josh Rogers

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Going up the Liberty St. bridge steps.

“Every single timeframe we have set has been met,” Gov. George Pataki said confidently about the detailed timeline for Lower Manhattan projects that he announced last April and updated in October.

He was speaking at the January unveiling of the design for the World Trade Center transportation center by architect Santiago Calatrava, one of the large number of milestones that were reached on time. Many Downtown observers say the timeline has had a beneficial effect putting the necessary pressure on government officials across a wide spectrum of agencies. But the record in at least one area does not appear as perfect as the governor said last month.

One of the reasons for the timeline was to insure that short-term improvements were made as Lower Manhattan handled the phased construction of the World Trade Center site over the next 10 to 15 years. Improving pedestrian access around the W.T.C. is an important part of the plan, which is why Pataki included a new pedestrian bridge immediately north of the site and an improved bridge immediately south, in the plan. Officials maintain the letter of the bridge commitments have been met, but that doesn’t mean people in wheelchairs and pushing strollers are likely to have a reliable, car-free way to cross the six-lane highway on West St. highway soon.

“I have to risk my life to cross that West Side Highway,” said Joseph Gibney, 39, a wheelchair-bound resident of Gateway Plaza in Battery Park City. “It makes me feel like my life is worth less than others.”

In April, Gov. Pataki’s timeline promised improvements to the Liberty bridge and a new Vesey St. bridge, above. The timeline was updated in October and the Liberty pledge was taken off the table.
Gibney, an attorney who works in Lower Manhattan, said during the warmer months, the handicapped lift on the Liberty St. pedestrian bridge worked on most days so he would not have to cross through in heavy traffic, but this winter he has had the same problem he had last winter, namely that the elevator doesn’t work on most days.

In Pataki’s April timeline, he promised that by November, there would be improvements to the Liberty St. bridge and a new Vesey St. bridge to accommodate the increased pedestrian traffic with the reopening of a temporary W.T.C. PATH station. In the October speech, Pataki “updated” the timeline and took the Liberty improvements off the table.

Lynn Rasic, a spokesperson for Pataki, said the L.M.D.C. was the best agency to answer detailed questions on the timeline since they are overseeing the W.T.C. redevelopment.

Joanna Rose, an L.M.D.C. spokesperson, said even though the Liberty improvements were taken off the timeline, the goal was still reached because improvements were made to the walkway leading to the Liberty bridge and graffiti was removed.

“The Liberty St. elevators are really not our issue,” said Rose. Because the bridge leads into the World Financial Center, the complex’s owner, Brookfield Properties, has taken responsibility for the elevator’s maintenance.

Melissa Coley, a Brookfield spokesperson, said: “We definitely sympathize with the community. We know that they don’t work well in the winter. We’re trying to fix it.”

The problem is the liquids in the hydraulic elevator freeze in cold weather. She thought the warmer weather would solve the problem in the short term and hoped that by next winter, there would be a lasting solution, although she did not know what that would be.

Some residents have complained that Brookfield security guards resist letting people who say they have a special medical need, use the elevator. Coley said that because they are handicapped lifts designed for sporadic use, guards have to be restrictive. People in wheelchairs, on crutches or the elderly are allowed, but parents pushing strollers and people with most other medical reasons are usually not allowed, she said.

“It’s not designed for constant use by the general public or else it would break down even more,” Coley said.

“Why should they have to plead their case to a security guard,” asked Barry Skolnick, who has been active on the elevator issue and is a member of Community Board 1. “Why should handicapped people and people with strollers have to go further out of their way than every one else?”

Coley said the lift was built by the city’s Dept. of Design and Construction, which managed the recovery effort at ground zero. “We inherited the problem,” she said. A spokesperson for D.D.C. did not have an immediate response to Coley’s remark.

Last year, state Transportation officials presented C.B. 1 with a plan to put in an escalator at Liberty and less steep stairs by November 2003. The theory was that an escalator would cut down on the elevator demand and allow for the elevator to work more often. Skolnick and others questioned why no one was willing to put in a better elevator.

One official, who requested anonymity, said recently that they were willing to take criticism for the problems at Liberty. The budget for the two bridges was not big and the new Vesey bridge was a higher priority because it is closer to the PATH station and was needed to accommodate the crowds coming out of the station. “We had limited resources and we had to get Vesey open for the PATH, so if we had to get killed for that, so be it,” the official said.

Like the PATH station, the first phase of the Vesey bridge opened on time in November. The second and last phase is scheduled to open in April.

Lisa Kuhner, a spokesperson for the State Transportation Dept., said the escalators should be in place in April but the elevators on each side would likely be installed in May and June.

She did not have the specifics, but Kuhner said, “our intention is to make sure they are functional elevators.”

Gibney was skeptical he’ll have better luck on Vesey next winter. “They’ll probably be the same inky dinky little lifts,” he said.

He filed an American Disabilities Act complaint a year ago, but said the assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the case in Manhattan, never returns his calls or letters, so he has no idea if any progress has been made.

Gibney said the problem is no one is willing to spend the money to make his neighborhood accessible.

“They know it is poorly designed, that they don’t function,” he said. “They don’t care. It’s not cost effective for them.”



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