By Tara Kyle
HELL'S KITCHEN — Each year, tens of thousands of charter buses circle through western Midtown, polluting the air and clogging traffic along streets that are increasing residential. But smartphone technology could change all that.
Charter buses, which funnel tourists from neighboring states and Canada into the city for day-trips to destinations such as Lincoln Center or Broadway shows, typically have a six- to eight-hour lag time between passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. Because of a lack of parking, that time is usually spent idling or cruising aimlessly through Hell's Kitchen and northern Chelsea.
"It's a good sign for the economy that there are so many buses," said William Daly, chairman of the Mayor's Midtown Citizens Committee (MMCC), but, "it causes congestion and pollution and the like."
And in an area already stricken with high asthma rates, those problems are likely to worsen. At the same time that rezoning is bringing more housing developments, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is encouraging more tourism.
To tackle those problems, MMCC is proposing a two-part solution, outlined in a recent report. The first stage would be securing 70 additional parking spots, and putting electronic monitors underneath these and the existing 177 (all spots would also receive new paint jobs to discourage trucks and cars from illegally parking in them).
Those electronic monitors would send signals to a mobile application that would allow bus drivers to track the free spaces on their smartphones. Once the drivers secured a spot, for a fee to the company of up to $50 per day, it would be theirs for the duration of their day trip.
Proponents of the plan say that it would be good news for bus drivers too. Currently, without secure parking, many are forced to spend the whole day inside their vehicles before long drives home. When not circling the blocks, they often leave their engines running to stay warm in the winter and cold in the summer.
"It's very unpleasant for drivers," said Christine Berthet, chair of Community Board 4's transportation committee. "I question the safety of people driving after such a difficult day."
But in the current economy, Daly acknowledged that finding a mix of private and public funding to implement the project won't be easy.
Costs will include $35,000 to install the 200 electronic monitors, and $20 per month to maintain each spot. However, the MMCC report estimates that the plan could generate about $1.5 million in annual revenue for the city.
The financial and logistical challenges for the second part of the initiative — putting three to four parking garages in Manhattan with space for 50 to 75 busses each — are even greater.
So far, the plan has gained the support of State Sen. Tom Duane, and it will go before a vote at Community Board 4 next week.
But it must still make its way through a slew of government agencies including the Department of Transportation and Economic Development Corporation. Daly said that while he'd like to see the plan come to fruition sooner rather than later, it could be slow going.
"People know that this is a problem," Daly said. "We consider this a first baby step in a long process."