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Nightmare Commute Has New Yorkers Hitting the Subways and Streets Early

By  Alan Neuhauser and Elizabeth Hagen | November 5, 2012 7:45am | Updated on November 5, 2012 12:20pm

NEW YORK — Hundreds of thousands of commuters inundated New York's hobbled mass transit system as offices and schools opened citywide Monday morning, packing platforms and forming massive lines that overwhelmed trains, buses, subways, ferries, tunnels and bridges one week after Hurricane Sandy.

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"Travel is heavy," an MTA spokesman said. "We are carrying more people but have less service."

He declined to elaborate which areas were experiencing the heaviest crowding, but said the system was performing "as well as can be expected with the amount of damage that we've suffered." The city's Department of Transportation did not return calls and emails.

Police periodically stopped commuters from entering the 1, 2, and 3 train station at West 96th Street on the Upper West Side and the J/M/Z Station at Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn, where crushes of waiting riders stretched from the platforms to street level.

Hundreds of workers stood in line to board New York Waterway ferries in Brooklyn and Hoboken, N.J, while PATH service between New Jersey and New York remained shut down. NJ Transit suspended New Jersey Coast Line trains just after 8 a.m. due to overcrowding, likening the train platforms to concert scenes.

"There are safety issues to consider," NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said, adding that "no one's been injured" in the crowds.

Nevertheless, the onslaught of commuters, compounded by modified and suspended service, created cascading delays and headaches for riders and drivers.

"I gave myself two-and-a-half hours," said Brooklyn resident Jessica Janek, 30, a teacher who planned to catch a bus from Williamsburg to the South Bronx — a trip that typically takes just an hour by subway. "I have not made it very far."

Fellow teacher and Brooklyn resident Amy Finegold, 44, was waiting at the Atlantic Avenue station for a Q train to Brighton Beach.

"I'm freaking out," she said. "I'm really starting to panic. I don't know if I should just turn back."

Many subway riders said they were confused which trains were running, where they were stopping, and which stations were open. Some stations were marked only with handwritten signs to warn commuters of closures or modified service.

"There were no announcements," recounted Gabriel Evans, who rode the R train, only to find that it terminated before his stop. "We had to turn and come back here. You would think they'd have announcements every stop, but there was nothing."

Construction worker Louis Perez, 40, had planned to ride the L line from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but found himself scrambling for an alternative when he discovered trains were terminating at Broadway Junction.

"I have no idea how I am going to get to work," he vented. "Why don't they explain it better? It's been a whole week already, why is it taking so long? Everybody has to get back to work."

As frustration mounted through the morning, tempers rose and tensions flared.

"People were fighting the whole way," recounted Leo Tattegrain, 28, a nursing student who road the Q train to Newkirk Avenue in Ditmas Park. "It was horrible. This old lady was complaining she didn't have any space... It's so many people on the train, you can't even tell what's happening."

A train arrived as Tattegrain spoke, but unable to find any room aboard, he was forced to step away and wait for the next one.

Buses proved little better. Horace Atkins was already late for work as he waited for the B63 at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Fourth Avenue.

"It's terrible," he said. "I've been here 15 minutes. Normally the bus would have come already. I have to get all the way up Atlantic to the end."

Taxis were also an uncertain alternative. More have returned to city streets since the hurricane, according to figures provided by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, but capacity has been limited by both flood damage to the taxi fleet and the region's ongoing gas shortage. Monday morning, three-percent fewer active cabs were running compared to two weeks ago, the TLC said.

"The taxi industry's strong showing reflects a few of the city's steadily improving circumstances, such as restored power and some access to fuel in the downtown area," TLC Commissioner David Yassky said in a statement.

The figure Saturday night, however, was even more stark: a 19 percent drop compared to two weeks ago, suggesting taxi service is still far from full capacity.

The gas shortage, however, did create some bright spots for drivers fortunate enough to have full tanks of gas: With thousands of drivers forced off the road without fuel, city bridges, tunnels and roads apparently suffered merely their normal morning congestion, rather than the gridlock seen last Wednesday after the storm.

The inbound George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel and Williamsburg Bridge suffered moderate delays, even as the Queens-Midtown and Holland tunnels remained closed due to flooding and damage. The north tube of the Holland Tunnel, however, was opened to commuter buses, helping alleviate congestion.

Nevertheless, whether by wheel, rail or rudder, commuters said they're eager for the city's transit system to return to normal.

"It's been terrible," said John Samuels, 51, who was waiting for the B41 bus at the corner of Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights.

"Bus is a slow, slow ride, and you have to wait a long, long, long time. Once you get on it is very, very crowded. Everyone is always late for work now."

Irene Plagianos, Joe Parziale, Jill Colvin, and Jesse Lent contributed reporting.