Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One stoplight, one subway station, lots of problems

One of the major subway stations in our area of Manhattan is the 181st Street stop on the 1 train. On Sunday night, part of the ceiling collapsed, raining debris down on the platform and the track and causing major damage. Service has not returned to the station, meaning commuters in northern Manhattan have had to triple the amount of time they spend complaining about public transportation in this part of the city, bringing it up to 12 hours a day. While the MTA attempts to at least put in a temporary fix, subway riders now find themselves being detoured to cramped shuttle buses that move down the street at about 10 miles an hour. It could still be several days until the aging structure - which is a historical landmark - is repaired.

Here's a picture of part of the damage. Fortunately, no people were injured at the time of the collapse. Unfortunately, neither were any rats.

The collapse has brought about the usual concerns about infrastructure safety, with Mayor Bloomberg chastising the MTA for failing to keep up on repairs. It's disrupting tens of thousands of lives, and everyone's left to wonder if their next trip to an underground subway station will leave them dodging stone and panhandlers.

Fifteen hundred miles away, my hometown is dealing with its own traumatic transportation debacle. Janesville's losing its stoplight.

Technically, I suppose, the town has four stoplights, one in each direction at the Main Street intersection. But it's basically a one-stoplight town that will soon become a no-stoplight town because the current sign is nearing the end of its life and it's too expensive to replace. It would apparently cost $100,000 to repair, which seems like a lot for a single small town, but if it lasts as long as the current one, seems like a pretty good deal.

People are not happy with the decision.

To anyone from a town with more than, oh, 2,100 people, it doesn't seem like a big deal to go from one stoplight to none. But there's something jolting about it. You can be a one-horse town but at least you've got that horse. You can sort of look down on those towns where cars speed through, impeded only by their fear of a lurking highway patrolman Now? Well, the Dairy Queen's still standing. And so is the school. And the Doll.

It almost feels like when the stoplights move out, the tumbleweed moves in. Growing up, weekend nights in Janesville meant you'd cruise Main Street, going through those stoplights two dozen times a night, driving slowly down the street, listening to hair bands and saying hello to cars filled with other bored teenagers listening to hair bands. You'd make a U-turn and be back at the stoplight.

Hey, it's what you do in a one-stoplight town.

Like in New York City, the main concern for residents is safety. The county will install stop signs as replacements, and there probably won't be much noticeable difference. In ten, twenty years, few people will probably remember the stoplights were even there, just like in ten, twenty years few people will probably remember that the 181st Street subway stop was out of commission for a week. That all changes, of course, if anyone's ever hurt in either place, whether because of poor construction in New York or faulty planning in Minnesota.

In the meantime, I might have to make a special trip home, for one more cruise through the stoplights and down Main Street.

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