Whenever the MTA announces something bad — weekend service changes, long-term repair projects, station rehabilitations — the knee-jerk reaction from New York City politics is to pile on. Sometimes, the criticism is deserved. After all, it takes the MTA an exceedingly long time to finish up what appear to be routine construction projects; the agency can’t control costs; and alternate service routings can seem insufficient. Other times, though, a catastrophic hurricane arrives.
As the city came to terms with the upcoming 12-14 month outage for the R train’s Montague Tubes and extensive work on the G train’s Greenpoint Tube, the outrage machine revved up. The most ridiculous voice seemed to belong to City Council Member Vincent Gentile. The Bay Ridge Democrat was angry! Irate! Annoyed! He wanted answers.
“This is absolutely outrageous! It’s hard enough as it is for residents of South Brooklyn who travel to Manhattan each day via public transportation – closing a main artery for over a year is just unacceptable,” he actually said in a real statement issued to the press. “Today I am calling on the MTA to propose some other options. I understand these repairs need to be done but telling people to ‘allow for extra travel time’ for the next 14 months is untenable. The MTA needs to put forth a realistic contingency plan which includes lowering express bus fares and increasing services – not only to the R line – but to the connecting N, D, 2, 3, 4 and 5 lines.”
The rhetoric is strong with this one, but these are just sentiments issued to score political points. I’d hope that Gentile knows the MTA’s hands are tied largely because his political brethren have given the agency little leeway for operations. The MTA can’t re-route R trains over the Manhattan Bridge during the week because the switches near DeKalb can’t handle another bunch of cars. The MTA can’t increase service on the IRT routes because there’s no room or rolling stock. The options ultimately are fairly limited.
I spoke with Kevin Ortiz, the MTA spokesman, yesterday evening about the MTA’s plans, and he compared the situation in the Montague Tube to the post-Sandy service patterns. The R train’s East River crossing was the last to be pumped out, and it’s the first to be shut down. During the 12-14 month outage, the MTA expects simliar travel patterns as during the weeks after Sandy. Some riders will stick with the express D and N trains; others may switch to the IRT lines; some will take express buses. Many will find the transfers annoying but the travel times identical. (And some residents in Gentile’s district believe that “virtually no one” will be too upset as the R is mostly used by those riders as a transfer train anyway.)
As documents released by the MTA show [pdf], the damage to the tubes is more than extensive. Crews will essentially have to rebuild the tunnel finishes from the bottom up. Terra cotta duct banks that date from the 1910s and 1920s were completed destroyed, and saltwater has begun to seep through the concrete track beds as well. Not closing the tunnel would push the timeline for work all the way out to 2017, and as the MTA documents say, wrapping this project next summer allows work to start in adjacent tubes once the R is back online.
Which brings me to a truth tough to swallow: The R train outage likely won’t be the only one. The MTA has issued no public plans for future Sandy-related tunnel repairs, but any East River tube that had standing water will require some kind of rebuild and repair. As the documents say, “24/7 shutdown in Montague means other tubes don’t need to wait multiple years for restoration work.” We don’t know what that restoration work will be or when, but if people are up in arms over the R outage, imagine what will happen when focus shifts to the Canarsie or Cranberry Tubes. Even considering shutting the Joralemon or Clark St. Tunnels is reason for nightmares.
Economically, the MTA figures to come out of this whole thing relatively unscathed. For the Montague and Greenpoint projects, the agency said last night that “it expects no material financial impact to result from the temporary closures.” Most subway riders will use alternate lines, and the closures will have a negligible impact on fare collection. Costs of the repairs will be covered by Sandy restoration funds.
Still, someone will pay in time and convenience, and we the riders will be those someones. For the foreseeable future, Sandy repairs will dominate the subway landscape with service changes expected for years to come. Hopefully, another storm won’t sweep through to roll back the progress, but right now, we’re relying on hope and crossed fingers. Andrea is on the way, and hurricane season is just getting started.