Home Superstorm Sandy Montague St. Tunnel returns to service a few weeks early

Montague St. Tunnel returns to service a few weeks early

by Benjamin Kabak

R train cookies for all as the Montague St. Tunnel reopens. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

On Sunday night, at 10:51 p.m., a Manhattan bound N train left De Kalb Ave., and instead of rolling over the Manhattan Bridge, this N train took the long way. It stopped at Jay St./Metrotech, moseyed over to Court St. and then became the first train in passenger service since mid-2013 to ride through the Montague St. Tunnel. For the MTA and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who stopped by Lower Manhattan yesterday to mark the occasion, the reopening, two to six weeks early, was a sign of recovery from Sandy. It’s also a story of what the MTA can do with external pressure on deadlines. We’ll get back to that in a minute, but let’s journey first to Brooklyn.

I took a walk from Park Slope to Red Hook yesterday afternoon, and part of my stroll took me underneath the Culver Viaduct. I’ve lost count of the number of years this thing has been under construction, and the original completion dates, laughably enough, were around three years ago. On a bright late summer Sunday, a few workers seemed to be contemplated the safety nets that still surround the structure as they climbed atop the construction shed towering over 9th St. between 2nd Ave. and Smith St. It seemed to be a project with no end and no impetus pushing it toward a finish line.

Lately, local politicians have begun to notice that the Culver Viaduct rehab has entered that twilight zone of incompletion with little visible day-to-day progress, and they have begun to ask some questions. Brad Lander put out a statement on the project toward the end of August. A contractor default has put the finishing line out of view, and a quick glance at the 4th Ave. station makes it clear much remains to be done.

Gov. Cuomo and Tom Prendergast discuss the R train as Marcia Kramer edges her way into the scene. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

But now, let’s go back to Lower Manhattan, R train cookies and all. After a closure for a complete rebuild of the systems that line the Montague St. Tunnel, Gov. Cuomo and MTA dignitaries were on hand Sunday to celebrate. The Governor of course loves to take credit for the good while ignoring the bad (or even removing $30 million from the MTA’s budget), and he didn’t miss a chance for a good photo op this weekend.

“Superstorm Sandy brought incredible destruction down on the New York City subway system – but today we’re taking another huge step forward to repair the damage and strengthen the system to withstand the next major storm,” Governor Cuomo said. “This tunnel is safer, stronger and more resilient than ever before, and everything on this section of the R train is new – new rails, new signals, new pumps and new power supplies. We’ve made it a top priority to reimagine our state to withstand the new reality of extreme weather, and today is another example of how that approach is making this a safer state for all.”

In a press release announcing the reopening — in time for Monday’s commute — MTA officials noted that the Federal Transit Administration funded the project and thanks Cuomo for “his leadership in making the MTA and New York stronger” after Sandy, whatever that entailed. As you can see, I’m more than a bit skeptical over Cuomo’s treatment of the city’s subway system as a way to earn easy headlines and quick political points.

On a deeper level though, rebuilding the Montague St. Tunnel early, even by a few weeks, shows that in-house MTA projects with a driving political need can wrap on time. I don’t know if the MTA spent efficiently or wisely; I do know that by taking the tunnel out of service, the work wrapped on time and not, say, three years late. There are lessons to be learned here, but they require hard trade-offs. So far, the MTA and New Yorkers haven’t been willing to make those sacrifices, but maybe they should. After all, some of them can get a cookie out of it.

For more scenes from Sunday’s event, check out the MTA’s photoset or shots from the Governor’s Office. I particularly enjoyed this one showing the branching of the Montague Tunnel into the BMT Broadway Line and the BMT Nassau St. line.

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Abba September 14, 2014 - 11:42 pm

You took the first train?

Phantom September 14, 2014 - 11:52 pm

I don’t even think that it was a hard trade off. It was a no brainer.

Some of us including me were inconvenienced for awhile, but the essential rebuild was done faster and cheaper.

There is such redundency that this ” shut it down and focus everything on getting the necessary work done sooner” model may be be very useful for other major jobs.

D in Bushwick September 15, 2014 - 2:41 pm

Why do closed down stations along the J train take months and months to replace walls and pavement?
Every time I pass by, no one is there even pretending to work on it.
But this happens with park renovations and street paving too.
So maybe NYC is just a very special case where delay and cost overruns are just part of the family business.

Nathanael September 20, 2014 - 7:41 am

The particular culture of just-not-getting-the-work-done does seem to be specific to NYC construction. I see much more activity on construction pretty much everywhere else.

DavidDuck September 14, 2014 - 11:58 pm

Why is it so wet at the location where the tunnels branch (in the photo Ben likes)?

Nyland8 September 15, 2014 - 6:59 am

Nobody should be surprised that Cuomo, a man notorious for giving short shrift to mass-transit, couldn’t pass up an opportunity for this photo-op. Ah, politics! And this is just the very unsexy reopening of an old piece of infrastructure. Imagine the throngs of politicians that would attend the opening of a brand new station – on a brand new subway line! Shades of Bloomberg taking the first 7 train to Javitts, even knowing that the second train might not even make the trip a year after he has left office. A photo-op is a powerful thing!

This reinforces the need to commence building portions of the Triboro RX ASAP. Plenty of political will can be generated for any project that can lead to a ribbon cutting/photo-op during a politicians tenure. It’s much harder for them to get behind long term projects that may never even be completed during their political careers. But if there’s no major tunneling involved, and every single phase in the construction need be no bigger than one station away, the political forces for completion that will be brought to bear can be utterly transformative.

Read Ben’s “Pondering a manageable slice … ” story from August 24th. I would suggest that success might be found by pondering not a slice, but a single bite! That “slice” could be built from the L Line side, and offer at least 10 ribbon cutting photo-ops to everyone from the Governor, to the Mayor, to the Borough President, to the … well … you get the idea. And once the grand vision is proffered before the public, the pressure to advance the train further will build with every single new station opening, as the next neighborhood down the line looks forward to their coming link.

Larry Littlefield September 15, 2014 - 7:09 am

Can you imagine what would have happened if, with a tunnel shut down and tens of thousands inconvenienced, the contractor screwed around in an effort to extract additional change orders or save money on the job by stretching it out for years? The name of that contractor would have been on everyone’s lips, and they would have faced a huge backlash.

But with regard to a project like the Second Avenue Subway people don’t know what they are missing. And with regard to projects that are stretched out over years anyway, like signal and station jobs, people don’t know they are being ripped off.

I’m not surprised by this. How fast were lines rebuilt after 9/11? That came in under budget too.

smartone September 16, 2014 - 12:01 pm

instead of doing studies why MTA projects come in over budget and delayed .

they should do a study why these types projects come in UNDER Budget and ahead of time
and maybe use the learnings across all the projects

Elvis Delgado September 15, 2014 - 7:58 am

Interesting that as of this moment, there’s nothing on the official website (www.mta.info), and the map of current service still has the tunnel out of service. One would think they’d be trumpeting this everywhere.

BoerumHillScott September 15, 2014 - 8:17 am

I took the R this morning, and while the signs above the platform had already been changed, I saw no posters or other announcements at Atlantic-Barclays to announce the change.

On the train, the poster announcing the tunnel shutdown was still up.

I was on the first car, and the Train Operator did open the door a couple of times at tops to briefly chat with people.

When I got off at Cortlandt, there was a poster on the wall announcing the train was running via the tunnel, which is somewhat odd considering it was the Uptown platform.

VB September 15, 2014 - 1:36 pm

They announced it on the numbered lines’ arrival times board a couple of times while I was waiting for the train. Not only at Atlantic Ave, but also at stops along the way where you cannot transfer to the R at all.

Elvis Delgado September 15, 2014 - 8:13 am

Hey, can anyone identify the photo used by the NY Times to illustrate their article and captioned “Work on the R’s Montague Street tunnel finished ahead of schedule and under budget”?


Is it actually anywhere in (or near) the tunnel? A train appears to be entering a station after having passed a switch, but it’s obviously not entering Whitehall Street nor Court Street, right?

BoerumHillScott September 15, 2014 - 8:29 am

I think this may be Whitehall.
Off to the right is what looks like a tunnel for a third track.

Elvis Delgado September 15, 2014 - 8:36 am

But if it’s Whitehall, shouldn’t the platform(s) be islands instead of what appears to be a side platform at the very left. And if it’s looking north into Whitehall from the tunnel, then the switch from Nassau Street is facing the wrong way.

Seth R September 15, 2014 - 6:36 pm

It’s whitehall from the south, here’s a photo from a slightly different angle that’s more clear:


John-2 September 16, 2014 - 12:38 am

It’s interesting that, going by the arched ceiling of the tunnel, it looks as though Whitehall may have originally been planned as a two-track station, with the Brooklyn-bound and center tracks, and the decision was made later to do a third bore to create the uptown track, allowing for a three-track station with the ability to turn trains on the middle track at Whitehall.

EN September 16, 2014 - 1:19 pm

There is actually a provision for connection to another line just south of Whitehall (not sure of the exact details without looking into it). That may have something to do with the construction.

BoerumHillScott September 15, 2014 - 8:48 am

I think the far left is a wall, the train is on the middle track.
The switch is to connect the middle track with either through track.

Elvis Delgado September 15, 2014 - 9:10 am

You’re probably right. 🙂

JMB September 15, 2014 - 9:45 am

Just took my restored R train all the way to lower Manhattan. It was like catching up with an old friend. Definitely pleased to have my 1-seat ride returned!

Michael September 16, 2014 - 1:17 pm

I am pleased that a vital connection (for me at least) for getting to/from work has been restored.


chemster September 15, 2014 - 10:33 am

I found this quote in the new york times most interesting:

“Tom wants to know if he gets the savings on his budget,” Mr. Cuomo joked. “I said: ‘Forget that. That goes right to my budget.'”


How much of a joke is it, really? Cuomo treats the MTA as a piggy bank all the time… and I’m not really laughing.

Kevin Schultz September 15, 2014 - 2:31 pm

That stuck out to me as well. What incentive is there for the MTA to come in under budget if they don’t realize those gains?

Simon September 16, 2014 - 8:40 am

Exactly what I was wondering. $60 million is no laughing matter.

Nathanael September 20, 2014 - 7:42 am

Cuomo is a disgusting piece of human refuse. Just another example of that.

Josh September 15, 2014 - 11:18 am

“Montague St. Tunnel returns to service a few weeks early”

Can someone tell me what that last word means? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before around these parts.

Elvis Delgado September 15, 2014 - 11:54 am

The MTA website is now touting the on-budget, on-time completion of the Montague Street tunnel work. They also report that “similar work is planned for other under river tubes” and that “preparations have begun for the full rehabilitation of the new South Ferry Terminal”.

I wonder which of the other under river tubes will be closed for rehab and when. I also marvel at the fact that preparations have merely begun for South Ferry and that there’s not a plan already in place to deal with the damage.

alek September 15, 2014 - 2:16 pm

Cranberry and Rutgers are next tunnels to be repaired. It not a full shutdown

John September 15, 2014 - 2:21 pm

There’s not really any urgency for the south ferry project, since they can just keep using the old station.

Abba September 15, 2014 - 3:05 pm

I agree it’s not really an urgency?

Elvis Delgado September 16, 2014 - 11:52 am

That was true before they spent a penny on the new station, and yet the TA believed that it was urgent enough to spend over half a billion dollars replacing it. Maybe their priorities have shifted, but I would have thought that they’d have done more in the last year than just sit around “preparing” to put the new station back into service.

Michael September 16, 2014 - 1:15 pm

If there were pictures of the area alongside the Battery Park, and also of the plaza in front of the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, it would be easy to notice the periodic changes that have been made in preparation of the work on the larger South Ferry subway terminal.

A constant careful viewer could easily point out the changes, especially since the work has to be done while there are operating subway, bus and ferry operations at the same site.


Nathanael September 20, 2014 - 7:47 am

There is a hard deadline of July 26, 2020 for the MTA to satisfy the ADA key stations requirement. South Ferry is on the key stations list.

The MTA is the absolute worst and least responsible transit agency in the United States when it comes to helping passengers with disabilities. But this is one mandate it can’t weasel out of.

Particularly since every other system is done with their key stations already, except Boston (which has the last one under construction now).

Nathanael September 20, 2014 - 8:09 am

It is blackly amusing that the illegal, ADA-violating Culver Viaduct rehab project (it was required to provide access at at least one of the stations being renovated, and didn’t bother) is managing to not get finished at all.

sonicboy678 September 22, 2014 - 7:05 pm

As long as Nevins Street remains off that list (as well as stations constructed in a manner very similar to it, resulting in the same situation), it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Bolwerk September 23, 2014 - 3:28 pm

I tend to favor taking Wikipedia with a grain of salt any time there is technology or controversy involved, but is this list comprehensive of what needs to be completed for that deadline?

Nathanael September 24, 2014 - 8:19 pm

The reference given in the footnotes to Wikipedia is accurate. I’m not sure if that’s the complete list of NYC Subway key stations; you can cross-check it against the scanned copy of the official key stations list as of 2010:


There may have been substitutions of one station for another since then but there would be paperwork filed with the FTA and the advocacy groups if there had been.

Nathanael September 24, 2014 - 8:21 pm

Worth remembering that there are two separate ADA requirements.

The key stations requirement is entirely separate from the base “renovations” rule.

The “renovations” rule requires you to provide accessibility when you’re rebuilding a station anyway. The renovations rule has the “if it costs more than 20% of the budget you don’t need to provide complete accessibility” rule of thumb; the key stations rule doesn’t have such a clause.

Nathanael September 24, 2014 - 8:25 pm

…and there’s a subtle point to this which I probably haven’t made clear yet.

NYC Subway does not get to bundle the mandatory key-station upgrades in with the renovation of a bunch of other stations as “one project” in order to avoid spending the required 20% on the rest of the stations.

It’s supposed to be a minimum of 20% of the renovation funding for ADA compliance *not counting* the key station expenditures.

Nathanael September 24, 2014 - 8:27 pm

(NY’s key station requirement was already in place due to a lawsuit settlement *several years prior to the passage of the ADA*. There was some effort made to make sure that the passage of the ADA wasn’t used to allow NY to get away with doing less.)

Chris C September 16, 2014 - 2:39 pm

MTA asked for bids over the summer in relation to the station works so things are obviously happening.


Alex September 15, 2014 - 9:36 pm

I live off the R in Brooklyn. I take it to Atlantic and switch to the D for my commute. For the past year during my commute home, the R has been relatively on time and relatively uncrowded. Today, I waited on the Atlantic Ave platform for 15+ minutes with throngs of people who’d clearly been there for some time before me. The platform was dangerously crowded, and when the R finally did come, a number of people could not fit on. So glad the tunnel is open again.

Abba September 16, 2014 - 9:57 am

For real your happy that the tunnel reopened? Seems like you feel it was better with it closed.

Kevin September 16, 2014 - 12:52 pm

R service in Bklyn, especially heading towards Bay Ridge, was much more reliable when the tunnel was shut. Now that the full line is back, I know that wait times for BR-bound trains will be longer. It’s just the nature of the beast with how long the entire line is and how slow the R is going from downtown Manhattan into Bklyn. Not to mention R trains always run about every 10 minutes, even during peak hours.

Rich September 17, 2014 - 9:12 pm

Yes, agree. Tunnel open is great especially ahead of schedule, and obviously good overall but for Brooklyn only users so far, it’s been very, very bad.

Monday i waited on Court Street for 40minutes (from around 7:30pm) heading to DeKalb, and the only announcement was “there is a Manhattan bound train at Jay Street” which occurred after about 30minutes and 5 MN bound trains had passed. Yesterday and today I was around 5-5:30pm and both had 20min+ waits at Jay St.

I’ve Only done one “normal” northbound/morning journey so far which was yesterday and that involved a 15min change at DeKalb. When the tunnel was shut, i rarely used to wait longer than 5mins at either DeKalb or Jay in either direction (my commute is generally B/Q-R-F to York St). Although it is early days, If the R continues to be so bad, i’ll start doing B-F and going via Manhattan because pre-closure, that was often quicker and generally more reliable than dealing with the R.


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