History smiles as L Train Coalition discusses a new Williamsburg subway tunnel


Had the IND Second System become a reality with a Houston St/South 4th St. tunnel, the L train shutdown would be far more palatable. Click here for a full view of the plans.

It’s hard to escape the pull of the L train these days. Brooklyn residents from Williamsburg to Canarsie are very worried about the looming threat of a shutdown of the Canarsie Tubes due to Hurricane Sandy repair work. The L has become extremely crowded, and the route is one of the few in the city without much redundancy. The real estate market is sinking; business are worried; and a potential multi-year shutdown looms.

On Thursday, the MTA pushed off this work for a few years. While speaking to New York State Senate and Assembly representatives, agency CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast said the L train repairs would be last, and work won’t start until 2018 at the earliest, nearly six years after the storm surge swept through the tunnel. For now, the temporary repairs will have to hold, and everyone will hold their collective breaths waiting for that next signal malfunction or broken rail.

Meanwhile, the L Train Coalition met this week, and they still seem to grasping at straws. As Gothamist’s Miranda Katz reported, in the follow-up to the meeting where they ejected the lone MTA representative, these activists are now demanding a third L train tunnel be built before repair work starts. Here’s how Katz reported it:

The biggest question posed by the dozens of anxious community members in attendance: why isn’t the MTA seriously considering the possibility of building a third tunnel running between Brooklyn and Manhattan before starting repairs to the damaged two?

According to Minna Elias, New York Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, this question did come up at the February 5th meeting between elected officials and the MTA, but was deemed unrealistic because it would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $4.5 billion and take longer than the projected timeline for repairs to the existing tubes, which could take between 18 months and 7 years, depending on how much the MTA limits service to get the job done.

“That obviously is the alternative that would cause the least disruption,” Elias said. “They tell us they are concerned that before they would complete such a project and get the money to complete such a project the problems would get worse—they’re concerned about safety is their answer to us. I can tell you that getting the funding to build a new tube would be an extremely heavy lift.”

It’s easy to dismiss this idea, as I did when I first heard about it, but the L Train Coalition, a group that isn’t nearly as plugged into transit as some advocates in the city, hit upon the problem from the get-go. “I don’t think we should just accept the idea that a third tunnel is not possible,” Del Teague, a community activist, said. “I’m concerned that they don’t want to deal with that because they’re afraid they’re going to lose this Hurricane Sandy money. So how come they can’t put pressure on the Feds to let them hold onto it, build a third tunnel, let the third tunnel get built, and then work on the other stuff without losing the Hurricane Sandy money? I know it’s all a big bureaucracy, but things can be done if the government feels that people are going to revolt strongly enough.”

Many at the meeting, according to Katz, asked why other cities around the globe could build a tunnel at a fraction of the cost cited by the MTA. Elias’ response: “New York is unique.” That’s right; we are a special corrupt butterfly where everything we build has to be the Most Expensive Thing ever.

If we take two steps back and set aside the immediate reaction to the idea of a third tunnel — that it would take years to conduct an environmental study, line up enough funding and complete construction and that it would take billions of dollars the MTA doesn’t have — it seems like a common-sense solution. If you have to take a road out of service, you put in a bypass. Thus, if you have to take a tunnel out of service, build a new one first.

In an ideal world, the MTA would be able to build efficiently and quickly such that a new tunnel isn’t a crazy idea, and in fact, in the annals of NYC transit history, another East River crossing near Williamsburg was one part of the grand Second System plan. I wrote extensively of this idea when the Underbelly Project revealed the South 4th St. station to the world. Essentially, the tunnel would be an eastward extension of the middle tracks at the F train’s 2nd Ave. stop to Williamsburg via that old South 4th St. shell, through Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and then down Utica Ave. to Marine Park. It’s a 15 kilometer tunnel that, even at current NYC rates would likely cost $15-$20 billion to construct, if not more. It would be a truly transformative project for a wide swath of Brooklyn and one that could help support an eventual L train closure.

Of course, that’s fantasyland, and here we are, back in reality. The MTA hasn’t put the wheels in motion to build a new tunnel in the 40 months since Sandy, and they’re not about to start. We don’t know why everything costs so much, but I’m comforted that more and more New Yorkers are starting to take notice. Another tunnel, as silly as it may sound, shouldn’t be impossible, but it’s a costly proposition that isn’t a priority. Thus, we’re left with an L train shutdown a few years away but inching closer. The MTA and Daniel Squadron committed to a public planning process to address the effects of a shutdown, but don’t hold your breath for that new East River tunnel. You can blame history for that one.

65 Responses to “History smiles as L Train Coalition discusses a new Williamsburg subway tunnel”

  1. Pete says:

    Why DO construction projects in the city cost so much more?

    • Jeff says:

      A combination of high unionized labor rates, arcane work rules, poor expertise in managing subway projects, lack of competitive bidding in terms of contractors being both qualified and willing, complex and poorly documented pre-existing infrastructure, top heavy and bureaucratic agencies, and a whole lot of corruption.

      • Roger says:

        That’s exactly why Obama’s “reindustralization” will never work. People must accept that to produce real, hard stuff, you probably don’t need a “bloodshop”, but you do need a sweatshop. And there is nothing wrong with sweat.

        • Bolwerk says:

          Uh, you don’t need a sweatshop. German industry has been doing well despite maintaining first world health and safety standards – the former at least probably greatly exceeding ours. America is a country that does good R&D and then often just drops efforts to make competitive products, letting everyone from China to Korea to Germany enjoy the fruits of our actual innovations. The kicker? Much of that R&D is taxpayer funded.

          It’s probably just a big weakness of American federalism that there is no impetus to create viable industrial niches. Which is sad, because there are probably tens of millions of Americans who could use those jobs ranging from the NY metro area to the upper Midwest. Industry can’t fix everything, but it’s certainly part of a healthy economy.

    • JEG says:

      I’ve asked that same question on this site many times, and there are the usual hodgepodge of answers, but what is missing is any actual research and reporting on this question.

      And just to take one often repeated problem, corruption, why is it that neither the New York Attorney General or the U.S. Attorney for the SDNY or EDNY has ever sought to investigate this alleged corruption? Those office holders are always looking for high-profile, public-pleasing cases with which to advance their careers.

  2. Well you wouldn’t need to build the whole South 4th-Utica Ave Line in one go. The key here is a new East River tunnel and from Essex St to Union Ave (with additional space for the new station) you are looking at a 2.25m tunnel (and most likely a couple of stations along the way). So a price tag of $4.5b is reasonable given current construction costs.

    Unfortunately the recent history of system expansion makes a new tunnel in such a short time frame seemingly unrealistic. I have always advocated for a South 4th Tunnel but assumed it was going to be another decade or more before the need was really there.

    The unfortunate thing is the 6th Ave Line is full up so the new tunnel would end up being a shuttle service between 2nd Ave and Union Ave. This would probably still see a lot of traffic but would require transfer to the F which is sketchy at best.

    This is all more evidence of how our transit planning has been a complete failure. Everything is a bad, expensive option right now.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Once the tunnel is built, it can connect to a restored V service on Sixth Avenue. The M-V connection is useful insofar as it gives riders from that part of Brooklyn a one-seat ride to Midtown, taking pressure off the L; once this new tunnel is in place, it gives people that connection to Midtown already. In terms of capacity, there’s room on Sixth Avenue either for a connection to this tunnel, or for the connection to the M; the connection to this tunnel is better, because it serves a higher-demand part of Williamsburg, and riders from around Marcy Avenue can go back to connecting to the F at Essex/Delancey as they did before the M-V connection opened.

    • Dexter says:

      It’s only expensive if you design it to be expensive. I think that is SAS and the 7 Subway extension had used a single Double-O TMB instead of two independent TBMS, that’s quite a lot of the cost gone right there.

      It’s not unrealistic to build quickly and efficiently. But as long as people continue to THINK it will, then improvements will never be made. All we have to do is look elsewhere in the world and maybe change the rules in transits favor. That Rapid Transit Law needs some changes, I think.

    • BruceNY says:

      “The unfortunate thing is the 6th Ave Line is full up”

      Is it though? There seems to be plenty of room on the 6th Ave. Express; the B & D run with very long headways in between. I remember for several years the Q ran on this route as well during the Manhattan Bridge reconstruction, and for the most part worked pretty well. Continuing north it could be routed to the CPW local where there also seems to be plenty of capacity.

      • 6th Ave express splits at Broadway-Lafayette and routing B or D trains via a new tunnel would create a bottleneck on the local tracks. The only way to connect a new tunnel at 2nd Ave is via the local tracks.

        • BruceNY says:

          Who said anything about re-routing the B & D? They should be able to create a quick switch from the 2nd Ave. center tracks to the 6th Ave Express tracks either right before or right after B’way/Lafayette.

          • Tower18 says:

            That would not be a quick switch. That would either be a level junction, which would be impossible to manage with the frequencies you’d need there, or a flying junction would need to be built there, while continuing to operate the adjacent subway lines. In other words, yeah right.

    • Seth R says:

      I would think that tunneling into the s 4th street station would be prohibitively expensive, since you’d have to tunnel under the sunken BQE. It could be done (disruptively) but it wouldn’t be quick. Of course neither the BQE nor the FDR existed when the s4th tunnel was planned.

  3. Still shocked no one has brought up a physical connection between G and J/M/Z. That would take riders away from L at Lorimer and go a long way to increasing the use of the Williamsburg Bridge. I’d rather see a new station built to combine Hewes/Lorimer J/M/Z but other options should be looked at as well. It worked at Jay St and Court St, it will work here too.

    • Eric says:

      A free transfer between the JMZ and G is an absolute necessity before L construction begins.

      A physical connection is a bad idea though. One is a tunnel, one is elevated, combining them would be very expensive and disruptive.

      • Brandon says:

        I don’t think that building a 1 block long pedestrian tunnel to connect to one of the existing J stations need be unaffordably expensive nor particularly disruptive, even in New York.

        What would be expensive is to build a new station between (and replacing) Hewes and Lorimer that would actually be on top of the underground station so that it could have a Jackson Heights-71st style transfer. (Note that Franklin Ave has a transfer between the elevated shuttle and underground C as well, and I’m sure there are others)

        • M says:

          This was done recently at the Court Square station, connecting the 7 train to the underground E/M/G trains. Granted, it didn’t need much dug underground like this idea would, only a large staircase/escalator that goes from underground to elevated.

        • Tower18 says:

          Especially when the area where this would need to be built (for the JMZ to G transfer) is mostly parking lots as it is. Plenty of room to maneuver. But they need to build it now before property owners realize all those parking lots have more productive uses in 21st century Brooklyn.

        • LLQBTT says:

          But there’s already a perfectly good sidewalk connecting the stations, so why waste money on a tunnel? It would be far cheaper to put a canopy over the sidewalk if we’re looking to shelter transferring passengers.

          Set all MetroCards for the free transfer, and it’s done.

  4. Abba says:

    Just close the tunnel and
    Get it over with? No? .LOL!

  5. Larry Littlefield says:

    You want a pony? Generation Greed got all the ponies. And they’ve got the system rigged that anything you try to do gets them more.

    People need to grow up and face reality. The best solution is the fastest solution. Shift the trains to the BMT Broadway line, C-train and G-Crosstown. Don’t bother with any skeleton L service north of Broadway Junction. Provide bike parking — if you can walk to the L, you can bike to one of the other lines in the same time with the same effort. Shut the tunnel down and fix it.

    I had predicted that as a result of deferred maintenance in the wake of Generation Greed, entire subway lines would have to be shut down from time to time. And indicated that people would need bikes to get to alternative lines.

    ALL our public services are going to require improvisation and coping in the wake of Generation Greed.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      For those interested here is a post with that information, and a quote. Hurricane Sandy has just accelerated the process that some might have hoped was ended when the Manhattan Bridge was back in service — after 20 years.


      “The bottom line is that younger generations cannot afford the auto-dependent lifestyle of their predecessors. But through their control of the federal, state and local governments, their predecessors have ensured that their alternatives will be limited. I expect rail transit systems will continue to run, because they are inherently reliable and can take quite of bit of abuse before they utterly collapse. But I would not be surprised if many of the conditions on the New York City subway in the 1970s were to come back, with increasingly unpleasant and unreliable travel and some lines out of action due to deterioration for years at a time. And there won’t be nearly the expansion that would be required for the demand for transit accessible neighborhoods to be met.”

      If you are following events up in Boston, you know this isn’t just a NYC issue. And the transit systems in “flyover country” are even worse off.

      “As for bus systems, here and elsewhere, the cutbacks may be expected to be so severe that buses an no longer be considered a transportation mode you can organize your life around. They barely work as it is, stopping at every light and then at bus stops, and stuck in traffic in between. Unless there is a dedicated busway, which could provide rail-quality speed and reliability, it is best to ignore buses altogether.”

      “So what can the next generation do? One alternative is to turn to a type of transportation I didn’t think of 30 years ago and only started using heavily a few years ago – the bicycle.”

    • Bolwerk says:

      Did you predict the sunrise this morning too? All capital depreciates, everything needs replacement eventually, and some of the subway system may even make it to 200 years old in the lifetimes of people who comment on this blog. Of course there will be segments of the system shut down for total replacement. It can probably be expected with every el segment sometime in the next century or two.

      “In the long run we are all dead” – Keynes. So cheer up! 😀

  6. LordDeucey says:

    Why not build a temporary bridge?

  7. Elvis Delgado says:

    Why is this any crazier than the idea to build a new tunnel under the Hudson in advance of taking the existing one down for post-Sandy rehabilitation?

    It’s pretty much the same scenario. The current tunnel is both over-burdened and under-maintained, the the new construction is more than just an (extremely) expensive temporary measure. It can fill in while the old tubes are rebuilt and then provide much needed additional capacity when that is complete.

    • Russell says:

      It’s not exactly the same scenario. With the Hudson River tunnels, there’s a demonstrable need for a third and fourth tunnel, given all of the New Jersey transit lines (and of course Amtrak) that merge together to cross there. With the 14th street tunnel, you’re only talking about one line, and if they were to build a third tunnel, it would have no use once all of the construction is complete. This leads to another point – Yes, infrastructure costs billions and billions of dollars, especially in New York City, but you can always take some assurance in the fact that you’re building for the next 100-150 years. With a third tunnel, you’d only be building for the duration of this project. Unless of course you build something more involved, i.e. the whole East River tunnel to the South 4th Station. That, of course, would be even more costly then just a simple parallel “temporary” third tunnel, and still wouldn’t have as much utility once all of the tunnel renovations were complete, unless it was extended farther.

      Still, I do think a third tunnel should be in the conversation. Maybe get the real estate interests involved? Maybe then they would insist on lower costs to get it built to maintain service during the tunnel closures? Too often we take our subway infrastructure for granted. Perhaps this case will show how much our subways contribute to our economy.

      • SEAN says:

        Amazingly if we were talking about spending billions on wars in the ME, polls & many americans wouldn’t bat so much as an eyelash. But since we are talking about spending on a vital need, it is like moving mountains. And since this is NYC, the reaction is worse than if we were talking about Miami.

    • JJJ says:

      The existing Hudson Tunnels are already under rehab on weekends. Theres only a single tunnel in use. Trains stack up in the swamp waiting for all the outbound trains to get through before they can go into the city. Whats odd is that NJ Transit has not added 10 minutes to their schedules, even though it happens every week…as if on schedule!

  8. Alex B. says:

    I find the cost angle a bit odd here. Yes, things cost too much. That said, even if the costs of a new tunnel were lower, that still wouldn’t make it the right choice for the fastest and most efficient rehabilitation of the existing damaged tunnels.

    It’s one thing to package some kind of redundant network benefit onto a system expansion project, but that expansion would need to present independent benefits. The analogy of building a bypass road falls apart when the cost of the bypass is so high. Even for road projects of a similar nature (e.g. tunnels), no one builds a temporary tunnel just for the sake of a construction bypass.

    • mister says:

      This is an excellent point. I thought about the potential for building a third tunnel, but it doesn’t make sense: there’s just no need for it after the two main tunnels are repaired. That makes it a really expensive temporary solution, and I can’t see how it makes sense to chase money to build this if we have other expansion needs.

  9. smotri says:

    Looking at that old map, one can only wonder why people back then had vision, but now they don’t. What happened?

    • Alon Levy says:

      Sixth Avenue Subway happened. The IND’s costs ran over, because of issues like “they built a subway right next to the preexisting Hudson Tubes and designed it with lots of flying junctions.” That made it hard to find the money to build the Second System.

      • Chris says:

        Had the IND not been as hell-bent on destroying the IRT and BMT’s finances, the city’s transport network might have been in a much better shape today.

  10. David R Yale says:

    If the defense contractor welfare queens weren’t sucking up half of our country’s wealth to build unneeded killing machines, we’d have plenty of money to build entire new subway lines in all our major cities. We are still the richest country in the world, but the 1% is siphoning off the wealth. If enough people make enough noise, we could get that badly-needed new Brooklyn subway line, and it could be done in an expedited manner.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      If you actually want to know where federal money goes, you can find out here.


      See the pie chart, if you dare.

      This doesn’t exclude tax expenditures or (God help us) contingent liabilities, such as those related to the FHA, PBGC, federal flood insurance, etc. But relatively few of those are related to defense.

      • Thomas Graves says:

        The defense slice on the pie chart looks pretty big to me. Almost as big as social security. David Yale is right. The US squanders vastly more of its wealth than any other developed nation on useless weapon boondoggles that mostly benefit southern states. That’s why there’s very little left for subways and rail transit that might actually benefit working tax-payers.

    • Alon Levy says:

      One of those on-welfare defense contractors, Cubic, designed the MetroCard system, and has been bilking both LA and Vancouver with their totally unnecessary schemes for faregates on the subway and smartcards.

      • SEAN says:

        Most smartcard systems in north America come from Cubic. The only ones I know of that didn’t come from Cubic are ORCA in Seattle & Presto in Toronto.

        • Alon Levy says:

          I think Montreal’s OPUS is Cubic-free, too. So it’s just Vancouver and the US. This is very much an “if everyone jumped from a bridge, would you do it too?” situation. Vancouver in particular had a PR disaster coming from the botched Compass Card rollout, which happened right when there was a referendum on funding transit expansions; the referendum failed, and in polls the top reason given by no voters was that they did not trust the transit agency.

  11. mister says:

    Ben, your analogy of a bypass road a bit off here. Yes, we might do just that, build a new bypass road before shutting down an existing roadway. We wouldn’t do that for the Holland Tunnel though.

    Before proposing billions in a new, temporary third tunnel, you could explore other potential options. Restoring the 1st avenue interlocking would require less single tracking. It would cost far, FAR less than an new tunnel, and could allow for shorter headways. Then there’s the one-way option: Making the single open Canarsie tube one-way for the duration of the AM and PM rush would allow for something close to peak service to be offered. But there’s not enough storage space in Manhattan to accommodate the trains you would need to hold in Manhattan. You could build a new connection between the L and the 6th or 8th avenue lines that would allow for L trains to enter Manhattan through the Canarsie tube, and return to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge. It would give the added bonus of a connection between the BMT eastern division and the rest of the system that doesn’t include the Williamsburg bridge.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      Single tracking would be a mistake. You’d end up with just as many people trying to use one-quarter the service. Platforms would back up, there would be some pushing, people would fall to the tracks, and they will be killed.

      It might happen anyway, as I predicted it someday would.

      To deal with this, however, the L train riders have to be spread out, and as many trains as possible would have to be sent to the CBD on other lines. Single tracking = much less service increase elsewhere. It’s suicide. Actually, homicide.

      • Brooklynite says:

        Half service can be pulled off on a single track by running trains in pairs or even triples. Doubling M service and replacing the L south of Bway Jct with some other service, along with a strong PR campaign, should lower demand enough.

        Something like this, for instance:

      • Eric says:

        Nobody would be killed. If the crowding reached that level, there would be police officers restricting the rate of entry to the station. That is standard in places like the Beijing subway.

  12. Bolwerk says:

    It’s observable in the wake of disasters that red tape suddenly disappears and important repairs and recovery efforts get fast-tracked. New York construction and repair crews are actually remarkably efficient, when they have to be.

    At least some of the time. Unfortunately, that attitude doesn’t extend to new construction. A new L Train tunnel would have been a great idea if it had been proposed and approved by the end of 2012. Also, if, for instance, the deactivated RBB segments could rebuilt at the same price rate as it took rebuild the active RBB segments wrecked by Sandy, probably a much more complicated project, such projects become no-brainers. Ditto Triborough RX.

    But what especially kills – KILLS – us is new tunneling, especially when there are new stations involved. We suck ass at it.

  13. NattyB says:

    Why isn’t anyone considering this relatively aggressive though workable dedicated BRT proposal suggested by Streetsblog? http://www.streetsblog.org/201.....great-brt/

    If enough residents/small businesses are furious enough, I think that’d have the political clout to offset the typical push back you get when removing parking spaces and lanes of traffic. I have no sympathy for anyone who drives up Bedford in Williamsburg and is mildly inconvenienced by these proposals.

    • Bolwerk says:

      An unbiased observer might call that a transparent ploy!

      But seriously, because it’s useless? There is already rail over the Williamsburg Bridge. Even if an actual path could be cleared for a BRT route, it at most offers one more nightmare 3-seat route back to the L route. That’s considering that L trips by their very nature are often already 2-seat rides. Most people who would be theoretically helped by Walter Hook’s scheme are better off just getting to the J or M by already existent means: walking, one of the local feeder buses in Brooklyn, Myrtle-Wyckoff, Broadway Junction.

      The M even affords a 2-seat ride to the Lex local without going downtown first.

  14. Alexander says:

    Are these spoiled wiliamsburgers out of there freakin minds????? No other tunnel needed a extra built just for repairs. We are new yorkers. We deal. We find new ways to commute. The avereage commute is a two seat ride. I say have these people spend a month commuting between manhattan and rockaway and teach them they actually wont have it as bad

  15. Brooklynite says:

    The idea of a new tunnel is a good one. The issues with the current Sandy closure, while very real (it’s going to be lots of extra commuting time for lots of people), are not even the most important thing here. A new tunnel needs to be constructed eventually to serve all the people in the newly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods. Something like the long-proposed Utica-Williamsburg-Manhattan line will need to be built at some point, and this is as good a chance as we’ll get. Building the tunnel and connecting lines on both ends would admittedly take much longer than between now and 2018 when repairs are scheduled to start, but it’s a long-term investment that’s ultimately worth it.

  16. Dave of Sunnyside says:

    We need to look at cities that build lines that cost less. Naples, Milan, Barcelona, Paris and even Montreal build lines at 1/10th the cost of NYC. London also suffers the overrun disease when building subway lines. And as far as I know the corruption in the low cost cities is even more rampant then NYC. The difference is the low cost cities use either Public Private Partnerships that are will crafted to avoid overbilling or they have a much more rigorous scoping and design teams that avoids task orders and change orders that literally blow budgets out of the water. If you want to lower the cost hire one company to build the entire project according to a well scoped and design plan. Set one price with incentives if the meet or come on ahead f schedule and under budget and have all the approvals in place. The price will be considerably less.

  17. LLQBTT says:

    Why not build the third tunnel now? Williamsburg and Bushwick keep growing and growing and growing. Now it seems, East NY is in developers cross hairs. Ridership on the L is going only 1 way, up!

    Declare an emergency and bypass all the lengthy reviews/approvals.

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