In four months, give or take a few weeks, the MTA is finally going to shut down the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan for Superstorm Sandy-related repairs. The looming closure is hardly a secret, and talk of the work and mitigation plans have consumed NYC’s transit realm for the past four years. I first wrote about the L train shutdown in late 2014, and it has since been the subject of numerous presentations, meetings, plans, reports, studies and even lawsuits. What was once supposed to be a 18-month shutdown has been whittled down to a 15-month sprint, and with prep work already well under way, the biggest concerns are about the effectiveness of the mitigation plan. The biggest concern, that is, until this week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, once again in charge of the MTA, decided to step in.
Until this week, Cuomo had been largely quiet on matters related to the L train shutdown. Content to let the city, his favorite transportation foil, bear the brunt of work (and criticism) over mitigation efforts that everyone expects to fail during the first morning rush hour on the first day of the shutdown, he hasn’t said much about the work. And then he went on Brian Lehrer’s show on Monday. For some reason, something or someone drew his attention to the L train shutdown, and on the WNYC show, he announced plans to tour the tunnel this Thursday with a team of “national experts, international experts,” as he put it, to determine if 15 months is the right amount of time for the work or if the MTA can speed up the plans.
This announcement seemingly caught the MTA by surprise, and as late as Wednesday, the agency still had not announced the operations plan for Cuomo’s visit. We know he’ll be there at or around midnight on Thursday night, and we know the MTA is going to try to single-track L trains through the tunnel for around 90 minutes or so to accommodate the governor’s desire. He hasn’t told anyone which “experts” are coming with him, and it’s not clear how much of an assessment these experts can perform in such a short time period or whether this assessment is really just another infrastructure-related photo op. This thing reeks of a political stunt that it’s hard to know where to begin.
First up is the why. Why is Cuomo doing this and why now? On Brian Lehrer’s show, he told a story about constituents bugging him about the shutdown: “I can’t tell you the number of people in Brooklyn who have looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Are you sure that there is nothing else that can be done and there’s no way you can possibly shorten this?’ I said, ‘I will make sure, personally, that there’s nothing else that can be done, and this is the best option.’”
But then on Tuesday, he made a brief appearance on one of Alan Chartock’s many WAMC shows on Northeast Public Radio out of Albany and had a different story to tell:
And I actually had a gentleman come up to me who said, have you personally gone through it? And I said, no, I didn’t personally go through it, but that’s not what I do. He said, well they told you you couldn’t replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, right? I said, yeah, well that’s right. He said, but you did it anyway, right? I said, yeah you’re right. He said, well, why don’t you go look at these plans and bring the best people to look at the plans just so we know? And that’s that New York logic, right? Cynical, make sure you try everything.
This might be one of those political ticks that doesn’t really matter, but it sure seems as though Cuomo is creating some straw-people to give him cover at this late date. Who knows who planted this seed? Cuomo often acts on his own based on his own impulses whether his advisers suggest he do something or not, and this may just be a situation where he doesn’t want to say that disrupting late-night L train service was his own idea.
Lending further credence to this theory is the timing of it. One and off since the summer, the MTA has halted L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan over the weekend to prep for the Sandy Fix-and-Fortify work. Had Cuomo wanted unfettered access to the Canarsie Tunnels, he could have gathered his groups of experts at any point over the past few months for hours upon hours of access to the tubes without inconvenience a bunch of people just trying to get home or get to work late at night.
And what of these experts? As I noted, Cuomo has been awfully tight-lipped about how these experts are. He offered some additional commentary to Chartock:
We’re assembling a team of outside the box thinkers who have nothing to do with government. They’re just international experts in tunnel construction and electric systems and I’ve asked them to come take a look just so New Yorkers have confidence that every option has been explored. I think if they know that they’ll feel better about the delay because they’ll know it wasn’t capricious, it’s not arbitrary, it’s not incompetence. Everything that can be done has been done and that’ll make me feel better on a personal level if nothing else.
Imagine being the people at the MTA who have slaved over these plans for years, faced with the pressure of reducing the timeline as much as possible, just to Cuomo step in with a bunch of folks at the last minute to second-guess your work for a photo op. Perhaps the MTA hasn’t earned the benefit of this doubt, and heaven knows we can point to countless examples of ineptly managed and delivered MTA construction projects. But the Sandy work has been smooth and on time. There is no reason to think the L train work wouldn’t be, and anyway, the time to consult with experts was years ago and not months before the shutdown starts and after work has begun and contracts awarded. That Cuomo hasn’t even opened this event to press indicates to me as well that his experts are far from expert, but we’ll only find out from the MTA or Governor’s office (or if anyone stakes out either end of the L train tunnels to see who shows up with the governor on Thursday night).
Ultimately, here’s what I think is happening: After two years of lengthy discussions, numerous studies and tons of public meetings, Andrew Cuomo is stopping L train service for some period of time so he can hold a photo op inside a tunnel that’s shutting down in four months. In a few weeks, the MTA will hold a press conference to announce that they’re going to try to finish the L train work in less than 15 months — perhaps, say, 13 months — but can’t make any guarantees. Cuomo, suddenly in charge of the MTA again, will take credit for the good news, and that will be that. It’s a blatant stunt with a clear endgame for no real reason, but make no mistake about it: Yet again, it’s a clear sign that Cuomo is in charge of the MTA, and the MTA will respond to his whim no matter the scope or impact on customers.