About mid-way through hour three of Tuesday’s interminable MTA Board venting session on the L Train Shutdown Shutdown, it started to dawn on a few astute members of the board that they were in essence being iced out of the decision-making process. They weren’t in the room to start an informed dialogue and evaluate different approaches to the necessary repair work on the L train tunnel; they were in the room to serve as foil as a bunch of MTA and contractor executives laid out the argument for a decision that had been made for them. No matter what the MTA Board said they wanted to do, the MTA was going to listen to orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and cancel the full shutdown in favor of the new plan.
The conversation began when Neal Zuckerman and later Polly Trottenberg started pulling on the threads of the MTA press release that trumpeted, in past tense, how the agency had “averted the shutdown” and the fact that signs touting the cancellation of the shutdown had appeared in L train stations. If the MTA Board still had to chime in, Zuckerman and Trottenberg wondered, why was MTA management treating this as a done deal? The exchange between Trottenberg and Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer was a fascinating one, captured by Gothamist in its liveblog, and it’s well worth replicating here:
TROTTENBERG: As the MTA has gone off and put up signs that said L train shutdown averted, the board has had no vote on changing the contract or any of the terms here. Is the decision made? Do we have any actual role here? I’m not hearing that we do?
FERRER: I can address that commissioner. See there isn’t a change in a contract before us because there is no actual change to a contract at this point. Once there is, I am happy to have that brought before the board if I am still acting chairman. That’s my job, that’s my responsibility to consider it. If we have to consider an amendment to a contract or any other action, at the appropriate moment that will be brought before us and we’ll vote yes or no and abstain.
TROTTENBERG: So you’re saying we could vote no. What would that mean? The L train shutdown isn’t averted.
FERRER: You vote whichever way you like. I’ve never suggested how you should vote.
TROTTENBERG: You think in the end it will be the board’s decision?
FERRER: That’s what I’m saying.
TROTTENBERG: Maybe it’s premature to announce it before the board has made a decision, isn’t it?
FERRER: Decision on what? You’re asking about a contract. Stop, stop. Let’s not conflate these things. You’re asking about board action relating to a change in a contract. If there is any other service change than we will deal with that at the appropriate moment.
TROTTENBERG: But will those service changes be subject to the review of the board?
FERRER: [Frustrated sigh]
VERONIQUE HAKIM: Contracts come to the board based on our procurement guidelines. Change orders at certain levels come to the board. Service changes I think the term in the board approved service guidelines is “major service changes” also comes to the board.
TROTTENBERG: This seems like this is a major service changes. If we’re making major changes to the contact in terms of scope, in terms of price tag, in terms of liability, those are things that come to the board. I’m not saying we wouldn’t be in favor of all of this, I’m just confused: Does this plan need approval by the board or not? I am confused about it.
FERRER: The purpose for this meeting was to share information. Once there is a change, a plan, it becomes before the board again. We’re not going away.
TROTTEBERG: So if the signs says shutdown averted, it should have a footnote that says “subject to board approval”?
At this point, Ferrer answered but with his microphone off, and when asked about his unheard comments following the meeting, he grew testy and reiterated what he said to Trottenberg during the exchange. At no point did he address her concerns, or Zuckerman’s before her, about how the MTA was messaging a done deal before an independent engineering assessment or Board vote. On Tuesday night, the MTA all but confirmed this outcome in a statement emailed to reporters.
MTA going forward with the L slowdown after acting chair Freddy Ferrer told members they can vote if they need to change the contract pic.twitter.com/OpaQpaf8bp
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) January 16, 2019
So is that it then for the L train shutdown? The statement from the MTA sure makes it sound like this was a decision made a few weeks ago when Gov. Cuomo held his press conference. MTA Board members haven’t yet voiced their views on tonight’s development, and the full Board is scheduled to meet next Tuesday in what is now a can’t-miss session for MTA watchers. To borrow a football image, though, the MTA is sprinting downfield at their opponent’s 15-yard line with no defenders in sight.
Concurrently, the other person who was about to throw up some roadblocks on the way to changing the L train plans has been sidelined too. As part of the meeting today, the MTA essentially moved this project out from Andy Byford’s purview. He will, as Ferrer said, be in charge of running the largest rail network in North America but will not have day-to-day oversight of the L train work as this project now belongs to MTA Capital Construction. Byford had spent last week trying to put the brakes on a headlong rush into something new by, among other things, calling for a truly independent assessment of the plan, a call echoed Tuesday by MTA Board Members before the MTA’s statement landed in inboxes a few hours later. (Dan Rivoli had much more on Byford’s role.)
If that’s it for the MTA Board’s role in this project, it’s an ignoble end and one that effectively neuters the Board. What’s the point of an oversight body that can be so thoroughly circumvented? Following the meeting, Nicole Gelinas wrote a column questioning Cuomo’s approach to the L train, and she hit upon this issue tangentially in concluding that the governor, via his meddling, “created a problem that did not exist.” Now, he or his MTA executives are pulling harder on that thread, trying to unravel the entire oversight structure. The MTA Board will be reduced to voting on contract changes and service patterns when and if those arrive, but as with the budget votes, they’ll have no real choice. It’s not yet clear why or what the ramifications are yet, but I’m sure we’ll find out in due time.
An Overview of the Meeting
With the behind-the-scenes machinations out of the way, let me do a quick run-down of today’s meetings. You can check out my Twitter threads that begin here and here for some running commentary. Unfortunately, the slides aren’t online, and they do add some context considering The Times report on Tuesday morning that the MTA had considered and rejected a similar plan in the past. WSP officials insisted the new plan was sufficiently different due to the cable racks and monitoring systems, and they spent the meeting claiming that they can mitigate the impact of silica dust in a way that won’t interfere with restoring rush hour service. I’ve highlighted two key points:
“It would have been advantageous to completely rip out the duct bank and replace it,” WSP engineer Michael Abraham admits.
— Danielle Furfaro (@DanielleFurfaro) January 15, 2019
The polymer coating on the crumbling bench wall will be a quarter to half-inch thick.
"That's not very much," MTA board member Norm Brown, a machinist, says.
WSP's Mike Abrahams says the polymer is flammable:
“It will melt and it will give off fumes.”
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) January 15, 2019
We do not know when the work will begin, how long it will take, what mitigation plans will be in place or how much it will cost, but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show? If you’ve walked away from this week believing the fix is in, you’d be right to think so. It’s still, as I keep saying, not clear why, but the fix is in.