Home L Train Shutdown Some thoughts as Cuomo announces the ‘completed’ L train not-a-shutdown project

Some thoughts as Cuomo announces the ‘completed’ L train not-a-shutdown project

by Benjamin Kabak

A glimpse inside the completed L train tunnel. Fiber-reinforced polymers protect the benchwall destroyed by Sandy’s floodwaters. (Photo: Trent Reeves/MTA Construction & Development)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo interrupted the steady drumbeat of bad and depressing news during his daily COVID-19 press conference on Sunday to share what many knew was coming: The MTA’s rehabilitation work on the L train has been completed. Of course, as with many Cuomo-driven MTA projects, completed doesn’t really mean completed, as a whole bunch of finishes and other behind-the-scenes work will trickle to completion throughout the summer, but the work requiring service changes is finished, three months ahead of the schedule developed last year and without a full-time shutdown.

The governor, as is his wont, took a victory lap. “While New Yorkers continue to cope with the devastating impact of COVID-19, the L train project completion is timely proof that when we are confronted with a challenge we can build back better and stronger – especially when we work together and think outside the box,” Governor Cuomo said. “Everyone said we had to shut down the tunnel for 15 to 18 months, which was going to be a massive disruption for thousands of New Yorkers who rely on the L train. We challenged those who said there was no alternative solution and as a result today the MTA is delivering a more resilient tunnel with improved service that is ahead of schedule and under budget – all while averting a shutdown.”

Ultimately, according to Cuomo, the MTA saved around $100 million on the L train project from the initial $926 million budgeted for the full shutdown. The MTA however has never released a full accounting so it’s not clear how those savings came about or whether a project of this scope would have cost less if initially planned this way. Still, the L train shutdown work is an MTA success story albeit with a few caveats I’ll get to shortly. The MTA, at the direction and control of the governor, successfully executed on a new-to-them approach to reconstructing and re-wiring a tunnel. There were a few hiccups along the way as delayed work train movement torpedoed a few rush hour commutes, but the technical aspects of the work, meticulously documented in the L Project weekly newsletter largely went off as planned. The MTA was forced to think out of the box, and they did.

The laundry list of new technologies is one we all grew intimately familiar with in early 2019 — fiber-reinforced polymer to protect the damaged benchwall, cable racks, fiber optic monitoring systems — and included some new ones along the way such as a third rail repurposed into a fourth rail for negative power returns. And the remaining work is hardly of the nature of the Second Ave. Subway when the fire monitoring systems weren’t ready for opening day. The agency has to finish the elevators in Manhattan and some new entrances and the fan plant on the Brooklyn side of the Canarsie Tunnel. All told, this remaining work should wrap by the fall.

Cable racks, rather than a benchwall reconstruction, helped avoid a full-time shutdown of the Canarsie Tunnel. (Photo: Trent Reeves/MTA Construction & Development)

But in addition to the loose ends inside the tunnels, the same questions transit watchers had in early 2019 as the shutdown morphed into the not-a-shutdown loom, and it’s worth thinking about them again as the project recedes into the past. They’re all a part of the twisted legacy of the L train work whether the Governor wishes to acknowledge them or not.

How long will this work last?

This is of course the question that has hovered over the L train work since The Times published Carmen Bianco’s op-ed. The MTA anticipated that a full benchwall rebuild would last another 100 years while experts claimed the MTA’s new approach would have a life cycle of around 40 years. Plus, if the fiber reinforced polymers fail, the agency will have to clear out the tunnel. Right now, we just don’t know how long this work will last, and anyone in charge today will be long gone when we find out.

Andy Byford and the safety assessment

When Cuomo first stepped in, the L train project was under the purview of Andy Byford and New York City Transit, and the last-minute change in scope and approach was the spark that lit the kindling. The former NYCT President wanted to hire an independent company to conduct a safety assessment to validate the untested plan put forward by Cuomo and his team of engineers. Cuomo did not want to do that, and so the MTA moved the L train work from under Byford’s control to Janno Lieber’s at MTA Capital Construction. The safety assessment — proposed to ensure that the new approach would be safe for workers and riders — never materialized, and the relationship between Cuomo and Byford deteriorated from there. Ultimately, Byford was right to request the safety assessment, and we’re worse off without both that report and Andy Byford.

What future the 14th St. Busway?

Along with the L train shutdown came the 14th St. busway. Slowed, of course, by the protestations of West Village NIMBYs, the bus was an immediate success story during its first few months of service. But along with the pandemic came a huge slowdown in both transit usage and traffic in Manhattan, and the future of the 14th St. busway pilot is in doubt. Sam Schwartz Engineering was supposed to release regular updates, but the team’s winter quarterly report hasn’t been made public yet. It seems likely that the spring report won’t have meaningful data, and the remaining 11 months of the pilot are clouded by the unknown length of the impact of the coronovirus pandemic. Will the city and MTA commit to the 14th St. Busway? Can it still serve as a model for other busways throughout the city? It should, and I hope so. But a lot of the data necessary to bolster the argument will be at best incomplete for the foreseeable future.

The L train project re-think ultimately carried with it a high price, both in dollars and personnel. It drove a permanent wedge between the governor’s office and the man trusted by the public to fix the subways. It threw years of planning and city-state coordination into doubt. It deepened the MTA’s credibility crisis. But the work seems to have been a guarded success. When pushed, the MTA can execute creatively and efficiently. Now if only the agency would do this without such an aggravating and costly push.

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8 comments

marvin gruza April 27, 2020 - 12:25 pm

a 40 yeqr life is not bad – half of us will be dead by the time it needs to be replaced

by then:
*there will be new technology
*new transportation needs
maybe a 100 year life and the related costs are not cost effective especially when you factor in future uncertanties

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Jeremiah Clemente April 30, 2020 - 9:15 am

At this point, it is high time to start replacing the outdated service pattern of the Jamaica Line with one to better serve riders of the present day. One of the proposals I see is rerouting the B and D trains over the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn, with the B replacing M service to Metropolitan Avenue and the D replacing J service to Broadway Junction, all in conjunction with SAS Phase 3. This would allow for 24 trains per hour going to Midtown, which is much more you’d be working with compared to the original plan for the L (14 M trains would’ve been needed for Midtown service). B service would operate at all times.

My plan calls for something similar, which is to reroute E train service to Broadway Junction via a new connection along Broome Street from Spring Street to Bowery. K trains would replace C trains on the 8th Avenue Local tracks (the C would be routed to the express tracks), and would also replace M service to Metropolitan Avenue. This also gives 24 trains to midtown, compared to the planned 14 trains.

In the long term, the elevated should be replaced with a new subway trunk line combining both the 8th and 6th Avenue services (B, D, E, and K) to provide future capacity for service changes. The total number of trains to midtown: 48.

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Michael549 April 30, 2020 - 11:44 am

I am a long time subway fan, from before the days that the Transit Exhibit opened. I have participated in a number of transit fan forums, and on those forums plenty of folks have over the decades come up with various proposals and ideas. Often times, the phrase, “Why don’t we . . . ” – which often leads to arguments and debates when ever someone suggests that transit routes be changed “according to their plan” – or “it would be a good idea if . . . ” – Plenty of time without ever expressing what goals or accomplishments that they wish to achieve. So let’s go through your ideas – staying safe at home means that we have plenty of time to entertained.

In your message you call the Jamaica Line Service Plan – “out-dated” – and propose to change it to something else. You refer to the J and M train lines which distribute their Brooklyn and Queens riders to both midtown and downtown Manhattan either by a direct route or transfers to other lines. I believe that the MTA will return to prior service levels and practices after the “stay safe at home” measures have ended. The current M-train established in 2010 was a combined creation of the then V-train and the then brown M-train due to 2010-era budget cuts. Prior to that change the tunnel connection that the current M-train uses to reach the Manhattan Sixth Avenue line (for the former K / KK line) had not been used for 30 years. Yes, ridership of the “new M-train” did increase ridership on that segment, but the need for travel to downtown Manhattan has not abated.

Your proposal would eliminate the current J and M trains, and replace them by re-routing the B and D trains over the Sixth Avenue line. One way of looking at your ideas – is to check if it can be accomplished “by the tracks” – and your idea can not. Simple observation and a review of the track maps would show that the B and D train use the Sixth Avenue express tracks, and the F and M use the local tracks. Switching trains between the express and local tracks would cause massive train congestion issues. Nor could the local tracks accommodate the combined load of B, D and F trains. In addition, this proposal does not state what train services would accommodate the many plenty of B and D train riders both to/from Brooklyn that use Sixth Avenue to reach their destinations, or the service needs. There was a very good reason why the D-train was moved to Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn – the riders demanded 24/7/365 service between their destinations.

Since the mid-1950’s the basic idea for the Sixth Avenue line was to route trains from the Bronx, Upper-Manhattan, Queens and various parts of Brooklyn direct to Rockefeller Center and the mid-town office towers being constructed along Sixth Avenue. In this scheme B and D trains from Upper-Manhattan and the Bronx was connected to the Manhattan Bridge to provide service to Coney Island by the Fourth Avenue and Brighton Beach train lines. The F-train would provide service to Queens from the heavily traveled Queens Blvd line, as well as service Coney Island via the Smith Street and McDonald Avenue transit lines. Then the K or KK service would provide to the Williamsburg and Jamaic lines, as well as transfers to/from Metropolitan Avenue, Queens and Canarsie, Brooklyn- this line was eliminated in the mid-1970’s fiscal crisis – “mostly” restored as the current M-train in 2010. The V-train was created in 2000 to provide direct Queens Blvd local service to Sixth Avenue, and allow the F-train to use the 63rd Street Tunnel – enhancing travel options to and from Queens. My basic point is that there is and was an established plan for Sixth Avenue train service that also buttressed plans for city development above ground. It was not simply “moving trains around on a chess board.”

In addition to moving the B and D trains to the Jamaica Line in your proposal, you plan to move the E-train line to service Broadway Junction “via a new connection along Broome Street from Spring Street. Your message does not give a reason why additional E train service is needed to Broadway Junction, Brooklyn, a place that is well served by current A, C, J and L trains. Nor does your proposal provide much information on the “new K” that you say would replace C trains, which you would place on the express tracks of I guess Eighth Avenue – which might affect A and D trains that use those express tracks. Then on top of that you propose that “the elevated line (I believe the Jamaica line) should be replaced by a new subway trunk line combining both the 8th and 6th Avenue services (B, D, E and K) to increase service to midtown.”

There is no reflection of the dismal NYC history of “replacing elevated lines with subway lines.” There is no reflection of the huge, huge costs of building new subway lines – especially on a transit forum where the discussion of the “costs of things” is a major long time topic. There is no reflection that the Second Avenue Subway Phase 3 is easily decades away – without any attached funding sources. There is no consideration of the riders that these changes would impact on well established travel routes. There is no consideration of the differences among the train types as to just why B, D and E trains can use 75-foot cars – but J, L and M trains can only use 60-foot cars. Nor is there any explanation as why to the Jamaica Line needs 48 trains per hour to midtown at the expense of riders elsewhere in the Brooklyn, or the city at large.

I am very much tempted to ask if you “have been drinking the Kool-Aid, sniffing the Lysol, or injecting the bleach” – but I won’t, – I will however say that your proposal has been “entertaining.”

Michael549

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Michael549 April 27, 2020 - 4:35 pm

I really wish to put the completion of the major work in repairing the L-train Tunnel in the “win column” for the general every day subway riders. Will there be future arguments and debates among the transit fans about various aspects of this endeavor? Of course there will be. A major public works projects was completed ahead of schedule, under budget and brings an immediate benefit to the everyday rider of a highly used subway line.

As my 85-year old mother put it the other day – Mike – “You burnt the chicken, wrecked the rice and over-cooked the vegetables, and your iced-tea needs more sugar! So are there any left-overs?”

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Larry Penner April 27, 2020 - 10:27 pm

Congratulations to the MTA and NYC Transit for completion of the Canarsie L train subway tunnel project. But why has the MTA been unsuccessful for four years in applying for two old Federal Transit Administration discretionary funded project allocations that would also improve the Canarsie line? On February 3rd, 2020 the FTA published Federal Notice of Available Funding for Federal Fiscal Year 2020. This included the availability of carryover earmark allocations from 2016. They are New York Canarsie Power Improvements $3,200,271 and New York Canarsie Power Improvement Program Expedited Project Delivery Pilot Program for $13,121,114. Details may be found under Table 16 – Prior Years Unobligated Section 5309 Fixed Guideway Capital Investment Grants (CIG) Allocations.

MTA should have previously developed and submitted grant applications to apply for these funds totaling $15,321,385. Four years later, work should have already been completed. Why has MTA been unsuccessful in having these funds obligated under approved grants? These funds will eventually lapse and be lost to MTA. They end up returned to the federal treasury and may be reprogrammed for another purpose.

When will MTA be successful in applying for and having these funds obligated under approved grants? What is the recovery schedule for completion of these long overdue projects? How many more years must taxpayers, commuters and NYC Transit employees have to wait before seeing the benefits from completion of these other federally funded Canarsie Line improvements?

(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review and approval of billions in grants to the MTA which funded capital bus, subway and commuter rail improvement projects and programs.)

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John April 28, 2020 - 1:35 am

Apparently the Rutgers tunnel carrying F trains will get a similar rehab as the 14th Street tunnel, which will create a long-term contrast and compare on how well repairs hold up between those two East River tunnels and the others impacted by Sandy and rehabbed under the older methods (though people aren’t likely to see any differences, barring another big flood event, until 2050 at the earliest).

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Jeremiah Clemente April 30, 2020 - 9:20 am

The thing is that the Rutgers Tunnel suffered less damage than the others, due to the fact that it was one of the first to be drained. So it doesn’t appear that the cables need to be replaced. What could happen is the replacement of the drainage system, installation of new doors, etc, but we will see.

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Spendmor Wastemor April 30, 2020 - 9:53 pm

Looking at the second photo of the fantastic fast-fixed tunnel, where’s the walkway? That’s a long tunnel, if there’s a major fire you want a trainload of to walk/trot away from it to the nearest exit. Getting a trainload of people out with just ONE single-file sidewalk (today’s people are fat) will take at least twice as long as using both sides. How was the safety review for that bypassed?

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