Archive for L Train Shutdown

The comprehensive L train mitigation plans shown here were shelved when Gov. Cuomo canceled the shutdown. (Click to enlarge)

Since the MTA officially canceled the L train shutdown and Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrapped up his MTA powerplay last month, all has been quiet on the Canarsie front. Various advocacy groups have been jockeying for the city to commit to maintaining robust people-first travel options and a true dedicated busway along 14th St., but with politicians wavering and silence from the Mayor’s Office, we’ve seen more rallies but little concrete action.

The silence buckled a bit last week when MTA officials briefed reporters and local politicians on their mitigation plans for the L train’s upcoming not-quite-a-shutdown shutdown. Though the 14th St. busway remains a decision under NYC DOT’s purview, the MTA will still roll out Select Bus Service along the busy and painfully slow M14 corridor, but the rest of the mitigation plan involves beefing up nearby subway service and hoping for the best. The agency clearly believes that most L train riders who do not opt for taxis of various shades and apps will complete their trips via subway, and if the proposed mitigation isn’t sufficient, well, the L train shutdown plans are only just mothballed.

If not a full-blown, car-restrictive mitigation plan, what then is the MTA going to implement? So glad you asked.

We’ll start with the L train service plan. On weeknights from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. and throughout the weekend during the work, L trains will run between Brooklyn and Manhattan every 20 minutes. This does not, however, mean full L train service the rest of the day as the MTA has to “ramp down” L trains beginning at 8 p.m. on weeknights. The ramp down, as I understand it, is to allow work trains to move into position to maximize the seven-hour construction window. But even occasion service delays at that hour will be impactful. As regular L train riders know, the L train is far from empty at 10 p.m., let alone 8 p.m., and this service slowdown will inevitably disrupt nightlife along the L train, a big part of the NYC economy whether hipster-hating New Yorkers want to admit it or not.

On the Brooklyn side of the tunnel, L trains will run from Lorimer St. to Canarsie every 10 minutes until 1:30 a.m. until reverting to the current 20-minute overnight headways. Essentially, the MTA will run every other Lorimer-bound L train past Lorimer St. into Manhattan, and the other half will turn around at Lorimer and head east again.

To provide pick up the load, the agency plans to run five additional G trains on weeknights between 8:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. in both directions. G trains though will not be lengthened as initially promised under the original mitigation plan. Rather, Transit officials believe shorter trains with more frequent headways can better move more people. On weekends, the G will run every eight minutes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 8 p.m. on Sundays instead of every ten.

Similarly, M trains will run into Manhattan, terminating at 96th St. and 2nd Ave. (instead of Queens Boulevard) from 10 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., and M trains will operate with eight-minute headways running to the Upper East Side on weekends as well. Transit officials insist that this M train rerouting will not reduce service on the Queens Boulevard line, but it’s not quite clear to me how that’s the case.

Some other perks include five additional 7 trains between 8:30 p.m. and midnight and more frequent 7 train service on the weekends. The MTA will also institute free out-of-system transfers between the 3 and L at Junius/Livonia and between the G and J/M in the Broadway/Hewes/Lorimer area. Additionally, the MTA will institute bus loops on the Brooklyn side, providing weeknight service every three minutes from Bedford to Metropolitan to Broadway and from Hewes to Marcy to Metropolitan. Weekend frequency for these bus loops remain under review.

On the Manhattan side, things get a bit dicier as the MTA plans to run M14 buses every three minutes up and down 14th St. Without a commitment by the city to the busway though, it’s very easy to see how this plan falls apart instantly as significant bus traffic fights for limited street space with the private automobiles that already choke 14th St. in congestion. Without enforced, dedicated lanes, this bus plan will fail, and anyone who is able to will find walking across Manhattan faster.

Finally, the wild card in all of this planning is station metering — or the practice of limiting access to station platforms during periods of extreme crowding. Metering first became part of the public discussion when early drafts of this mitigation plan leaked to Streetsblog and Gothamist in late January. Although the MTA denied that these plans were ripe for public review, what the agency presented last week essentially mirrors those earlier leaks, and crowd control was a big concern.

Could the MTA, then, implement exit-only restrictions at certain Manhattan L train stations or station metering in which platforms are closed and passengers have to queue up in station mezzanines or at street level? In a statement on crowd control and station metering, Maxwell Young, the MTA’s new chief external affairs officer, downplayed this outcome. “We’re still evaluating the best options to deal with crowding, which we anticipate to be especially high only on only a couple of hours during the weekends,” he said. “We will be working with our partners at the NYPD and the DOT to put in place a plan to make sure everyone stays safe. Making stations exit only is not our preferred solution.”

There’s an element of “hold your breath and hope for the best” in this plan, and the pain points are quite clear. The uncertain fate of the 14th St. looms large, and the cancellation of HOV3+ restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge could lead to an Uber-pocalypse during weekends as Brooklyn-bound riders get fed up with roundabout alternate routes, long waits and extremely crowded trains. But as I said, the city and MTA both have the plans for more expansive mitigation plans at the ready should traffic and transit service grind to a halt when the L train work begins in earnest.

The key here is what we’ve lost. Where once we had certainty, the MTA doesn’t yet know how long this new approach to the Canarsie Tunnel work will take or how many weekends the city will be stuck with 20-minute L train headways. Furthermore, we’re losing an opportunity to watch a new approach to work unfold before our eyes. The L train was to be a model for Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, a way to shut down train lines, provide alternate service options and blitz the line with modernization work. But when push came to shove (or when a mystery many grabbed him by the lapels), Cuomo turned away from this new model. Maintaining service should be the goal of any transit operator, but in this case, maintaining — and, more importantly, improving — service might have required a temporary outage. Instead, we get a Band-Aid and a leaky one, at that.

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Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The MTA will move forward with the new plans for the L train tunnel without putting the matter to a Board vote. (Source: PDF).

The bizarre and tiresome saga of the L train shutdown shutdown seemingly came to a conclusion Thursday as the MTA officially called off the shutdown in one of the strangest press release I’ve seen the agency issue in nearly 13 years of running this site. The move, rumored to be on direct orders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, completes an end-run around both the MTA Board and Andy Byford that had been strongly suggested during Tuesday’s meeting and effectively neuters the MTA Board. The new project is less safe and less comprehensive than a full shutdown but doesn’t carry the headaches that would have accompanied closing the L train for 15 months. It is now, for better or worse, firmly Andrew Cuomo’s move to own.

The press release is written as an “MTA update to L train riders” and isn’t available on the agency’s website. You can read it here on the state’s website in all of its informal glory. It starts out with a strangely familiar “as you know” and goes from there to stress that the shutdown “will not be necessary.” Here are the newsworthy bits:

This project is a major priority for the MTA and reconstruction will be supervised by MTA Capital Construction and overseen by MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim. The MTA will also hire an independent consultant to oversee safety operations that will report directly to the Board.

The MTA is now working with the various contractors on a new final construction schedule and contracts which delete some elements of the initial construction plan and add the new design alternatives. We do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase, and given the tremendous benefits to the riding public, reduction in the volume of traffic and savings from the traffic mitigation efforts, it is a clear positive alternative and in the public interest.

We expect the formulation of the final construction schedule and contract completions to take several weeks. The current construction estimate is 15 to 20 months. As soon as we have more definitive information we will provide it to our customers and the public.

A few days ago, Byford and the Board had requested the ability to hire an independent engineer to assess the new plan for its pluses and minuses before the MTA was to go forward. This press release clearly shifts the conversation as it is clear the agency is going forward, and the Board’s oversight role is diminished as the MTA — and not the Board — will hire “an independent consultant to oversee safety operations.” This isn’t an independent assessment of the plan but rather a safety oversight position. This move is not what Byford or the Board wanted, and it’s a clear sign that someone high up in Albany did not want this plan subject to the scrutiny it should receive.

Next, note that the MTA says “we” — whoever “we” is supposed to be here — “do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase.” This is significant as it’s how the Board is removed from the equation. If the costs are to increase, the Board must approve a modification to the contract. If the costs are to remain the same (or decrease, as may be the case here), the MTA can execute a change order to its contract with WSP and avoid any Board oversight of the new plan. This is how Cuomo is apparently legally removing the Board from the equation.

I’ve reached out to some MTA Board members for comment and have not yet received a reply. The full Board is scheduled to meet for its regularly monthly sessions next week, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see how they respond to this maneuver.

So we do not know the plan for mitigation; we do not know when the new work will start; we do not know how long it will; we do not know how the MTA and its contractors will manage silica dust or if the cable casings will be up to par for use in the L train’s tunnel. We do know that consultant on Tuesday said, “It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them.”

The Post has a good rundown of some behind-the-scenes goings-on related to this L train move. One source they refer to as an “MTA insider” had harsh words: “Cuomo is saying he knows more about the technology stuff than the technology experts on the MTA board. “It’s just a demonstration of who runs the show. This is Cuomo being completely dominant over the MTA…We’re starting out marginally less safe. And that’s not a good place to start.”

Meanwhile, I’m still left wondering why Cuomo is doing this while also pushing for MTA reform. His call for reform involves more say and sway over the Board, but he’s demonstrated this week that he can simply dismiss the concerns of the Board if he wants something. Was this an intentional move to highlight how the Board is ultimately a figurehead? Or was this an example of Cuomo being Cuomo and one of those situations where he decided the way forward and heaven help anyone who tries to slow him down? We don’t yet know, but the L train shutdown is off, and the MTA Board isn’t getting a say in the matter after all.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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WSP presented its new plans for the L train work during a special session of the MTA Board on Tuesday. The MTA later said it planned to move ahead with this work despite no Board approval yet.

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.

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:

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.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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Andrew Cuomo, seen here in charge of the MTA, has required an emergency Board Meeting to review his L train plans.

Never one to accept not getting his way, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this weekend arm-twisted the MTA into holding an “emergency” Board meeting on his L train plan. Despite the fact that there is no real emergency and despite the fact that the MTA told its Board members of the meeting just 30 minutes before sending out a press release, Cuomo just had to exert the control he holds over the MTA to get what he wants. Now, in the face of a press growing more skeptical of his plan by the day and while trying once again to cast doubt on his firm control over the MTA, the transit agency’s governing body will meet on Tuesday to be briefed by the engineering firm WSP on the proposal. The MTA Board will not vote yet on the plan and may opt to hire an outside consultant to fully vet the plan, but Cuomo gets his way on the MTA yet again with an “emergency” meeting so Board members can sit there and listen.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo forced the MTA to cancel the L train shutdown via a PowerPoint promising a better plan, he seemed to want to be seen as the savior of Brooklyn, the one to ride to the rescue of a beleaguered city facing a true transit crisis. At first, with the tabloids showering him with kudos, his team even took a victory lap before the good press evaporated.

It may still wind up that Cuomo’s plan carries the day, but over the past week, the narrative has shifted considerably. I wrote last week about the crisis of credibility engulfing everyone involved in the mess that has become the post-Sandy L train work, and since then, questions have been asked and doubts raised. Former MTA officials have been vocal in their critiques, and one-time NYC Transit head Carmen Bianco penned an Op-Ed for The Times urging Cuomo to slow down to ensure long-term safety isn’t sacrificed. “As the former president of New York City Transit,” he wrote, “and someone who witnessed firsthand the level of destruction and its impact on subway infrastructure as a result of Superstorm Sandy, I am concerned that the decision to change course on the Canarsie Tunnel project is premature and uninformed. This new plan has not been fully evaluated in terms of costs, available M.T.A. resources and, most important, safety.”

Bianco comes from the Transportation Industrial Complex Cuomo has railed on of late, but as Cuomo’s new L train proposal is being prepared by the same company that prepared the shutdown plans, I’m not sure how we can take seriously Cuomo’s attempts at defining and attacking this complex. But back to Bianco: He has no stake in the matter other than reputational. He retired from Transit three and a half years ago and currently works as a solo safety consultant. Does that leave him more credible or less? I’ll leave that up to you, but he’s not the only one urging careful consideration of the plan. NYC Transit President Andy Byford, toeing that line between heeding Cuomo, his boss, and advocating for the MTA, stated various to Community Boards and Brian Lehrer that he will not go forward with Cuomo’s plan until it has been vetted by an outside consultant. Questions remain regarding the impact of silica dust on the new plan and whether the feds will approve the new plan.

But the board meeting must go on, and Cuomo must show his actions carry the day by having the MTA Board, which has never yet turned down the governor who controls the MTA, meet, and so they shall meet. Not content with forcing a meeting Board members and MTA officials thought unnecessary and premature, Cuomo has reengaged on his years’-long disinformation campaign regarding MTA control. Simply put, he keeps lying about MTA control. As you, dear reader, know, the governor — in this case, Andrew M. Cuomo — is in charge of the MTA. He directly appoints six of 14 Board members but is also responsible for approving the recommendations of those county and city officials who name the other eight. In fact, he held up Ydanis Rodriguez’s attempted appointment a few years ago over concerns of conflicts of interest (prior, of course, to appointing Joe Lhota and his multiple jobs to the top spot at the agency). The governor also names every top official at the agency and often steps in on lower level hires. He is very much legally and apparently in control of the MTA.

Still, while pushing the L train issue, he’s also dug in again on the idea that he wants more control, and it is this type of reform that worried me last week. This started up against last week on the Brian Lehrer Show when Cuomo called in and said….this:

On the top of the list on the city agenda is going to be the MTA. This is madness. The MTA was created in the ’60s. It was designed to make sure no public official had control or accountability because it sets fares and no politician wanted to be near setting fares. So it was this convoluted – you have a board, I have six votes but it’s a 17 member board but the Speaker has a unilateral veto but the Senate leader has a unilateral veto but the Mayor has a unilateral veto. It is just a dysfunctional organization, and that has to change.

It took me a while to decipher this word salad, but Cuomo is effectively conflating two distinct bodies here. There is the 17-member MTA Board that oversees the agency and a separate four-member Capital Program Review Board that nominally signs off on the MTA’s multi-billion-dollar capital plan every five years and does little beyond that. The CPRB has no bearing on the day-to-day operations of the MTA which the governor controls, but he’s trying to confuse the issue.

Meanwhile, shortly after forcing the emergency MTA Board meeting this weekend, Cuomo, via his budget director, issued a lengthy press release presaging the MTA reform the governor is expected to push in Tuesday’s State of the State address. Much of Mujica’s statement falls back on the same obfuscation tactics Cuomo has been using, but it’s true intent is in a few paragraphs:

The Governor proposes congestion pricing and New York City and New York State split any funding shortfall 50/50. As the Daily News pointed out today, the City owns the transit assets and “is responsible for all capital spending.” An even split is more than generous. It is also what the State Legislature passed last year to fund the Subway Action Plan…

As the Governor has said, and repeats this legislative session, if the Legislature gives the Governor authority, he would accept the responsibility. But he would only take responsibility with authority. Basic executive authority would be a majority of the Board appointees, no independent unilateral vetoes of the budget by other elected officials, and hiring/firing and organizational authority. Nothing could be more reasonable, and no credible executive would require less.

No other Governor or Mayor has ever been willing to accept responsibility. History shows most work to deny connection with the MTA altogether. The Governor will step up, even if not politically in his own best interest…In short, the Legislature should pass congestion pricing and require the City and State to split any funding shortfall and also give the Governor operational responsibility.

It’s dangerous and foolhardy to tie congestion pricing in with MTA reform because if the latter fails and drags down the former, the entire region will be facing a crisis of mobility. It’s disingenuous to call for full control over every facet of the MTA when one already has that control while also claiming the city should pay for half of any funding shortfall. The governor wants even more power so he doesn’t have to face checks on his ability to set the agenda (which he barely does anyone) while twisting even more dollars out of the city which will have no say or ability in ensuring these dollars are spent on city, rather than suburban, projects. It’s a scam, not a reform effort.

I’ll come back to Mujica’s statement later and especially his claim that the MTA doesn’t pass its own budget. This is again an attempt to create confusion around the two MTA budgets — capital vs. operating — and how they work to complement each other. Until Andrew Cuomo attempted to shirk on his duties to the MTA, no credible executive of the state ever to argue his way out of MTA control and none have distorted history and legislative meaning as much as Cuomo as his team. He is in charge; the MTA is his; and everything about the L train shutdown just serves to underscore this reality. One person is in charge of this mess the MTA is in; one person has presided over the decline of the transit system. That person is Andrew Cuomo through and through.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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Gov. Cuomo sits with interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer and deans from Columbia and Cornell during last week’s L train announcement.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo held an impromptu press conference on Thursday essentially canceling the L train shutdown and torpedoing years of advance planning in the process, he thrust his MTA and his administration headlong into a credibility crisis. It certainly wasn’t Cuomo’s intention to do that; he clearly wanted to be seen as the governor-slash-hero whose attention to infrastructure innovation cast him as the savior to New Yorkers gearing up for 15 months of transit headaches. But through the way he handled the announcement and his comments afterwards, the fact that his plan is currently just a set of bullet points, and the way he didn’t involve the MTA or public in his decision, he has created a situation where neither he nor the MTA can be trusted, and it’s going to take years for anyone involved in this to recover public trust.

The MTA’s credibility crisis has been decades in the making, self-imposed by an agency that can’t even do something as simple as rebuild a staircase on time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the MTA started losing the public trust since many would argue the agency had never earned that trust to begin with. The charge that the MTA kept “two sets of books” was one that lingered for years, even after it was debunked in court, and the agency’s inability to finish any project, whether a basic station rehabilitation or a massive capital project, on time or on budget has long been a public punch line. East Side Access, after all, was once supposed to cost $3.5 billion and be open by now, and that’s just one example among hundreds.

Lately, as the MTA has struggled to deliver on basic technological enhancements, the wheel-spinning has turned into the agency’s dirty laundry, aired publicly. The MTA has talked about the Metrocard replacement project for so long that no one really believes the upgrades are underway, for instance, and the current jury-rigged countdown clocks (also imposed by Andrew Cuomo) are a daily reminder that people don’t trust the MTA. On Friday, while heading from Midtown, I checked the MTA’s app at 9:39, and it told me a D train would be arriving at 9:42. At 9:42, that train was scheduled for 9:44; at 9:44, 9:46; at 9:46, 9:49. It arrived at 9:48, a time not once projected by the app. The MTA blamed a work train, but this is far from an isolated incident. On a daily basis, riders report countdown clocks that aren’t right and arrival times that come and go with no sign of a train. If the MTA can’t get this standard transit technology right and can’t provide reliable arrival times to the public, what can they New Yorkers trust them with?

Politically, before his departure, Joe Lhota earned headlines and the ire of good governance groups for his perceived conflicts of interest as he held multiple jobs at once, casting doubt on his ability to be a partial and fair leader for the MTA. Could New Yorkers always trust that Lhota had their interest and the MTA’s interests in mind if he was also serving as head of a hospital and on the board of Madison Square Garden? Transportation is such an ingrained part of every NYC life, after all.

The L train, and Cuomo’s machinations, is now a direct challenge to any public trust in the agency. For three years, the MTA has engaged in numerous public meetings, rehashing over and over again the need to shut down the 14th St. tunnel in order to rebuild the bench wall, reconstruct the track bed and replace ties and the third rail. A tunnel shutdown was the only way to accomplish the scope of the work the MTA said they had to achieve, and the choices were either a full shutdown for 15 months or a partial tube-by-tube shutdown that would have lasted closer to three years.

Until last week, no one had ever suggested that the MTA could simply let the bench wall be while installing cables elsewhere and doing the minimum to shore up the tunnel without closing it down. When Cuomo did it, he cast doubt on the MTA’s ability to assess projects holistically and consider all viable alternatives, including new ones. Since the announcement, the MTA deleted the special section devoted to the L train shutdown from its website. Even before the MTA Board, which must approve the new project, holds a meeting to do so, the MTA is trying to erase this history and three years worth of planning. To many in New York, this original lack of creativity and ex post whitewashing attempt is indicative of the MTA’s inability to see beyond what consultants tell them or what their management determines. If they can’t present all options — if they can’t consider a world in which a shut down can be avoided but the Governor can at nearly the last minute — why should we trust them with anything they say?

Over the weekend, this skepticism and the credibility gap manifested itself very clearly via social media. Jim Dwyer of The New York Times had Multiple Twitter threads (here and here) about the issue, and City Limits penned an article on the very same topic. Others questioned the MTA’s ability to ensure the enhancement work that was going to be performed during the L train shut down would continue.

I don’t blame anyone for questioning or denying the MTA its credibility. I responded to Dwyer with a Twitter thread of my own, but his complaints get to the heart of the issue. Nothing the MTA says will be trusted until they start delivering on their promises, and little they can do today or tomorrow will change this perception.

But he’s not the only one with credibility issues, and the Governor — who, dispute frequent protestations, does actually control the MTA — has next to no credibility at all. For three years, the MTA has been very public in its planning, and for three years, Cuomo has said next to nothing about the issue. He claims someone in Brooklyn came up to him, grabbed him by his lapels (without being instantly removed by security) and yelled at him to do something about the L train. This story, as I’ve said in the past, reeks of political poppycock. Cuomo probably heard from his staff and his donors that the L train shutdown was shaping up to be a nightmare, and so he stepped in with a few academic friends he could rustle up. Why wasn’t he involved for years with the biggest story and most comprehensive public mitigation effort impacting the MTA we all knows he controls?

And why should we trust Cuomo on transit after all? His big-ticket projects show a keen understanding about form over function. The Laguardia and JFK rehabs do not involve adding more runways, the biggest problems facing New York City airports; his backwards AirTrain is, well, backwards; and after years of careful planning and advocacy work, he torpedoed a real transit link on the Tappan Zee replacement at the last minute. Even his meddling on the Second Ave. Subway wasn’t welcomed by everyone as a few sources tell me his push to wrap the project by the end of 2016 both cut corners and cost the MTA significant money.

But if you feel that’s just my inherent skepticism toward Cuomo seeping through again, take a look at what a few other people are saying. As a team of reporters at The Post detailed over the weekend, Cuomo and his professors spent just an hour inside the L train tunnel, and it’s not clear what qualifies them to issue such a sweeping last-minute change. Danielle Furfaro, Nolan Hicks and Ruth Brown write:

Engineers from Cornell and Columbia universities spent just a few weeks examining the MTA’s years-in-the-making plan to shut down the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged L-train tunnel for repairs — before recommending an 11th-hour alternative to keep it open and just contain the damage with new walls built on nights and weekends. Mary Boyce, dean of Columbia’s engineering school, told The Post that the team had no experience working on a subway system like New York’s, but claimed the crew had enough combined infrastructure experience to know the plan would work…

Cuomo’s office confirmed that only one of the eggheads on the Ivy League panel, which the governor touted as “the best experts we could find,” has limited experience working on subways. And that one person, Cornell professor Thomas O’Rourke, struggled to name a comparable subway tunnel-rehab project he had been involved with. “Rehabilitation for subway tunnels? Mostly new construction for subway tunnels,” O’Rourke said…Meanwhile, the team never bothered speaking with subways boss Andy Byford and made just one trip, on Dec. 14, to the crumbling Canarsie Tunnel to see the problem for themselves, Boyce admitted.

Even former MTA Capital Construction head Michael Horodniceanu spoke cautiously of the new proposal. “It’s going to last for a while,” he said to The Post. “For sure it isn’t going to to be a hundred years. It might last 15 years and need to be fixed again.”

In comments to The Times, Veronica Vanterpool, a Bill de Blasio appointee to the MTA Board who is one of the members of that body willing to question both the MTA and Governor publicly, expressed her concerns as well. “The original proposal would have fixed and repaired the tunnel for 50 or 60 years. It’s not clear to me the longevity of this solution,” she said, adding, “This continues to show that the board is essentially an afterthought. We’re not consulted, we’re not briefed, but yet we’re expected to move important projects along.” Comments from others in the article too show that no one knows who to believe any longer.

Finally, advocates were quick to question the thoroughness and veracity of Cuomo’s stunt. “You’ll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance said. We need a full public release of the details of Governor Cuomo’s ideas, as well as the mitigation plans that will allow hundreds of thousands of L train riders to get around during the inevitable shutdowns and slowdowns in service. Actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt that will ultimately leave riders in the lurch.”

Ultimately, ten bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation without a full scope or an independent assessment of the efficacy of a plan do not constitute a fully-baked project, and Cuomo’s insistence that this plan is better the original and sufficient isn’t a claim anyone is in a position to assess because there is no plan yet. To push this point, Cuomo on Friday called for an emergency meeting of the MTA Board, but MTA Board members haven’t gotten word of such a meeting yet. Likely that’s because a meeting — and more importantly, a vote — can’t happen until there is an actual plan and the MTA knows what it’s asking its contractors to do. Maybe this is better, but right now we just don’t know. And for eight years, Cuomo has given us no reason to trust him when it comes to transit or last-minute meddling.

Railways are ultimately a conservative business. If something goes wrong, trains derail, and people die. It’s why planning takes longer than a few weeks and why the initial reaction to Cuomo’s move has been one of shock, outrage and pushback. “Move fast and break things” hasn’t exactly done wonders for the tech industry, and it’ll go over even worse in transportation. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening, and by wading in so carelessly, Cuomo has thrown doubt on his ability to lead through a crisis and the MTA’s ability to plan thoroughly, comprehensively and correctly. The crisis of credibility will far outlast whatever work ends up happening on the L train, and that’s a real cost New York City will have to bear.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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Governor Andrew Cuomo and his team of experts toured the L train tunnel last month. On Thursday, he torpedoed three years of careful planning.

After an impromptu tour of the L train tunnel last month and three weeks of consultations with engineering professors from Columbia and Cornell Universities, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the MTA to cancel the impending 15-month shutdown of the L train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Instead, the scope of the necessary repairs will seemingly be reduced, and per Cuomo’s orders, the remaining work will proceed on a 15-20 month schedule that maintains regular weekday L train service and relies on single-tracking (and 20-minute headways) during nights and throughout the weekend.

It’s a drastic shift in scheduling and scope, and while tentatively welcomed by Brooklyn residents on the precipice of a 15-month transit nightmare, it threw years of careful planning by the MTA and NYC DOT as well as tireless work by advocates fighting for a transit-first redesign of New York City streets into disarray, all just three months before the shutdown was to begin. At its core, the move is quintessential King Cuomo. Sounding very Trumpian, Cuomo, who ended his press conference by saying, “No, I am not in charge of the MTA,” spent over an hour on Thursday touting his “panel of the best experts we could find” and came up with a plan in three weeks that remains underdeveloped and untested. At best, it will kick the can down the road; at worst, it will fail, costing precious time and even more money. No matter what, everyone involved with the L train shutdown I’ve spoken with today agreed that at some point in the near future, whether it be 10 or 20 or 30 years down the road, the MTA will have to rebuild the L train’s 14th Street tunnel.

Cuomo’s plan isn’t well developed. The MTA had published hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of studies, presentations, reports and analysis regarding the L train shutdown. The governor has hosted one rambling, long press conference and issued a thousand-word press release on his new plan. The governor who has spent years sucking up the oxygen in the room claiming he doesn’t control the MTA swooped in at the last minute to unilaterally impose new plans on the MTA. He did this without consulting anyone involved in planning the work or the community groups on the ground working to ensure a mitigation as smooth as possible. This is Cuomo, in control, with only his own ideas and no one else’s guiding him.

We don’t know when the work will start in earnest, what the cost will be, how it’s being scoped, or what mitigation is required. We don’t know what’s to become of plans for a 14th St. transitway, bike lanes throughout Manhattan or a bus bridge over the Williamsburg Bridge, all of which had significant value to a transit-oriented future for NYC in their own rights. We know outlines and aspirations, and I’ll try to distill them down in this post, raising questions at the end. There’s more to be said over the next few days as I arrange my thoughts on this topic, but it’s fair to say Cuomo, without any community outreach and no warning to the MTA Board, changed the conversation in one fell swoop today. Whether it’s for the better remains to be seen.

What is Governor Cuomo’s new plan to repair the L train tunnel?

At a high level, Cuomo’s plans appear simple because the details haven’t been fleshed out yet, and the main thrust of the work involves the ducts. The bulk of the work necessitating a full-time shutdown of the L train focused around the so-called bench wall that carries cables through the tunnel and serves as an emergency exit pathway. Because of saltwater intrusion, the MTA planned to chip out and rebuild the entirety of four bench walls in the two tunnels. Instead, under the new approach, the MTA will use a rack wall to run new cabling and other required systems through the Canarsie Tunnel above ground level. This is generally how cables are fed through tunnels in other cities, and the bench wall remains a relic of the early days of NYC subway construction.

Mary Boyce, Dean of Engineering at Columbia University and one of Cuomo’s experts, spoke at length about the plan to “rack” cables on the side of the tunnel while abandoning old cables in the benchwall and leaving the benchwall in place unless structurally unsound.

We are recommending that the cables be wrapped. So the majority of the cables, the power cables, the communications cables, control cables that power the train, the pump, the fans, that these be wrapped along the walls on one side. This leaves the other walls free for egress and access. We’ve looked at many challenges with actually doing this and different ways to actually wrap these cables, and we have found that it does indeed seem to be possible. We will also place the negative return on the track bed. So what this is essentially doing is decoupling the cable system from the benchwall. These are two different functions. We are able to execute all of the functions of the cables without them being in the benchwalls. So we do not give up or sacrifice any functionality of the system.

An important thing that we have to address is making sure that the fire retardancy is still possible for these cables, so the cables must be jacketed and they’re jacketed with a low smoke zero-halogen fireproof material. This is a proven technology, it has been used in these newer designs and newer modern tunnel systems. It’s also used in aircraft. So what happens with these jacket cables is that, yes there’s some sort of thermoplastic or thermostat, but they have an inorganic filler so they char in the presence of heat or fire, so there’s no outgassing and they actually become even better insulated. So this is another key feature of being able to wrap these cables on the wall and not embed them in the benchwall. This also very importantly means that we can abandon all the old cables in the benchwall. We do not need to remove them and replace them, we just leave them there. So if a benchwall is still structurally sound, we do not need to destroy it, remove the cables and rebuild it. This is a very key factor, okay, because it significantly reduces demolition and construction, and we feel probably has a cost implication as well.

And what about the benchwall, which serves not only as a cabling conduit but as an emergency walkway in the event a tunnel evacuation is required? Lance Collins, Dean of Engineering at Cornell University, offered his take on this vital piece of tunnel infrastructure:

There’s benchwall, that’s going to, in some sense, be stable and remain. There’s benchwall that’s been compromised to some degree, but not significantly. That we think we can reinforce using something called ‘fiber reinforced polymer’ – so it’s essentially a mixture of epoxy and fiber to wrap around. This will last for decades, for a long period of time. It’s not a quick fix. It’s technology that’s been widely used in bridges, in buildings, so we’re simply applying it in a very different application here.

And then there’s a third category which is benchwall that really is just not structurally sound that has to ultimately be demolished and removed. Then the question becomes, how do we know what’s what and so we’re going to use a state-of-the-art ultrasound technology to evaluate the entire length of the benchwall and figure out, you know, which parts of the benchwall are in which categories and act accordingly to either leave it as it is or to reinforce it as needed, or remove it as needed. And what’s important is that the benchwall is really serving the primary purposes – it’s back to its primary purpose which is access and egress. It’s no longer serving any role with respect to the cabling, so that’s the only element we have to ensure in terms of functionality that we have retained.

To study this retained benchwall that the MTA had planned, until yesterday, to fully replace, Cuomo’s team will implement fiber optic sensors. These sensors, Collins said, “will be able to pick up small changes and deformations in the benchwall in advance of failure. So that if there were something that eventually is going to fail, we will know that in advance and be able to send in a team to go in and do whatever is necessary: reinforce that section as needed in advance of the actual failure.” The new walkway, Collins stated, will be “just fiber glass, steel,” promising a “relatively simple installation.”

Why didn’t anyone come up with this sooner?

This seems to be one of the key questions on everyone’s minds. Related is the question about Cuomo’s involvement: Why didn’t the governor address this issue years ago? Either he was asleep at the wheel or the MTA was asleep at the wheel. Either he’s imposing something upon the MTA that its in-house team does not feel will adequately address the scope of work required to repair the L train for decades (as the MTA successfully did with the Montague St. tunnel) or Cuomo is seeking quick political wins to gain positive coverage while kicking the real can down the road by a decade or two when he will, as he loves to remind audiences, be dead. I don’t yet have a good answer here, but I do know a lot of people inside the MTA are very unhappy about the governor’s approach. (For what it’s worth, John O’Grady, whom I interviewed at the Transit Museum back in 2015 retired or was pushed out of Capital Construction last week.)

What’s the actual state of the L train tunnel?

Now we’re getting into the tricky questions. For years, everything the MTA has said about the L train tunnel led to a need for a rebuild. The agency quickly wiped the L train shutdown pages from its website on Thursday, but both the Google Cache and Wayback Machine never forget. The following image highlighted the need to replace more than just the duct banks:

I’d also urge you to take a look at this video of the Canarsie Tube the MTA posted in 2016 (embedded below). Particularly, note the bench wall at the 57-second mark and the concrete between the railway ties at around the 2:59 mark. In multiple places, you can spot brackets holding up the bench wall, and those who were close to the original assessments of the Canarsie Tunnel tell me that Cuomo’s move to use polymer will result in more work and more disruptions in a few decades rather than a rebuild a la Montague which would have ensured five decades of continued use.

For his part, Cuomo promised the tunnel was now perfectly OK. “The major structural elements of the tunnel are fine. There is no structural integrity issue for the tunnel itself. So people worry, is the tunnel going to have any significant issues? No. The structure of the tunnel is fine.”

The videos seem to tell a different story, and it’s not exactly clear how the MTA plans to address trackbed repair – the other major driver of a full-time shutdown. Boyce, in her comments, hedged. “The upgrades to the pump system and the rail can occur in tandem, she said. “These were planned and they can occur in tandem with the cable and benchwall work. So there’s no compromising on those upgrades. And we see a dramatic reduction in what we refer to as the non-value-added project scope. So we don’t reduce the scope, but we eliminate those parts of the scope that had no value.”

How will mitigation proceed?

Without a better sense of scope, it’s premature to know what mitigation is required or when. Most politicians and advocates have bemoaned Cuomo’s attempts at circumventing a careful process and urge the MTA to involve all community groups in presenting updated options, including guaranteeing sufficient mitigation plans. Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer noted that G, M and 7 trains will still see added service (though the 7 train upgrades are due primarily to CBTC).

As I mentioned, the future of the other mitigation work is foggy. This is worth a separate post later on so I’ll come back to this.

How long will this take?

Who knows?! Cuomo kept saying his experts think the work can be completed with 15-20 months of 20-headways every night and throughout the weekend, but he wouldn’t guarantee it. “It’s a silly question to ask am I going to promise on a construction schedule for an agency,” he said. So there you have it: No promises this will be finished in the same amount of time as the planned shutdown. We don’t know how much it will cost either, other than “less than a full shutdown.”

What about those other projects?

Will the MTA still be able to conduct extensive work at Union Square to improve platform access?

The MTA was planning to piggyback significant work onto the L train shutdown. Without trains running constantly, the agency could build a new entrance to the 1st Ave. station at Ave. A, replete with elevators, add ADA accessibility features to other stations along the L in Manhattan, widen and rebuild staircases at Union Square, and implement badly-needed power capacity upgrades to ensure more trains could run per hour. The agency says all of these projects will continue, but it’s not clear how Cuomo’s meddling interferes with this work. Can these projects be finished without substantial disruption to the limited service? Will it take longer than 15-20 months to complete this work? And how can the agency close staircases at Union Square while operating heavily overburdened L service? These are questions Cuomo and the MTA could not answer on Thursday but must be addressed soon.

Should we trust anyone here?

Not in the least. Although the MTA earned the benefit of the doubt by rebuilding the Montague St. Tunnel and has a good track record on completing Sandy-related repairs, the agency has not been able to manage large-scale projects or implement outside-the-box thinking. The governor, meanwhile, has shown no willingness to participate in careful and deliberate community outreach processes, and despite his statement yesterday that “I educated myself to the best extent possible,” the governor has spent barely a month on the L train shutdown. His past record of meddling with transit led to cost overruns on the Second Ave. Subway and a New Tappan Zee Bridge without the transit options advocates desired (or a clear sense of costs). I could spend another 600 words writing on this topic, but there is, simply put, little reason to trust this process right now without substantially more detailed answers to a variety of questions.

Why now?

This too is an open question. To step in at the last minute with a radically different approach based only on the ideas of a few consultants is very much in line with Cuomo’s governing strategy, but as I keep saying, it leaves much to be desired from a procedural perspective. I’ll try to explore this further as well.

Final Thoughts

This post is heavy on the skepticism and for good reason, and I didn’t even get to discuss Andy Byford’s apparent resigned acceptance of this approach and his near-total absence from today’s press conference. There’s just so many moving parts here.

Despite the belief that NYC DOT’s mitigation plan wasn’t going to be sufficient for Day One, the MTA and DOT had spent years collaborating on plans for a very disruptive shutdown, working to get political buy-in at every level of the community. Cuomo has shred every ounce of goodwill that may have existed for a project that we just can’t assess yet. Maybe this is the way to reform MTA thinking and MTA practices. Maybe this will work. But maybe this is Cuomo shooting for the stars (or at least 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), and maybe we shouldn’t be rushing into vital infrastructure repairs using unproven technologies without testing them on non-critical infrastructure first. Maybe in 10 years or 15 years, we’ll be back here facing optical sensors no one at the MTA bothered to maintain and a collapsing bench wall that leads to a derailment in L train service (as happened to the G train).

Maybe we’ll get to go through this all over again when someone else is Governor. One way or another, Gov. Cuomo, in trying to be the hero, showed extreme disregard for the travails of Brooklyn and Manhattan and the communities gearing up for the L train shutdown. It might be better this way; it might be worse. We all deserve to know more about the details of the plan, how it will work, and why Cuomo waited so long (or the MTA never followed this route) in the first place. Too much time and effort went into considerable deliberations for Cuomo to impose his will at the last minute without careful planning, outreach and analysis.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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Ed. Note: This post was originally titled “Gov. Cuomo to order MTA to lengthen L train work, inconveniencing everyone for longer.” I’ve updated the title to reflect the comments from the governor’s press conference. More updates are coming.

Governor Andrew Cuomo admires the L train tunnel just months before a full shutdown for Sandy repairs was set to begin.

After an impromptu tour of the L train tunnel last month and three weeks of consultations with engineering academics from Columbia and Cornell Universities, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the MTA to cancel the impending 15-month shutdown of the L train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Instead, the necessary repairs will proceed on a 15-20 month schedule that maintains regular weekday service and relies on single-tracking during nights and weekends. Instead of a full benchwall chip-out and rebuild, the MTA will use what Cuomo and his experts referred to as a rackwall to run new cabling and other required systems through the Canarsie Tunnel. It’s a very Cuomo-ian roll of the dice as this technology is unproven as to its application in subway tunnels but has been implemented in other contexts successfully, but for now, it seems the scope of L train work is posed to change significantly, raising more questions and concerns.

Updates to follow. The original post follows below.


Exercising his control over the MTA last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo dragged a bunch of academics who aren’t really experts in MTA construction project management into the L train tunnel for a last-minute inspection stunt to see if the upcoming shutdown could be shortened. It wasn’t immediately clear why Cuomo got the bug, three years into extensively planning for the project and four months before the shutdown, to intervene. In various iterations of a story, he claimed people on the street were coming up to him on the street to urge him to do something. And now he has done something that is going to make the required Sandy repairs on the L train worse and longer, against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of L train riders.

News of Cuomo’s meddling first broke when Transit Center tweeted out some rumblings this morning, and the development has been confirmed by The New York Times. We do not yet know the shape of the new project, but the full 24/7 shutdown will not begin in April and will not last 15 months.

According to a report on Gothamist, Cuomo may force the MTA to change the 15-month plan to a three-year project with more work shifted to nights and weekends and shorter 24/7 shutdowns scheduled throughout. It’s worth noting again that when presented with these options throughout 2016 and 2017, Brooklyn and Manhattan residents voted overwhelmingly against them, in favor of a shorter work schedule with proper mitigation. According to my MTA sources, Cuomo has been pushing the agency for weeks to avoid a shutdown even as he has indicated the work is still required. It’s not quite clear why he wants to avoid a 15-month shutdown, but this will make the impact worse for everyone involved.

Cuomo will address the public at 12:45, and we should learn more then. I will update this post with news as it develops. This is not a move that should be praised.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The L train tunnel seen here in 2012 shortly after Sandy will play host to Gov. Cuomo on Thursday night. Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

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.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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An MTA map shows service patterns during the L train shutdown. (Click to enlarge)

It’s now just six months until one of the largest transit diversion in New York City history, as the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday that the 15-month L train shutdown will begin on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Until the end of July 2020, no L trains will run between Brooklyn and Manhattan, as the MTA finally performs the rebuild of the Canarsie Tunnel, damaged in the flooding from Superstorm Sandy back in 2012. The shutdown, under attack by West Village NIMBYs who cannot stomach some street space in Manhattan given over to buses and bicyclists, promises to be disruptive throughout parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan even with careful mitigation plans, and now the countdown is on.

“We’re continuing unprecedented efforts at public outreach, responding to local communities and giving as much notice as possible on key dates in this project,” NYC Transit President Andy Byford said in a statement. “With the L running as a Brooklyn-only service for 15 months starting after the weekend of April 27, we’ve been hard at work with our partners at NYCDOT and other City agencies to make sure that the alternate train, bus, ferry and bicycle networks work together to get people around successfully.”

Just how successful initial mitigation plans will be remains to be seen. Transit advocates are generally skeptical that a part-time busway on 14th Street and HOV3+ restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge without corresponding requirements on nearby East River crossings along with no plan to address lower-capacity ride-sharing services along these routes will lead to crushing congestion, and the plans to increase subway service, while substantive, do not leave much room for error. If anything goes wrong, the cascading delays will lead to unmanageable crowding along lines that are expected to pick up the slack for the L train, but the real test will be how the city and MTA adapt the plan to demand during the first few days of the shutdown next spring. If they’re agile and quick, those HOV3+ restrictions can morph into bus-only hours, thus alleviating some expected congestion.

Lately, after years of community meetings, presentations and patiently fielding public inquiries, the MTA has settled on the details of the increased service. The MTA will run its own ferry service from Williamsburg beginning on April 21, 2019, and five new bus routes, including Select Bus Service for the M14, will commence that day as well. Just last week the MTA approved 198 new weekday roundtrips on other lines to carry the slack with G train riders enjoying 66 more roundtrips per day and the M 62. (The detailed breakdown begins on page 193 of this pdf.)

In approving these service increase, Andy Byford stressed their volumes. “We will be adding more than a thousand roundtrips each week and pushing our resources to capacity, which is also why you’re seeing so much preventative maintenance and repair work on all these lines already,” he said. “We are making these lines as reliable as possible for these new service levels starting in 2019.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the plans I have detailed before, the MTA and DOT announced air monitoring throughout the shutdown. This in response to neighborhood complaints that the plan to use diesel buses for mitigation will lead to unacceptably high levels or particulates. Experts, including Charles Komanoff, contend rightly that diesel buses are far cleaner than they were when they developed the reputation for pollution, but it’s clear that DOT and the MTA are particularly concerned with giving community groups ammunition that could torpedo any portions of the delicately balanced mitigation plan.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by a self-proclaimed progressive who can’t stomach transit riders continues apace. Although the federal claims I detailed in April were dismissed following the August released of the Environmental Assessment, Arthur Schwartz refiled numerous claims objecting to the L train shutdown in state court a few weeks ago. The filing is available here as a PDF. I expect this complaint to be handled or dismissed for reasons similar to those I detailed in April, and the MTA and DOT have until the end of November to produce a state environmental review or move to dismiss the claim. It’s a last-gasp effort by West Village residents upset that they cannot have unfettered access to city streets for their private automobiles during an event disruptive to 200,000 subway riders per day. Make of that what you will, but with six months remaining until L train service shutdown, the clock is ticking.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The latest MTA documents include detailed analyses of the anticipated travel patterns during the upcoming L train shutdown.

The dog days of summer are not often busy ones for transit news in New York City. Faulty subway air conditioning usually dominates complaints as the general malaise of sweltering platforms and sub-par service settles in. But this year, with the 2019 L train closure inching ever closer, August will host a transit hearing. Scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m., the MTA will host a public comment session on its latest and greatest Supplemental Environmental Assessment statement concerning the mitigation plans for the L train shutdown.

The document itself has been available online for a few weeks and has a bit of a controversial history as it was not published until well after a group of West Village residents filed a controversial lawsuit against the MTA, NYC DOT and Federal Transit Administration over the L train shutdown. As I wrote in April, I don’t believe this suit has much merit, and in recent court filings, the defendants have argued to dismiss the suit entirely. Essentially, the MTA, NYC DOT and the FTA have all claimed that Arthur Schwartz and his plaintiffs do not have standing, are asserting claims not yet ready for adjudication and/or has gotten the facts wrong in multiple filings.

I’m amused by that last part, but it’s neither here nor there right now. Soon the judge will likely dismiss the case, but it hasn’t been without its successes. Notably, the MTA has axed plans to install a platform edge door trial at the L train’s 3rd Ave. stop to fund ADA upgrades at the L train’s closed stations. This decision was the right one, and it came out directly as a result of the lawsuit.

Second, the feds and the MTA released the Supplemental Environmental Assessment that forms the basis for Monday’s public comment session and was a major element of Schwartz’s lawsuit. With the EA on hand and the finding that the MTA/NYC DOT mitigation plan will be more beneficial to the city while creating to significant adverse impacts, Schwartz’s main claim essentially disappears. He could re-file a suit alleging that the EA is wrong, but judges overwhelming give deference to government agencies in their findings in these types of assessments. It’s unlikely Schwartz was succeed in stopping any of the mitigation plans on substantive grounds so long as the government follows the right procedures in making their determination.

But my legal analysis aside, the EA is an interesting document but not for the reasons you may suspect. By and large, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know and haven’t heard over and over again from the MTA. It charts in painstaking detail the various mitigation plans (which the MTA distilled into a handy PDF visual a few days ago). But I found a few parts worth examining. First, the main document uses the “temporary” 409 times in about 125 pages. The MTA and FTA have gone out of their way to underscore how the mitigation plans — the 14th St. busway, the bike lanes on adjacent streets, the HOV restrictions across the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn-Manhattan bus routes, all of it — are temporary. This too is designed to head off a lawsuit claiming the L train shutdown is serving as cover for the city to implement transit improvements without following the painstakingly long and arduous Community Board process. If these measures prove successful, the city should push to make some of them permanent, but that’s a story for another day.

The other part I found interesting is in the appendices [pdf], and it includes a detailed breakdown of the MTA’s alternatives analysis regarding the L train shutdown. Although the MTA had previously told the public that it had considered a one-tube-at-a-time approach to the work or a nights-and-weekends option, the agency had never gone into detail as to why it opted against either of these approaches until this Supplemental Environmental Assessment came out. First, the MTA readily dismissed the nights-and-weekends plan as technically infeasible. The overall timeline for work was up to a decade, and the agency determined that a 55-hour weekend window would be around 25-30 hours too short to ensure the air in the tunnel is free from silica dust, causing service delays well into the work week.

While the one-tube approach survived the first cut, the MTA determined that it failed on additional specific criteria. With just one tube of the L train open, the MTA worried about “severe overcrowding” and would have needed to implement significant mitigation plans as it will next year while completing work in 36 months rather than 15. “The only way to reduce L train overcrowding in this scenario would be to provide a robust alternative service plan of a similar magnitude to the one proposed for the double-track closure,” the document states. Ultimately, the single-track plan fared worse on every analytical criteria, and an overwhelming majority of L train riders preferred the shorter, full-time shutdown. It’s all laid out in print in painstaking detail, largely in response to Schwartz’s claims that the MTA hadn’t conducted (or released) this analysis.

Ultimately, this Supplemental Environmental Analysis document is one the MTA should have released from the get-go with the level of detail contained in the appendices. The agency opened itself up to potential lawsuits by not doing so, and an air of opacity settled around the project. This was a self-inflicted wound and one that should have been avoided. But with the EA public, the dirty laundry has been aired, and legal objections to the L train shutdown and mitigation plans should now be dismissed. And now how about extending that busway all the way across town?

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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