It’s hard to escape the pull of the L train these days. Brooklyn residents from Williamsburg to Canarsie are very worried about the looming threat of a shutdown of the Canarsie Tubes due to Hurricane Sandy repair work. The L has become extremely crowded, and the route is one of the few in the city without much redundancy. The real estate market is sinking; business are worried; and a potential multi-year shutdown looms.
On Thursday, the MTA pushed off this work for a few years. While speaking to New York State Senate and Assembly representatives, agency CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast said the L train repairs would be last, and work won’t start until 2018 at the earliest, nearly six years after the storm surge swept through the tunnel. For now, the temporary repairs will have to hold, and everyone will hold their collective breaths waiting for that next signal malfunction or broken rail.
Meanwhile, the L Train Coalition met this week, and they still seem to grasping at straws. As Gothamist’s Miranda Katz reported, in the follow-up to the meeting where they ejected the lone MTA representative, these activists are now demanding a third L train tunnel be built before repair work starts. Here’s how Katz reported it:
The biggest question posed by the dozens of anxious community members in attendance: why isn’t the MTA seriously considering the possibility of building a third tunnel running between Brooklyn and Manhattan before starting repairs to the damaged two?
According to Minna Elias, New York Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, this question did come up at the February 5th meeting between elected officials and the MTA, but was deemed unrealistic because it would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $4.5 billion and take longer than the projected timeline for repairs to the existing tubes, which could take between 18 months and 7 years, depending on how much the MTA limits service to get the job done.
“That obviously is the alternative that would cause the least disruption,” Elias said. “They tell us they are concerned that before they would complete such a project and get the money to complete such a project the problems would get worse—they’re concerned about safety is their answer to us. I can tell you that getting the funding to build a new tube would be an extremely heavy lift.”
It’s easy to dismiss this idea, as I did when I first heard about it, but the L Train Coalition, a group that isn’t nearly as plugged into transit as some advocates in the city, hit upon the problem from the get-go. “I don’t think we should just accept the idea that a third tunnel is not possible,” Del Teague, a community activist, said. “I’m concerned that they don’t want to deal with that because they’re afraid they’re going to lose this Hurricane Sandy money. So how come they can’t put pressure on the Feds to let them hold onto it, build a third tunnel, let the third tunnel get built, and then work on the other stuff without losing the Hurricane Sandy money? I know it’s all a big bureaucracy, but things can be done if the government feels that people are going to revolt strongly enough.”
Many at the meeting, according to Katz, asked why other cities around the globe could build a tunnel at a fraction of the cost cited by the MTA. Elias’ response: “New York is unique.” That’s right; we are a special corrupt butterfly where everything we build has to be the Most Expensive Thing ever.
If we take two steps back and set aside the immediate reaction to the idea of a third tunnel — that it would take years to conduct an environmental study, line up enough funding and complete construction and that it would take billions of dollars the MTA doesn’t have — it seems like a common-sense solution. If you have to take a road out of service, you put in a bypass. Thus, if you have to take a tunnel out of service, build a new one first.
In an ideal world, the MTA would be able to build efficiently and quickly such that a new tunnel isn’t a crazy idea, and in fact, in the annals of NYC transit history, another East River crossing near Williamsburg was one part of the grand Second System plan. I wrote extensively of this idea when the Underbelly Project revealed the South 4th St. station to the world. Essentially, the tunnel would be an eastward extension of the middle tracks at the F train’s 2nd Ave. stop to Williamsburg via that old South 4th St. shell, through Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and then down Utica Ave. to Marine Park. It’s a 15 kilometer tunnel that, even at current NYC rates would likely cost $15-$20 billion to construct, if not more. It would be a truly transformative project for a wide swath of Brooklyn and one that could help support an eventual L train closure.
Of course, that’s fantasyland, and here we are, back in reality. The MTA hasn’t put the wheels in motion to build a new tunnel in the 40 months since Sandy, and they’re not about to start. We don’t know why everything costs so much, but I’m comforted that more and more New Yorkers are starting to take notice. Another tunnel, as silly as it may sound, shouldn’t be impossible, but it’s a costly proposition that isn’t a priority. Thus, we’re left with an L train shutdown a few years away but inching closer. The MTA and Daniel Squadron committed to a public planning process to address the effects of a shutdown, but don’t hold your breath for that new East River tunnel. You can blame history for that one.