On Sunday night, at 10:51 p.m., a Manhattan bound N train left De Kalb Ave., and instead of rolling over the Manhattan Bridge, this N train took the long way. It stopped at Jay St./Metrotech, moseyed over to Court St. and then became the first train in passenger service since mid-2013 to ride through the Montague St. Tunnel. For the MTA and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who stopped by Lower Manhattan yesterday to mark the occasion, the reopening, two to six weeks early, was a sign of recovery from Sandy. It’s also a story of what the MTA can do with external pressure on deadlines. We’ll get back to that in a minute, but let’s journey first to Brooklyn.
I took a walk from Park Slope to Red Hook yesterday afternoon, and part of my stroll took me underneath the Culver Viaduct. I’ve lost count of the number of years this thing has been under construction, and the original completion dates, laughably enough, were around three years ago. On a bright late summer Sunday, a few workers seemed to be contemplated the safety nets that still surround the structure as they climbed atop the construction shed towering over 9th St. between 2nd Ave. and Smith St. It seemed to be a project with no end and no impetus pushing it toward a finish line.
Lately, local politicians have begun to notice that the Culver Viaduct rehab has entered that twilight zone of incompletion with little visible day-to-day progress, and they have begun to ask some questions. Brad Lander put out a statement on the project toward the end of August. A contractor default has put the finishing line out of view, and a quick glance at the 4th Ave. station makes it clear much remains to be done.
But now, let’s go back to Lower Manhattan, R train cookies and all. After a closure for a complete rebuild of the systems that line the Montague St. Tunnel, Gov. Cuomo and MTA dignitaries were on hand Sunday to celebrate. The Governor of course loves to take credit for the good while ignoring the bad (or even removing $30 million from the MTA’s budget), and he didn’t miss a chance for a good photo op this weekend.
“Superstorm Sandy brought incredible destruction down on the New York City subway system – but today we’re taking another huge step forward to repair the damage and strengthen the system to withstand the next major storm,” Governor Cuomo said. “This tunnel is safer, stronger and more resilient than ever before, and everything on this section of the R train is new – new rails, new signals, new pumps and new power supplies. We’ve made it a top priority to reimagine our state to withstand the new reality of extreme weather, and today is another example of how that approach is making this a safer state for all.”
In a press release announcing the reopening — in time for Monday’s commute — MTA officials noted that the Federal Transit Administration funded the project and thanks Cuomo for “his leadership in making the MTA and New York stronger” after Sandy, whatever that entailed. As you can see, I’m more than a bit skeptical over Cuomo’s treatment of the city’s subway system as a way to earn easy headlines and quick political points.
On a deeper level though, rebuilding the Montague St. Tunnel early, even by a few weeks, shows that in-house MTA projects with a driving political need can wrap on time. I don’t know if the MTA spent efficiently or wisely; I do know that by taking the tunnel out of service, the work wrapped on time and not, say, three years late. There are lessons to be learned here, but they require hard trade-offs. So far, the MTA and New Yorkers haven’t been willing to make those sacrifices, but maybe they should. After all, some of them can get a cookie out of it.
For more scenes from Sunday’s event, check out the MTA’s photoset or shots from the Governor’s Office. I particularly enjoyed this one showing the branching of the Montague Tunnel into the BMT Broadway Line and the BMT Nassau St. line.