To combat fare evasion, MTA re-alarms some emergency exits

By · Published on February 6, 2019 · Comments (42) ·

New York City, they say, is a cyclical town. Neighborhoods wax and wane; popular restaurants open and close; the city rises and falls; and even the Mets may be good again one day. Not everything that comes back is welcome, and four years after finally silencing emergency alarms, the MTA has turned some back on, at the request of the NYPD, in an effort to fight fare evasion. That ear-splitting sound, the subject of much consternation a decade ago, is back.

I first wrote about the debate over emergency exits back in 2009 when the conversation focused around the the ethics of opening doors knowing an ear-splitting siren would follow. In 2010, the New City Transit Riders Council issued a damning report on the ineffectiveness of the alarms. With the alarms still armed, Riders Council observers witnessed thousands of riders streaming out of the doors (and a handful entering without paying through the doors). In 2014, The New York Times created an op-doc on the doors, and when 2015 dawned, the MTA silenced the alarms, seemingly for good.

“Our customers,” then-agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, “have been quite clear in displaying their annoyance and letting us know that the alarms really were the number one annoyance for them as they travel through the system.”

Well, sounds that were annoying have been forgotten, and as the MTA and NYPD look to combat what they claim is a real increase in fare evasion, alarms at certain key stations have been turned back on. I first got wind of the unwelcome return of these alarms in mid-January when Twitter reports came in of alarms at Union Square, Columbus Circle, Jay St.-Metrotech and Times Square, among other stations. The alarms are not, as I can attest, back on at every station, and it seems that only a few fare evasion hotspots have been tagged for activation.

After some tense back-and-forth on Twitter over the need for the alarms, the MTA provided me a statement on the emergency exits. The NYPD, it seems, asked the agency re-arm some doors as part of a test. They noted to me:

NYPD is working to combat fare evasion and recently we complied with their request to re-activate alarms at several high traffic stations. This is a test for them to determine the alarms’ effectiveness in deterrence. At the same time, NYC Transit is working with NYPD to evaluate ways to reduce the inconvenience of the alarms for our paying customers and employees, looking into techniques such as enabling timed shutoffs. Nobody wants to hear an alarm going off, but revenue lost to fare evasion is revenue that can’t be used for running and maintaining the system, so we’re working with the NYPD to find the right balance.

Sarah Meyer, Transit’s Chief Customer Officer, also noted that the MTA should have an update on the effectiveness of the alarms “in a couple of weeks.”

The problems New Yorkers had with emergency exits haven’t gone away in the past decade, but the MTA’s priorities have shifted. Right now, the agency wants to fight fare evasion at certain key hot spots, and the gate sirens are one way to do so. The problem, of course, is one of action and reaction. As in the past, when the alarms go off, nothing happens other than lots and lots of noise. Cops or MTA employees (if any are even around) rarely, if ever, investigate, and the alarms serve as a clear signal to anyone nearby that a door that may be locked is now wide open. It’s almost an invite to potential fare evaders.

Outside of the noise pollution, the other problem with these alarms is how they stigmatize certain subway riders. Not everyone can get through NYC’s relatively narrow turnstiles (narrow to fight fare evasion in the first place, I should add). Parents or caretakers pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs who already confront a hostile system and those with large packages or suitcases simply can’t navigate the turnstiles. With stations including fewer and fewer employees, these folks are forced to enter through exits, and if the exits are now alarmed, the simple act of opening the day at the least inconveniences everyone and at the worst draws a crowd. I said this years ago, but the MTA could combat this problem by redesigning turnstiles to include wider, accessible entry gates that can fit wheelchairs and suitcases, as are standard in metro and subway systems throughout the world.

In fact, Meyer told me those gates are on the way as part of the MTA’s push toward more system accessibility, and I’m looking forward to them.

For now, though, we left once again with subway alarms and a familiar debate. Can the NYPD respond to alarms in high-volume stations fast enough for them to serve as a fare evasion deterrent while the MTA responds to requests to open them fast enough to ensure people who need and have properly paid for access get it without causing an ear-splitting ruckus? That’s under review, and we’ll find out soon what end of the emergency exit alarm cycle we’re living through. Will it be the continuation of a quiet one or the dawn of a new, louder, siren-filled era?

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The Delayed Fare Hike Edition of ‘That’s No Way To Run a Railroad’

By · Published on January 29, 2019 · Comments (35) ·

A $3 base fare for subway and bus rides were among the fare hike options the MTA decided to push off until February.

When 2018 drew to a close, a level of certainty seemed to surround the MTA. The long-planned L train shutdown loomed four months out; a looming vote on fare hikes seemed to be a mere formality; and with momentum building for a congestion pricing plan, Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan seemed well on the way to reality.

But then, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, everything changed in the blink of an eye. Cuomo, circumventing the MTA Board, canceled the L train shutdown, sidelined Andy Byford from the project, and then capped off his month by pushing the MTA to delay the planned vote on the fare hikes. It was a flurry of activity orchestrated by the man in charge of the MTA who keeps insisting he isn’t pulling the strings, and it’s created uncertainty — and potentially budgetary pressures — at a time when the MTA can least afford to lose on the money.

The latest chapter in this saga began to unfold last week shortly before the MTA Board meeting that was planned to feature the fare hike vote. Now, as much as New Yorkers don’t want to pay more for what many perceive to be declining subway service, biennial fare hikes have been a feature of the MTA since the structure was approved as part of the 2010 bailout. Every two years, the fares increase by a modest amount, and these hikes, the best tool the MTA has for guaranteed revenue increases, have been met with relatively little resistance as the fare jumps are built into the budget.

But this time, after torpedoing the L train plans, Cuomo started speaking out against fare hikes, as Emma Fitzsimmons reported in The Times last week. Cuomo, expressing “no faith” in what his MTA says, urged the agency to avoid a fare hike. “Tighten your belt,” he said. “Make the place run better.”

In the same piece, former Cuomo aide and current MTA Board member Larry Schwartz said he was examining ways to tie fare hikes amorphously to, as he put it, “performance improvements” or would be otherwise “dead set” on voting for a hike. And then, during Thursday’s meeting, the MTA simply punted. Before any debate or alternative proposals could be presented publicly, the agency tabled all talks. “I’m concerned that we’re making a decision today when we need to be a little slower, a little more thoughtful, and need to consider a few more options,” Cuomo appointee Peter Ward said, moving to delay the discussion. The Board quickly decided to wait on debating fare hike proposals until the next meeting, currently scheduled for Wednesday, February 27.

What was so strange and abrupt about the move was how quickly it came about. The MTA Board had heard only some words from the governor and vague rumors of other proposals. After the vote, Schwartz said his efforts to develop a proposal tied to performance metrics was “in vain” despite internal conversations. To me, this is a good thing, as any attempt to tie guaranteed revenue to better service is one way to put the MTA on a path to a death spiral. If the agency can’t provide better service, the agency can’t raise fares or generate revenue for service at which point its only option is to cut service, thus leading to worse service, less revenue and that dreaded death spiral.

Much like with the L train shutdown shutdown, the “why” of the delayed fare hike vote remains an open-ended question. Dana Rubinstein tried to break it down. I’d urge you to read her entire piece, but I found this excerpt a succinct summary of this mess:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA’s L tunnel plans and the color of its tunnel tiles, but he claims he doesn’t control the MTA. The governor says he has “no faith” in the MTA’s leadership, which he helped appoint. He thinks the MTA doesn’t actually need more than $300 million a year in new fare revenue, because it can just “tighten” its belt and “make the place run better.” But he does think the MTA needs $1 billion a year in new revenue from congestion pricing, which he wants to see imposed on New York City. “It’s really hard to decipher,” said one board member, referring to the general state of MTA politics right now.

It’s well within Cuomo’s rights as the head of the state to attempt to reform the MTA, but running the agency as a fiefdom and operating behind closed doors at a time when the agency needs public support does little but undermine the MTA. With uncertainty clouding the fare hike discussion, it could now be a few months before the MTA can generate the revenue it claims it needs to avoid massive budget shortfalls. If new fare hike proposals are presented next month, the agency may need to hold additional public hearings, wait to vote on the new proposal and then wait to implement these proposals. Instead of a fare increase — and guaranteed revenue come April 1 — the MTA may have to wait to increase fares until July, losing out as much as $90 million it can’t afford to see wiped off the books. Ultimately, too, the public will pay for this politicking through increased hikes or service cuts.

To me, this is backsliding. After years of a commitment to transparency and a big show by Byford to produce a plan to do better, Cuomo has seemingly stepped in to blow everything up, and no one knows why. Did he do it because congestion pricing is now significantly closer to reality and he seems concerned about the political fallout from that move? Is he worried Corey Johnson and other city reps are making noises about re-asserting local control over subways and buses? Did someone actually shake him by his lapels to get him to focus on the L train and, by extension, the MTA?

No one yet knows why Cuomo is suddenly doing what he’s doing. But shortly after the fare hike vote was delayed, Cuomo had an about-face and acknowledged that the MTA would have to implement a rate hike sooner rather than later. It was an odd admission from the governor who had spent weeks slamming the agency for planning to raise fares and one that left observers scratching their heads even harder. Right now, Cuomo’s endgame is opaque and playing out on a day-to-day basis. Where this ends is up in the air, but riders, agency officials and MTA rank-and-file don’t know which way the wind will blow on any given day. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

Categories : Fare Hikes, MTA Politics
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Penn Station Access to move forward as Cuomo announces Amtrak deal

By · Published on January 22, 2019 · Comments (77) ·

After nearly a year of negotiations, the MTA and Amtrak reached an agreement so the Penn Station Access project can move forward.

It sure does take a while to turn transit dreams into reality in New York City. Take this website’s namesake subway line. What started as a line on paper in 1929 became reality in part only 87 years later. Penn Station Access — a plan to bring Metro-North trains to Penn Station via four new stops in the Bronx — won’t have such a tortuous long history, but this idea, born in 1973, will turn 50 before the trains finally run.

Yet the trains will run. Twenty years after planning began in earnest and scoping documents were released to the public, Amtrak and Metro-North reached an agreement on a long-simmering dispute so that Metro-North can build its four in-fill stations and operate along Amtrak right-of-way, delivering New Haven Line and Bronx commuter rail passengers to Manhattan’s West Side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, again in charge of the MTA, announced yesterday.

“Too many residents of the Bronx have been without reliable transit, which is why I proposed these new stations,” Governor Cuomo said, of a project the MTA scoped in 2000 when Cuomo, then 43, was the HUD Secretary in the Clinton Administration. “With a reconstructed Moynihan Station currently underway, these four stations not only will connect the east Bronx to Manhattan’s West Side, but also build upon our ongoing efforts to fully transform our state’s transportation infrastructure.”

In addition to providing New Haven Line riders with direct access to the West Side, the plan includes four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx at Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester/Van Nest and Hunts Point. The MTA has currently allocated around $700 million to the project though the total budget is estimated to exceed $1 billion, an astronomical price tag for four in-fill stations along a preexisting rail right-of-way. Cuomo’s Tuesday announcement included details of the first contract as HNTB New York Engineering and Architecture will get $35 million for engineering and design work.

While the Metro-North stations in the Bronx can help speed travel times to Manhattan for far-flung corners of that borough, I believe the reverse-commute patterns will be more important for Bronx residents who work in Westchester. Still, the MTA should use Penn Station Access as an opportunity to rationalize the fares for commuter rail trips within the five boroughs (a topic I last explored in 2015).

“Bringing Metro-North service to the east Bronx is a game changer for the borough, and we have all been eager to get started,” Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer said in a statement. “This project will significantly reduce travel times for east Bronx residents and help area businesses and institutions attract employees.”

Metro-North and Amtrak had been at odds over the project, which involves MTA use of Amtrak’s Hell Gate Bridge, for some time, and it seemed as though the project’s future was in jeopardy. So what did Metro-North and New York State give Amtrak? Cuomo’s press release puts a New York-friendly spin on the deal, noting that Amtrak and the MTA will “jointly study the feasibility of Amtrak running several trains daily from Long Island to Penn Station and continuing either north to Boston or south to Washington.” The MTA will also foot the bill for signal, power, communications and track upgrades along the route.

Two articles provide more detail on the deal that our governor reportedly brokered. WNYC’s Stephen Nessen reports on a trade-off involving the Pelham Bay Bridge:

The stalemate hinged on two demands from Amtrak. One was that the MTA pay to replace the century-old Pelham Bay Bridge, which would get more traffic with the expansion. As far back as 2010 Amtrak had labeled the bridge “beyond a state-of-good-repair” and in need of more than $500 million to build a replacement. Under the agreement brokered by Cuomo, the Pelham Bay Bridge replacement would be postponed for 10-20 years. The other sticking point was that Amtrak wanted to charge the MTA access fees for using its tracks.

Amtrak gave up the demand for fees in exchange for the Long Island feasibility study I mentioned above, and Thomas Zambito had a bit more on the horse-trading in The Journal-News:

Under the agreement announced today, the MTA will pay for the cost of improvements along the Hell Gate as well as the design of the Bronx commuter stations, according to an outline of the agreement obtained by The Journal News/lohud.com.

The two railroads will share costs for use of the Hell Gate and the replacement of the Pelham Bay Bridge based on usage, the outline adds. And, Metro-North will coordinate the project around Amtrak’s plans to increase service levels on its Acela Express between New York and Boston in 2021.

So for Metro-North and Gov. Cuomo, all’s well that end’s well yet again. The MTA is shouldering a lot of costs for railroad updates, and the agency gets its rail link from Westchester to Penn Station. The service is expected to begin a year or two after East Side Access opens or right around the 50th anniversary of the first calls to bring trains through the Bronx to Penn Station. All it takes is far too much time.

Categories : Penn Station Access
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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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Cuomo’s L train debacle creates opening for MTA reform

By · Published on January 10, 2019 · Comments (17) ·

Gov. Andrew Cuomo assesses the L train tunnel during a December tour.

There are always unintended consequences to governing carelessly by unexpected press conference and off-the-cuff commentary, and as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team embarked on a tour to salvage whatever credibility they have left, it’s becoming clear that the crisis precipitated by Cuomo may open the door to MTA reform. Now, it’s a matter of who will take the reins and how.

Movement on MTA reform has been very slowly gaining speed over the past few months as more people have been paying attention to the way the MTA Board operations (or doesn’t) and the inherent contradictions in the current board structure. I’d urge to read Aaron Gordon’s November Signal Problems dispatch for more on that topic.

As Cuomo engaged in his offensive this week, when he gets going, the words just start to flow from his mouth, and he hit upon some nuggets that hit upon reform in a conversation with The Daily News. Kenneth Lovett and Dan Rivoli had more:

Frustrated by what he sees as an entrenched bureaucracy that lacks imagination to find new ways to do things, Gov. Cuomo said Monday it’s time to rebuild the MTA from ground up. “Blow up the MTA. Blow it up,” Cuomo said during a meeting with the Daily News Editorial Board…

“The L train is a window into a much bigger problem,” Cuomo told The News. He referred to a “passive conspiracy of the transportation industrial complex” where major capital projects are undertaken with the same contractors and vendors, and no competition for designs. Construction contractors typically pad their bills to the MTA by 25% — an “MTA premium” — because of the difficulty they have dealing with agency bureaucrats. MTA board members are trying to figure out how to lower their construction costs. “The MTA is so tedious to deal with that it developed a boutique industry of people who just are willing to deal with this thing called the MTA,” Cuomo said. “And the people who know how to do it normally came from the MTA and then go to the contractor and that’s why they know how to make the connection.”

…He plans to continue his effort to reform the agency — Cuomo in a recent speech said one of his priorities in the first 100 days of 2019 is to restructure the MTA and find it more funding. He said he is not afraid to take responsibility for what happens at the MTA, as long as he’s not “handcuffed.” “I am unique in governors who are willing to step up and sign on the bottom line,” he said of such projects as the building of a new Tappan Zee Bridge and installation of cashless tolling. “My people think it’s an act of madness,” Cuomo said of his quest for more power over the agency. “I don’t care. I have no problem stepping up and saying it’s me. More than any other governor. But I’m not going to say ‘it’s me’ handcuffed.”

Cuomo starts out strong, but his comments fizzle toward the end. He engaged in another diatribe on whether or not he controls the MTA (he does), and The News gave him more cover for this argument than I would have, allowing Cuomo to compare the MTA (which he controls) to the Port Authority (which no one controls). It’s not an apt comparison, and it reminds me of the problems with trusting Cuomo with MTA reform. Cuomo doesn’t listen to experts; rather, he thinks he is the expert. So if he has a vision for MTA reform (just like he has a vision for the L train work and a vision a backwards AirTrain), his vision will become reality whether it’s an improvement or not.

But in his opening remarks at least, he hit upon a key problem with the New York City transportation ecosystem: It is very much a transportation industrial complex with a very active revolving door shuttling the same people between the public and private sectors. This essentially eliminates any incentives for internal-driven MTA reform as the same people who sign off on contracts end up being the same people who benefit from runaway costs and project timelines in years rather than months and decades rather than years. The “difficulty” in dealing with agency bureaucrats is a feature, not a bug.

Cuomo, who spoke about MTA reform in the lead-up to his reelection last year, hasn’t given any indication that he has a vision beyond adding more seats under his control to the Board. I’m not quite sure where that gets him considering the MTA Board has never rejected a Cuomo initiative and he already has legal control over the agency. The reform must be structural and not cosmetic, and the L train mess, which has led everyone to rightly question the competency of the MTA, is an opportunity to push for major reforms. The problem, of course, is that the L train mess has also led everyone to question Cuomo’s competency here, and as I keep saying, no one currently involved has any credibility on the topic. Thus, the person spearheading reform shouldn’t be the person few trust.

Enter New York City. At an event at a subway stop in Bay Ridge promoting his effort to assess subway rider complaints, City Council Speaker (and current acting Public Advocate) Corey Johnson let slip that he is working on a proposal for city control of its subways and buses. Johnson didn’t offer details other than a promise to release a report within 60 days, but he had some intriguing things to say. “The detailed plan I will unveil in the next 60 days,” he said, “talks about debt obligation, bonding authority, the tunnels and the bridges, and it does not just talk about the subways and buses, but talks about breaking the car culture by investing in mass transit, prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists and making New York City a livable safe city.”

Analyzing the ins and outs of city control is both well outside the purview of this post and premature without a proposal in hand, but it’s clear that something’s a-brewin’ in New York over MTA governance and MTA control. If anything comes out of this crisis of confidence Andrew Cuomo created last week, a true push for MTA reform would be a welcome one, and the shape and a full public debate on structure of transit governance in New York City is one that is long overdue.

Categories : MTA Politics
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Cuomo’s L train maneuvers create a crisis of credibility

By · Published on January 7, 2019 · Comments (33) ·

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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