No matter how you spin it, the looming L train shutdown is not good news for the city. It’s not something Gov. Andrew Cuomo is going to announce with a press release and a staged media event at the Transit Museum, as he has done in recent months with news of new-look subway cars and renovated stations. Rather, the decision to move forward with an 18-month total shutdown of the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn, set to begin in January of 2019, is one of the MTA released to The Times on Monday morning and the world at large during its Board committee meetings yesterday. It has sent shockwaves down the BMT Canarsie line and has spurred on more bickering between city officials and Cuomo’s MTA.
Following seven months of public hearings and numerous surveys of riders, Transit President Ronnie Hakim announced the details behind the shutdown on Monday. With nearly 80 percent of L train riders supporting a shorter shutdown over partial service that would be woefully inadequate for three years, the agency will complete close the L train’s Manhattan stations and the tunnel under the East River. Trains will continue to run between Bedford Ave. and Rockaway Parkway at eight-minute headways, providing riders with connections to the 3, A, C, J, Z, M and G trains. The MTA will have to rebuild two tubes that are over 7100 feet long and replace and harden all of the infrastructure within those tubes. A shutdown, Hakim said, is “the least risky way to do a project of this nature and the amount of work that needs to be done.”
As part of the work, the MTA will add more entrances and elevators to the Bedford Ave. station and an accessible entrance to the 1st Ave. stop at Avenue A, thus opening up more of Alphabet City to the L train. It’s small carrot for what will be a year and a half of transit pain, but these are necessary improvements that should bolster commuters for all. The agency has unfortunately dismissed the idea of adding tail tracks at 8th Ave. I’ve written in the past as something that should be on the table. Here’s the MTA’s rationale:
The existing L subway line terminal at 8 Av, which allows for a maximum of 28 trains per hour, is currently not, nor is it projected to be, the capacity constraint on L subway line frequency. Long term ridership forecasts do not show the need for frequency of service beyond what the terminal can already accommodate. Extending the tail tracks, which are tracks just beyond the end lines that can be used for storing and turning around trains, would allow trains to enter the station at higher speeds, but the large cost of constructing such a project would not justify the relatively minor gains in passenger travel time.
As the hammer came down on Monday, the MTA announced some contingencies plans but largely punted on the rest. There are, after all, 29 months for planning before the L shuts down. What we know though is that the MTA will run full-length G trains while increasing service on the G, M, J and Z trains. The agency will provide free transfers between the G at Broadway and the J/M/Z at Lorimer St. and between the L and 3 at Junius/Livonia. As for other mitigation efforts — a bus bridge or increased ferry service — the MTA stated, “A range of additional bus and ferry services are being developed along different portions of the corridor. We plan to work closely with the City and State to develop routes and determine service levels needed to accommodate projected ridership.”
As MTA plans go, this one is well-thought-out and comprehensive with the agency indicating a need and willingness to work with the city. It earned praise from transit advocates and local politicians both for its transparency and community engagement efforts, but that didn’t stop the city from trying to get in a jab at the Governor’s transit agency. In a statement to The Times, Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris threw some unnecessary barbs while ignoring months of outreach:
The L train carries more than 300,000 riders per day and is a vital transit artery for neighborhoods on both sides of the East River. While we recognize the need for the MTA to perform these important repairs and upgrades, we are deeply concerned that it would announce an 18-month shutdown of this critical service without a clear plan or a commitment of resources for mitigating the impact of this closure on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Well before this shutdown occurs, New Yorkers deserve clarity from the MTA on how it intends to minimize inconvenience and keep people moving throughout the duration of the construction.
Mayor Bill de Blasio added his two cents later on in the day which included some unnecessary defense as part of his ongoing schoolyard feud with the governor:
First of all, I’ll remind everyone the MTA is run by the State of New York. The amount of time that they have projected — the 18 months — is a very big concern for me and for the City government. We’re going to have some very serious conversations about the MTA, about whether it has to take that long and how it’s going to be handled. I want to make sure there’s a lot of redundancy in place. By the time it happens, one — small but important factors — we’ll have the citywide ferry service in place, so that’ll be helpful, but we’re going to need a lot more than that, obviously. So I want to press the MTA to show us that 300,000 riders really will have good and consistent alternatives. And we’re certainly going to look at what we have to do in terms of the bridge as part of that. We’ll have an answer on that after those discussions with the MTA.
The reality is that it’s incumbent upon the mayor and his Department of Transportation to lead here. The MTA has signaled a very clear intent to work with the city to develop contingency plans, and even though a ferry from Williamsburg is likely one part of that plan, it’s clear that the MTA hopes to run constant buses over the Williamsburg Bridge, a move that requires support and authorization from the city. Additionally, numerous local officials have lined up in support of the 14th St. Peopleway, and for the MTA to realize this call for a transit-only street focusing on buses, bikes and pedestrians, DOT again would have to act. That’s firmly on the Mayor’s shoulders no matter who ultimately runs the MTA. It’s all politics to him though even when the commutes of hundreds of thousands are at stake.
So we have a plan, and we have a timeline. Now, we need the contingencies. It shouldn’t be hard for various agencies to come together on a plan, and ultimately, the city can see what dedicated transit space can do. The L train shutdown will be ugly and painful and stressful for numerous communities of various backgrounds, but maybe the city and state can make the most of a crisis. Cuomo might not want to own it, and de Blasio may want to politicize it today. But when all is said and done, New York City could just be better off for it by the time mid-2020 rolls around.