Home Superstorm Sandy On the MTA’s L train problem, and the L train riders’ MTA problem

On the MTA’s L train problem, and the L train riders’ MTA problem

by Benjamin Kabak

The L train riders have a problem. Due to the millions of gallons of saltwater that flooded the Canarsie Tubes during Hurricane Sandy, a prolonged shutdown of the L train’s connection to Manhattan is all but inevitable. This work isn’t expected to start until mid-2017, and the agency is struggling to determine if a three-year shutdown that may allow single-tracking is preferable to a 14-18 month total shutdown of service. From local businesses to housing to daily commuters, the L train shutdown is a Problem with a capital P.

Even as plans are up in the air, Northern Brooklyn residents aren’t happen. Therein lies the MTA’s problem. Based on a general distrust of an agency that has failed to deliver projects on time and on budget and has a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for a lack of transparency (we always knew that lingering trope about two sets of books would come back to bite), New Yorkers simply do not trust the MTA. So when the MTA says it has to shutdown the L train for a prolonged period of time but doesn’t sufficiently explain the depths of the work or the extent of the damage, the public who would have to suffer through longer trips on crowded trains will be skeptical and angry.

Yesterday, that anger unfolded in an entirely unproductive and childish way that benefits no one involved in this process. What was supposed to be a private meeting during which community leaders were to voice their concerns turned into a public forum for politicians to grandstand and business owners to vent. To more or less ended when community leaders kicked out the MTA representative they had invited to attend the meeting to hear their concerns. It’s my understanding that, when the MTA accepted the invite, they did so telling the community that plans were not ready for public discussion. The community members acknowledged this limitation but then were critical when the MTA failed to disclose plans the agency didn’t have. It was, in essence, a public ambush that ended with an eviction. It’s made for a nice bit of theater but has led to more distrust on both sides of a process that needs to be collaborative and cooperative.

Let’s see how this unfolded via Twitter coverage:

Following the meeting, an MTA spokesman express the agency’s commitment to cooperation, saying: “The safety of riders must be the number one priority. The Canarsie tube suffered serious damage during superstorm Sandy, and it must be repaired. The MTA is looking for the best ways to mitigate the service disruptions and customer inconvenience that will result from this critical repair work. As we have made clear both prior to and at the meeting, we are committed to maintaining a dialog with the affected communities as we analyze the options. As the process moves forward we will continue to listen to ideas from our riders, local businesses and elected officials.”

From where I sit, the path forward is simple but will take some trust-building on both sides. The MTA has to be transparent with the state of the Canarsie Tube. If riders and residents fear for their safety, the MTA hasn’t done a good job explaining what work needs to be done and why or what the status of the tube currently is. While those aware of the extent of Sandy’s damage could point to the R train’s Montague St. Tube as a good example, the MTA can’t work from the assumption that casual L train riders know or care about work that happened on the R line. While you and I may pay attention to these things, for the vast majority of New Yorkers, the subway is the line they take on a daily basis, and L train riders through the Canarise Tube aren’t R train riders through the Montague St. Tube. Sandy was now over three years ago, and memory fades fast.

On the other hand, the community should be understand about expressing their concerns in a collaborative and cooperative process. If they’re not getting answers, the solution isn’t to expel the person listening to their concerns from the meeting. Rather, work together to find out a way forward. Furthermore, politicians like Sen. Martin Dilan shouldn’t threaten access to billions of dollars of badly-needed funding to fulfill a personal vendetta. That is a counterproductive step in a process fraught with complications.

So now a detente settles in until the next meeting in February. This work is still far off, but the path forward is opening up. We’ll see how the sides respond next time, but hopefully, transparency and maturity will rule that meeting. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long few years for L train riders.

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Peter January 29, 2016 - 11:43 am

Why does it take 14-18 months to finish this work even with a total shutdown? We know the MTA isn’t just pulling that number out of thin air because they’ve been through it with Montague. But couldn’t that timeline be compressed? I assume Montague repairs didn’t occur around-the-clock, but couldn’t they flood the zone to finish the Canarsie tube more quickly?

Fbfree January 29, 2016 - 12:40 pm

Fighting flood with flood.

Benjamin Kabak January 29, 2016 - 12:51 pm

The questions the MTA needs to answer are: What is the absolute least amount of time this project could take and how can we beat that estimate?

Tower18 January 29, 2016 - 1:14 pm

A common brainstorming question in business is to ask, in this context, how long would you need to get this work done under perfect circumstances? Assume you have everything and anything you need. Then back that up to understand what would be needed to meet that. Then figure out if even that is conservative. Then weigh costs vs. benefits.

I’m a pretty smart guy, not to toot my own horn, but what I mean is I’m not hurr durr foaming at the mouth about two sets of books and the MTA can’t be trusted. But I’ll be damned if this doesn’t feel like the same as toll/fare increases: You need 1X. Propose 3X. Settle for 1.3X. Idiots are relieved.

mister January 29, 2016 - 1:09 pm

The most disruptive construction activity in the tube itself is the removal of the concrete ductbank that carries cables through the tunnel. Not every tunnel struck by Sandy needs to have this ductbank replaced, but Montague did, and I believe Canarsie will. Due to the age of the tunnel, and fear of damaging that tunnel, small heavy equipment like a brokk robo breaker was disallowed by MTA inside the tube, and instead was done by hand. These ductbanks then need to be rebuilt for the length of the tube, and then, after all of that is done, then they can proceed with pulling new cable and the associated work with that.

That’s probably the biggest issue that requires a lengthy, continuous shutdown. And you can believe that they are going to be working around the clock to get this work done.

Stephen Smith January 29, 2016 - 1:18 pm

Given the extreme anti-technology attitudes of the MTA and its construction unions, I think it’s worth seriously questioning them about why slow, manual methods are needed.

(I recall reading that the MTA was still using dynamite long after others had shifted to tunnel boring machines, and they were slow to adopt things like earth pressure balance machines. To this day I don’t think they’ve really adopted the New Austrian Tunneling Method techniques that other cities have used to drive tunneling costs down so low.)

pete January 29, 2016 - 2:07 pm

Other transit systems use track laying MOW equipment. NYCT lifts rails with man power alone, and every nail and pandrol clip is put on with a hammer, not a MOW car. Everything is done like it is 1904 (they now use electric jack hammers and drills instead of pneumatic, but that is the only improvement from 1904).

mister January 29, 2016 - 3:48 pm

That’s not true. NYCT makes use of ballast tampers, CWR and track panel construction to limit what needs to be assembled on-site. Yes, there are railroads that use automated equipment to replace rails, but can you point to another transit system that uses an automated system for track replacement on steel els or underground portions of their system?

Here’s CTA doing the same thing that you see MTA doing. Some work still requires a lot of manpower to get things built. Could they do better? Absolutely. But it is by no means still 1904.

mister January 29, 2016 - 3:33 pm

In this case, there is a legitimate fear of breaking the cast iron tunnel lining. Whether or not there is another way of doing this faster, ideally that’s where the private sector contractors could propose something and come in with a lower bid.

Stephen Smith January 29, 2016 - 7:54 pm

Definitely – I certainly do not have the expertise to determine whether they’re doing it in the quickest and most efficient way possible. I just know that in the past they have definitely not done things very quickly or efficiently. I wish this Brooklyn group were spending its energy trying to push the MTA to do this efficiently, not asking them to bring in an independent engineer to determine whether it’s necessary to begin with (which I suspect it is).

Joe January 30, 2016 - 2:13 pm

It seems like the best idea for the community group would be to hire someone from a Japanese railway and ask them how long it would take them to rebuild a tunnel lining.

Ms. P March 7, 2016 - 4:41 pm

Yall want a lot for 275

anon_coward January 29, 2016 - 1:20 pm

because they have to rip out all the tracks, wiring, fix up the tunnel and put new tracks and wiring back in

Ms. P March 7, 2016 - 4:38 pm

I don’t know why everyone is bugging…do yall want the tunnel to cave in and everyone drown? Let them shut it down for the 13-16 months and fix the tunnel. The amount of people that ride the train to do one track in and one track out will take for ever and a bunch of delays. Let them shut it down and fix it. What is wrong with yall.

Ms. P March 7, 2016 - 4:40 pm

Let them do what they have to do. Yall must want to drown, acting like a bunch of babies. I take the L and have been taking it for over 26 years, I hold my breathe going through the tube. Let them do what they have to do. Find another way.

Jerrold January 29, 2016 - 1:07 pm

Throwing him out was a mistake because it allowed him to escape from having to hear the truth (and hear the demands FOR the truth) from the community.
If he had WALKED out, he would now be getting called a coward who had run away from hearing the truth and the demands for the truth.

mister January 29, 2016 - 1:11 pm

What truth are you referring to? I don’t understand what MTA is hiding from or trying to hide in this instance. Why would they want to shut down this tunnel?

Jerrold January 29, 2016 - 1:21 pm

The truth means all the information that the community is rightfully demanding, not just vague generalities.

mister January 29, 2016 - 3:25 pm

I agree with you that MTA would only help themselves by being more transparent about the process. I don’t think they’re trying to be deceptive though. They have no incentive to shut this tunnel down unless they absolutely have to, and I don’t think they have the answer yet. But yelling at a rep of the agency isnt’ going to help either party.

Ms. P March 7, 2016 - 4:43 pm

If those wall give in and the train is going through then what? What are yall being so damn difficult let them do their jobs.

Th January 29, 2016 - 5:05 pm

By using the word truth you are implying that you are being presented lies, when in fact are being presented with unknowns. Here is what is known: 1) The work will not start for another year and a half. 2) There are two possibilities on the table, a total shutdown of the Canarsie Tubes for a year or a partial shutdown, crippling service for up to three years. 3) There will be other transit alternatives implemented for when the construction does commence. The only question that remains is which of the two possibilities will be implemented for which the answer for now is “We don’t know yet”, that is not a lie, they just don’t know yet! Regardless, that is plenty of information to decide whether or not open or close a business, buy or sell an apartment, or embark on a real estate development project. In either scenario, L train service will only be affected into Manhattan, and presumably service along the rest of the line between Bedford and Canarsie will be near normal. Going out on a limb and guessing that sometime between now and mid-2017 the MTA will decide which option to implement, but really what difference does it make? Either way the L train will not be reliable for some time, and there is no avoiding that. The MTA has been pretty clear about the need for repairs ever since Sandy and it not something that is coming out of the blue. MTA’s decision will likely come as a result from the feedback of the regular L train riders, the only “truth” that needs to be uncovered. Personally, I live very close to the Bedford Ave stop and have for the past 5 years. Yes, it is going to be inconvenient, but I place no blame on the MTA and having followed this situation via this website and other NYC local news sites, I can tell you that its all out there, completely transparent. My personal preference would be for the total shutdown, I would rather deal with it for a year only rather than three. What is yours?

Stu Sutcliffe January 30, 2016 - 2:21 am

Who says that he would have walked out?

Roger January 29, 2016 - 2:14 pm

It has been about 4 years after Sandy and the L train is running fine. So why do we even have to repair it?

Benjamin Kabak January 29, 2016 - 2:41 pm

“Fine” is relative. It’s not really running all that fine, and the temporary fixes the MTA instituted to get trains back through the tunnels after Sandy will hold for only so much longer.

Ms. P March 7, 2016 - 4:48 pm

You right Benjamin the L has not be running right for a couple of years. Since so many people have moved on that line now no one wants to find a alternate route. WTF yall acting like you know how to build tunnels and repair tracks. They are doing it for our safety. Acting like a bunch of babies if you ask me. I rather them do in in 16 months to doing it in 7 years. Let them shut it down completely and do what they have to do. I saw someone say built another tunnel down the middle. Let them do what they have to do. It might be less time if they take it down completely, they might get done quicker. Buy all this complaining and rallying is holding up the process.

Marc January 29, 2016 - 3:28 pm

Damage from salt water is progressive. Think of it the way we looked at the health effects of Ground Zero. Some things were immediate but others took years to manifest. Because of the salt water intrusion, both concrete and metal are deteriorating. Without repairs we will have more frequent small failures, as happened in Montague, or a major failure that knocks out service for a lengthy period.

The MTA should 1) explain the extent of the damage; 2) explain why the damage cannot be repaired with night/weekend closures; 3) explain the pros and cons of closing one versus two tracks as well as the costs of any accellerated schedule; 4) have an open process to determine alternate travel methods such as shuttle buses and espanded service on other lines; 5) perform other L line improvements during the repairs including adding entrances and ADA access at First and Bedford Avenues and upgrading the power to allow 30 trains per hour on the line

rustonite January 29, 2016 - 3:59 pm

ever owned a hoopty? the kind of car that drives fine today, but tomorrow you might walk out and turn the key and black smoke explodes out of the engine? that’s the L right now. it’s fine until it’s not.

aestrivex January 29, 2016 - 3:21 pm

I have ridden the L through the 14th street tunnel a number of times since Sandy. And to be honest I’m surprised in the first place that they can even run anything through that tunnel in the shape it’s in.

Michael549 January 29, 2016 - 3:22 pm

When I read the comments in a recent article in the Gothamist, “The MTA’s Looming L Train Shutdown Has North Brooklyn Panicking”. It got me to thinking.

Every day when I walk past the South Ferry station – I mean the new station that was flooded by millions of gallons of water – I am reminded of Hurricane Sandy.

Every day when I walk past Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan – and restoration work being done in the park to make it more resilient – I am reminded of Hurricane Sandy.

Every day when I walk around the Whitehall Street area and note the buildings that still have emergency facilities parked on the streets – I am reminded of Hurricane Sandy. Several shops and places that I frequented have not returned or re-opened.

I know that the trudging up to the Rector Street station because of the flooding and then later repair work of the South Ferry complex – were needed but a hassle. It sure beat the entire year that there was no service at all because due to 9/11 a skyscraper came crashing down in the middle of a subway station that severed service on the #1 line. Do some folks really think that the MTA “asked” for these things to have happened?

Right now due to the efforts to make the South Ferry/Whitehall Street complex more resilient to future storms – the major entrance has been closed for reconstruction for a year – basically returning the area to the kind of subway access that existed in 1998!

After the storm hit there were plenty of pictures of the damage to the subways, not only of the South Ferry area, but also in mid-town Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. A long time ago the MTA even put out a map and notices that they would have to fix the subway tunnels all of the way up to the 53rd Street tunnel. Somehow the need to fix the 14th Street Tunnel does not seem to be something “completely hidden that nobody knew anything about.”

The L-train 14th Street Tunnel sits right next the Con Edison electrical plant that suffered some really terrific terror-level explosions when Hurricane Sandy hit, and blew out all power in Manhattan south of 39th Street! Meaning no power to pump out the water in the subway tunnels. Let alone any power to charge up a cell phone as many learned!

I’m pretty sure that the folks in the Rockaways appreciated Hurricane Sandy for completely tearing up the A train tracks that extended across Jamaica Bay, and the long period of time it took for the re-building of the trackage. The entire Rockaway Peninsula lost all subway service due to Hurricane Sandy! Did anybody save the picture of the boat that was parked in the middle of the twisted torn-up tracks after the storm hit?

The MTA “not being transparent”! – By just looking out on Jamaica Bay and seeing the train tracks and trestle completely wiped away is somehow “not transparent”? I sure as hell know that there were a lot of pictures of the millions of gallons of water flooding the newish South Ferry terminal and that some folks suggested that the newish station should be abandoned.

I’m pretty sure that the folks in Greenpoint when the G-train was shut down for several weeks did not think that it was due to some kind of mystery? There were discussions about that here for weeks.

For more than a year the R-train via the Montague Street Tunnel was shut down – meaning different trips daily. Some transit folks said, “well its easy” because there are alternative transfers. The service was still out – because the necessary work had to be done! There was no getting around that fact – the damage was clear, and work still remains on the section of tunnel to the Broad Street station.

When I attend the Brooklyn Recovery Meetings that detail the happenings in Brooklyn to help the many households and businesses that were impacted by Hurricane Sandy and still suffering – I am reminded of Hurricane Sandy. Until Hurricane Sandy many NYC folks never gave any thought to a flood zone map or the insurance issues involved.

I know that the Staten Island Recovery process is still underway, and that “Build It Back” has had its issues all over Brooklyn, Staten Island and other neighborhoods. Until Hurricane Sandy many NYC folks never gave any thought to the idea that they might have to RAISE their house to prevent it from being flooded. When the homes of your friends have been flooded, your work-place and home have to exist without power or use a backup generator – Hurricane Sandy never ever became some abstract event. I am reminded of Hurricane Sandy – but that’s because it is not that difficult to be reminded.

I am wondering if this is a case of: “If your ox is gored – that’s bad – that sucks”. And if my ox is gored – it is a freaking tragedy that requires nothing less than the national guard being called and the president on my door-step RIGHT NOW!!


FlavaNation January 30, 2016 - 7:59 am

The ultimate solution, the one that would enable full two-way operation of the L train at all times, would be to build a third tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan-14th street. That way, they would build this new tunnel first, then take one of the original canarsie tubes out of service to be repaired. This way, the L train would remain a two-track railroad throughout the duration of construction. Of course, this would be the most expensive option. With regards to Gateway/North River Tunnels, it is talked about as being essential to maintain the two-way railroad, yet for Canarsie, they are talking as if a 12-15 month shutdown is inevitable. I’ve seen various ridership numbers, but if the Canarsie tubes are at 200,000 commuters per day, that’s greater than the amount of riders that use the North River Tunnels into Penn Station each day, which I believe is around 180,000.

Now I’m not suggesting they should absolutely do this, but it needs to be in the conversation. The damage to the North Brooklyn economy would be very high with a closure like this, so it may very well be worth it to spend $1 Billion + on a third tunnel. The political will, of course, would need to be there. The dialogue would have to emphasize maintaining the two-track railroad, as is proposed with the Gateway construction. Like I said, this “ultimate option” should be in the conversation.

Chris January 30, 2016 - 8:55 am

This is so unrealistic it’ll never happen. Is there an use for the third tunnel after all tunnels have been repaired?

Tower18 January 30, 2016 - 11:06 am

This is ridiculous, but I mean if you’re going to suggest new tunnels, why should it be a third 14th St tunnel? Why not the Houston/S 4th tunnel to Utica? Two birds, one tunnel.

But, be realistic.

Ike January 30, 2016 - 4:33 pm

I want some of what you’re smoking. It would take them AT LEAST until the end of 2017 just to design such a thing, much less to start building it. By then, they need to start fixing the existing tunnel. Too late. You might as well wish for the moon to be green cheese.

Mmmm, cheese.

Ms. P March 7, 2016 - 4:50 pm

It still has to go through the tunnel. What is wrong with you. The L train is the only train in NYC that only one train runs on that track. We were lucky for a long time. Shut it down and let them do the tunnel.

BMTLines January 30, 2016 - 11:09 am

Lets face it – the MTA is owned by the government, therefore it should be completely transparent in every detail to the taxpayers that support it. I have reports from the Board of Transportation, that operated first the IND and later the entire system, from the 1940s that have a LOT more information in them than the MTA ever divulges. In this so-called information age there is no excuse for a government-owned entity not to disclose the same or more than was available for the public in the 1940s.

Nyland8 January 30, 2016 - 11:14 am

So here we find yet another opportunity for yet another missed opportunity … and the missed opportunity would be driving the L Line further westward. While the Canarsie tube is being worked on, they should bust through the wall on 8th Avenue and advance those tunnels another 900′ minimum, preferably with a slow descent in the process.

Federal transportation funds should be applied for with the idea that the tube might someday cross the Hudson and connect with Lautenberg in Secaucus (the shortest and straightest Hudson crossing) but the more immediate return would be that by the time the Canarsie tube reopens, the L Line will be able to not only store a couple of trains at the west end (making its scheduling more flexible and shortening its turnaround time) but that instead of crawling in at 5mph, it would be able to fly into the station at full speed, AND enter 8th Ave without cuing up for a couple of minutes first, which it seems to do about 80% of the time.

As it is currently planned, when the Canarsie tube work is complete, the only thing its daily ridership will appear to get for their trouble is a return to the same service they used to have. But all the complaints of the L Line ridership will fade into history much more quickly if, by the time it reopens, it has genuine improvements in speed and service. It will make some of the inconvenience and suffering seem worth it in the end.

NOW is the time to plan on punching through that wall – before inter-borough service is interrupted.

DHA January 30, 2016 - 11:43 am

The MTA should absolutely piggyback work like this onto the tunnel project. When else will there be a chance to do such disruptive work once the line is back into commission?

One might also consider the wisdom of constructing some infrastructure to support an eventual connection between the L and SAS at 3rd Avenue. This work all has to happen sometime… an argument could me made for doing it now.

However, do we know if there has been any engineering / planning work done around expanding the line westward or making other enhancements? I would think this stuff has a lot better chance of happening if it was included as a need in the Capital Plan or had been discussed as a potential project, but to my knowledge I’ve never heard mention of projects like these in MTA documents.

Nyland8 January 30, 2016 - 1:23 pm

Point taken, DHA. Since the 3rd Ave exit is entirely at the western end of the station, starting infrastructure work for connecting to the SAS wouldn’t be too disruptive even if they started it tomorrow. And the really disruptive work – blasting the station cavern – could be undertaken when the L is shut down in the near future.

But it would require more than myopic vision, which we don’t seem to have, and it will require a political patron – which is how Lautenberg Station got built, and exactly how the 7 Line got extended to the Hudson Yards. Without a strong political advocate, it seems like nothing that makes sense can be accomplished. The non-existent Hell’s Kitchen station on the 7 Line is a perfect case in point. It SHOULD have been done, but there was nobody to shepherd it into existence.

It would be nice if some elected official would adopt the L Line, and expedite the type of much-needed improvements that could and should be undertaken during its pending shutdown. As you point out, when will there be a better time?

Jim bob January 30, 2016 - 1:34 pm

It doesn’t help the MTA that they have a history of withholding information and making questionable decisions.

North Brooklyn residents and, especially, businesses owners, are understandably emotional about this. Either one of these “plans” will decimate many businesses. Some, perhaps many, residents will relocate.

There’s also something that no one is talking about. And I figure it’s probably related.

The L train has a quickly growing ridership that already strains capacity.

There is no practical way to significantly increase ridership on the line. There is no funding or political will for a new line.

The MTA well not be able to provide adequate service along the corridor in 5-10 years time. And ridership is expected to increase a great deal in the next decade as bushwick is completely gentrified.

I suspect the damage to the tunnels isn’t much worse than many other subway sections. I suspect that it’s quite safe for travel. No question, significant repairs are necessary. But are they necessary to do now, as opposed to prioritizing other projects?

I think it’s very likely that the MTA has strategically chosen to repair the tunnels now with the intention of nipping increased gentrification along the corridor in the bud.

This scenario would certainly explain why the MTA had no desire to release info about the condition of the tunnels.

Eric January 30, 2016 - 3:46 pm

It’s actually pretty easy to increase capacity on the line. You have to dig out room for some new tail tracks at the Manhattan terminus. That will cost some money (maybe $1 billion at MTA prices), but much less money than a brand new line (maybe $30 billion at MTA prices).


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