A politician of which I’m not a particularly big fan once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” and as we know, with the L train’s looming shutdown, the MTA has a serious crisis on its hands. What they do with that crisis could change L train service for the good or simply repeat the mistakes of the past in which the MTA, through politics, economics or both, has let prime opportunities to upgrade and improve service slip through its hands. The proposal to maximize the crisis comes to us from the RPA, and it follows Monday’s news that the Sandy-related repairs on the L train’s Canarsie Tubes will likely shutter crosstown 14th St. service as well.
The RPA’s recommendations come on the heels of weeks of discussion over the best way to proceed, and the report is a comprehensive overview of the situation with additional improvements the MTA should not miss implementing. (You can read the whole thing right here as a PDF.) The key takeaways are important. Let’s run them down.
1. Shut down the two tunnels together for 18 months. The RPA does something the MTA hasn’t done yet: take a stand on the preferred approach to work. The report notes: “RPA’s experience and review indicate that … closing both tunnels for 18 months is the most cost effective. What’s more, it creates an opportunity to truly transform the L train. The loss of the L train service to and within Manhattan for an 18-month period will be disruptive, but doubling the construction timeline, along with the higher associated costs and extending the pain of a huge service cut is far less desirable. It’s also not possible to justify the cost of constructing a new tunnel to serve as “swing space” for the tunnel repairs when that additional capacity will go unused after the project is completed.”
2. Piggyback needed L train work onto the Sandy repairs. The RPA urges the MTA to “take advantage of this outage to rebuild a quarter of L stations
to modern standards. The agency also should make a series of additional investments to unlock the line’s capacity, taking full advantage of the agency’s earlier investment in modern train control, known as Communications-Based Train Control. This includes addressing major system bottlenecks, including the 8th Avenue terminal and dealing with crowding issues at the L’s busiest stations by resizing them to meet current and projected ridership demand.”
3. The key to better L service involves tail tracks at 8th Ave. I discussed this element of the proposal on Monday, but it’s worth revisiting. With tail tracks and a diamond switch, trains can enter 8th Ave. at speed, and the MTA has space for storage. The RPA also suggests a series of other station improvements, including ADA accessibility upgrades, wider platforms, and improved passenger circulation particularly at 8th Ave. and Union Square. A proposed entrance to the 1st Ave. station at Avenue A and improvements to the Bedford Ave. stop are already part of the plans.
4. Travel alternatives. The RPA report presented four travel alternatives that should be a part of any L train shutdown. These include a bus bridge over the Williamsburg Bridge, a 14th Street bus corridor with more space for pedestrians and cyclists, expanded service on the G and J/M/Z trains, and free transfers for the East River ferries. I would add more reliable A and C train service at Broadway Junction and an examination of capacity along Queens Boulevard to ensure riders can access Manhattan with minimal disruption.
So what’s stopping the MTA from implementing this holistic vision for L train improvements? It’s not immediately clear if the MTA has access to enough money to perform this work, but with the capital plan due for resubmission, the MTA should take advantage of this crisis. Another problem though are pandering politicians. Just yesterday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer decided she knows best and urged the MTA to take the worst approach on an L train shutdown. She claims that 7 years of no L train service on nights and weekends would be sufficient and less harmful to business which is in defiance of reality. It’s less cost effective for the MTA and would torpedo train service to Williamsburg and eastward on weekends for seven years rather than 18 months. Plus, the MTA is far less likely to implement transit-prioritization measures such as a bus bridge or dedicated bus lanes on 14th St. for a nights-and-weekends-only shutdown.
There is no way around the reality that a long shutdown will not be much fun for anyone, but with the right planning and the right approach, the MTA could turn this crisis into an advantage for future L train riders. If we miss this opportunity now, will we ever get it back again?