One new to New York could be forgiven for believing as though L train riders are the only people to ride the subway or be inconvenienced by long-term construction work. For six months, the entirety of the focus of news coverage of the MTA’s Sandy recovery efforts has revolved around the L train, and while L train shutdown fatigue may be settling in three years ahead of the planned work, with so many daily riders, ahead of tonight’s public meeting, the drumbeat will only grow louder as the MTA has unveiled their potential options for the work.
Before I delve into the details, it’s worth noting that, no matter the MTA’s ultimate outcome, many L train riders have easy access to alternative routes. Every one traveling near or to the east of Broadway Junction can access the J, A and C trains (or even the 3 train), and those who live in Bushwick and the southern parts of Williamsburg can get to the M. The G, with all of its flaws, provides a connection to Queens, and the MTA has expressed a willingness to improve G train service and lengthen G trains during any L train work. Other routes will be more crowded and trips will be slower, but along with a bus lane across the Williamsburg Bridge, the infrastructure is in place to handle the L train shutdown. In other words, it’s not nearly as bad as the dire predictions of doom and gloom make it out to be.
That said, it’s not pretty. By itself, the L would be the 10th busiest subway system in the United States, and a prolonged shutdown will lead to disgruntled commuters. To that end, the MTA is officially consider two options. Gone is the idea, pushed foolishly by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, of work only on nights and weekends. Besides a potential seven-year timeframe under that approach, MTA officials determined that, per The Times, the “complex work could not be done in such a narrow window.” WNYC notes that air quality concerns foreclose the nights-and-weekends approach. The MTA also has said that building a new tunnel is too costly and time-consuming to be a viable option.
So what remains is either an 18-month total shutdown of the Canarise Tunnel or a three-year partial shutdown which would see service reduced to around 20 percent of its current volume. In each case, the MTA would run L trains between Rockaway Parkway and Lorimer Ave., but the three-year plan would create a gap in service between Lorimer and Bedford Avenues. Meanwhile, J and Z trains would operate as local and M train service would be increased. The agency would lengthening G trains to bolster capacity, and the MTA plans to work with the city to increase East River ferry service. The MTA has also expressed a willingness to establish bus-only lanes across the Williamsburg Bridge which I have long believed to be key to an alternative service arrangements. In the event of a partial tunnel shutdown, L trains would continue to run under the East River but only approximately 4-5 times per hour in each direction.
Publicly, the agency hasn’t expressed a strong preference for one approach or another, and officials say they want to hear out the concerns of the community of L train riders before making a final decision. But in comments to the press, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast seemed to indicate which way the winds are blowing. Emma Fitzsimmons reports:
After receiving input from residents and businesses, the agency plans to decide which option to pursue within three months. Asked whether he would rather close the whole tunnel at once, Mr. Prendergast said the agency was committed to hearing from the community before making a decision. But he noted that when people learned more about the plans, they often favored a full closing.
“I think there is an ‘Aha’ moment they have in their minds, like, ‘Geez if it’s only one in five people you can carry, maybe it would be better to have two tracks,’” Mr. Prendergast said in reference to closing the tracks in both tubes, the more efficient of the two options.
I’ve advocated for 18-month total shutdown. Get in and get out quickly seems to be better for the neighborhood that three years of frustratingly insufficient service.
Meanwhile, along with word of the potential approaches to the closure, the MTA released photos and a B-roll video of current conditions in the Canarsie Tube. You can see the footage below, and the MTA stressed that the tunnel remains safe. That said, despite protestations that trains will have run for six years before work begins, the MTA says it has no choice. “A collapsed duct bank could derail a train, and the worst place to be with a derailed train is in an under-river tunnel,” Prendergast said to reporters. “The longest distance between emergency exits is in the under-river tunnels.” That is, of course, the worst case scenario but one that inches ever closer to reality.
Finally, MTA officials confirmed that the shutdown would allow for new entrances to be constructed at both the Bedford and 1st Ave. stations to improve station access and passenger flow. The agency has not discussed the possibility of using a full 18-month shutdown to build tail tracks west of the 8th Ave. station, a move many transit advocates see as vital to improving L train service and line capacity.
The fun starts tonight with the first of two public meetings. Details are here, and I would expect a raucous and irate crowd. But the L train is just one part in a complex transportation network. Everyone will get through it.