Home L Train Shutdown As the L Train Turns: Inside the Supplemental Environmental Assessment

As the L Train Turns: Inside the Supplemental Environmental Assessment

by Benjamin Kabak

The latest MTA documents include detailed analyses of the anticipated travel patterns during the upcoming L train shutdown.

The dog days of summer are not often busy ones for transit news in New York City. Faulty subway air conditioning usually dominates complaints as the general malaise of sweltering platforms and sub-par service settles in. But this year, with the 2019 L train closure inching ever closer, August will host a transit hearing. Scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m., the MTA will host a public comment session on its latest and greatest Supplemental Environmental Assessment statement concerning the mitigation plans for the L train shutdown.

The document itself has been available online for a few weeks and has a bit of a controversial history as it was not published until well after a group of West Village residents filed a controversial lawsuit against the MTA, NYC DOT and Federal Transit Administration over the L train shutdown. As I wrote in April, I don’t believe this suit has much merit, and in recent court filings, the defendants have argued to dismiss the suit entirely. Essentially, the MTA, NYC DOT and the FTA have all claimed that Arthur Schwartz and his plaintiffs do not have standing, are asserting claims not yet ready for adjudication and/or has gotten the facts wrong in multiple filings.

I’m amused by that last part, but it’s neither here nor there right now. Soon the judge will likely dismiss the case, but it hasn’t been without its successes. Notably, the MTA has axed plans to install a platform edge door trial at the L train’s 3rd Ave. stop to fund ADA upgrades at the L train’s closed stations. This decision was the right one, and it came out directly as a result of the lawsuit.

Second, the feds and the MTA released the Supplemental Environmental Assessment that forms the basis for Monday’s public comment session and was a major element of Schwartz’s lawsuit. With the EA on hand and the finding that the MTA/NYC DOT mitigation plan will be more beneficial to the city while creating to significant adverse impacts, Schwartz’s main claim essentially disappears. He could re-file a suit alleging that the EA is wrong, but judges overwhelming give deference to government agencies in their findings in these types of assessments. It’s unlikely Schwartz was succeed in stopping any of the mitigation plans on substantive grounds so long as the government follows the right procedures in making their determination.

But my legal analysis aside, the EA is an interesting document but not for the reasons you may suspect. By and large, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know and haven’t heard over and over again from the MTA. It charts in painstaking detail the various mitigation plans (which the MTA distilled into a handy PDF visual a few days ago). But I found a few parts worth examining. First, the main document uses the “temporary” 409 times in about 125 pages. The MTA and FTA have gone out of their way to underscore how the mitigation plans — the 14th St. busway, the bike lanes on adjacent streets, the HOV restrictions across the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn-Manhattan bus routes, all of it — are temporary. This too is designed to head off a lawsuit claiming the L train shutdown is serving as cover for the city to implement transit improvements without following the painstakingly long and arduous Community Board process. If these measures prove successful, the city should push to make some of them permanent, but that’s a story for another day.

The other part I found interesting is in the appendices [pdf], and it includes a detailed breakdown of the MTA’s alternatives analysis regarding the L train shutdown. Although the MTA had previously told the public that it had considered a one-tube-at-a-time approach to the work or a nights-and-weekends option, the agency had never gone into detail as to why it opted against either of these approaches until this Supplemental Environmental Assessment came out. First, the MTA readily dismissed the nights-and-weekends plan as technically infeasible. The overall timeline for work was up to a decade, and the agency determined that a 55-hour weekend window would be around 25-30 hours too short to ensure the air in the tunnel is free from silica dust, causing service delays well into the work week.

While the one-tube approach survived the first cut, the MTA determined that it failed on additional specific criteria. With just one tube of the L train open, the MTA worried about “severe overcrowding” and would have needed to implement significant mitigation plans as it will next year while completing work in 36 months rather than 15. “The only way to reduce L train overcrowding in this scenario would be to provide a robust alternative service plan of a similar magnitude to the one proposed for the double-track closure,” the document states. Ultimately, the single-track plan fared worse on every analytical criteria, and an overwhelming majority of L train riders preferred the shorter, full-time shutdown. It’s all laid out in print in painstaking detail, largely in response to Schwartz’s claims that the MTA hadn’t conducted (or released) this analysis.

Ultimately, this Supplemental Environmental Analysis document is one the MTA should have released from the get-go with the level of detail contained in the appendices. The agency opened itself up to potential lawsuits by not doing so, and an air of opacity settled around the project. This was a self-inflicted wound and one that should have been avoided. But with the EA public, the dirty laundry has been aired, and legal objections to the L train shutdown and mitigation plans should now be dismissed. And now how about extending that busway all the way across town?

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Elvis Delgado August 6, 2018 - 7:52 am

Interesting document indeed…but one question (out of many): Unlike some of the aspects of the plan that you cite, the new transfers are neither described as permanent nor temporary. Are any of them (Junius/Livonia is the one I have in mind) expected to remain in place one reconstruction has ended?

Benjamin Kabak August 6, 2018 - 8:31 am

I’m not sure. I know the reopened entrances are intended to be. The out-of-system transfers have a way of disappearing after a while. That said, the MTA has plans to build an actual in-system transfer at Junius/Livonia at some point, and they should maintain the out-of-system transfer until then.

Alex August 6, 2018 - 10:56 am

It still seems crazy to me that they aren’t introducing any local bus service through the Queens-Midtown tunnel. At minimum, it could divert some of the ridership from Greenpoint away from the crush-level crowds at Court Square, and it would get a rider from Bedford Avenue a lot closer to their likely place of work than a bus over the Williamsburg Bridge would.

MDC August 6, 2018 - 10:58 am

“Notably, the MTA has axed plans to install a platform edge door trial at the L train’s 3rd Ave. stop to fund ADA upgrades at the L train’s closed stations.”

I’m a little confused by this sentence. Do you mean that dropping the plan for the 3rd Ave. platform doors is allowing the MTA to fund ADA upgrades?

(Also: I thought ADA upgrades had been in plans all along for 1st Ave. and Bedford Ave.)

Benjamin Kabak August 6, 2018 - 11:04 am

Correct. Instead of platform doors, they are making the shuttered L stations fully accessible, partly in response to the lawsuit. Previously, the plan had been ADA upgrades but not full accessibility.

Kai B August 7, 2018 - 9:31 am

I see no plans for elevators at 3rd Ave. The way I read it the funds for the 3rd Ave platform screen doors were reallocated to making 6th Ave ADA accessible.

AMH August 15, 2018 - 11:05 am

That’s my understanding as well. It would be great to have elevators at 3 Av, but the 6 Av complex should take priority.

MDC August 6, 2018 - 5:27 pm

Good to know, thanks.

John-2 August 6, 2018 - 9:53 pm

Did the document state the location of the ADA at First Avenue? It would seem as though building it along with the rest of the new Avenue A entrance would make the most financial sense, especially if the new entrance includes a crossover above the tracks between the Brooklyn and Eighth Avenue platforms. That would mean one less elevator to maintain than at First Avenue, but it would also then make Avenue A the default main entrance for the L, and people who would still be using the First Avenue one might not be too happy about having to use HEETs on late nights and weekends.

Kai B August 7, 2018 - 9:38 am

Last I read the elevators would be at Avenue A. I don’t think you have to worry about the HEETs though, as the MTA seems to have given up their former HEET policies for unstaffed entrances when there’s significant volume. There are now plenty of low turnstiles with no station agent nearby.


John A. Noble August 7, 2018 - 12:46 pm

Although not the main focus of this post, one passage in the MTA’s assessment caught my eye–

“Increase AM peak-hour M train service serving the Queens Boulevard line (from 9 tph to 12 tph) with a corresponding reduction in R train service (from 10 tph to 8 tph). The maximum capacity of the Queens Boulevard local tracks is 20 tph due to limited terminal capacity at 71st Avenue.
Increasing the M line by 3 tph, requires that the R line be reduced to 8 tph. Increased M line service from Queens into Manhattan will be needed to help relieve crowding at Court Square. With this change, peak direction R service would not be reduced in Brooklyn, and the R line would continue to operate
within MTA NYCT passenger loading guidelines.”
That statement contradicts itself. Two R trains would be removed, but peak service in Brooklyn wouldn’t be reduced? Where else can R trains terminate? Rerouting them to 96th St-2nd Avenue would force a reduction in Q train service, and rerouting them to Whitehall St would force a reduction in W train service, wouldn’t it? Or am I wrong?

Also, it’s mentioned that bus service will be increased on multiple lines (as it should be). But there aren’t an infinite number of buses or bus drivers — so what lines are going to see reduced service?

Brooklynite August 7, 2018 - 9:59 pm

It’s probably 96/2, which has extra capacity. The Q only runs 10tph during the rush, and the capacity of the terminal is 20tph or so. That said there’s also the option of having Ws start from Bay Ridge to replace the lost Rs.

John A. Noble August 8, 2018 - 10:46 am

Wow, I didn’t realize that 96/2 was so far under capacity. Thank you. (I selfishly don’t much care *where* the R trains terminate, as long as the already sketchy service in Brooklyn isn’t further reduced.)

wiseinfrastructure August 7, 2018 - 10:18 pm

71st Ave was not meant to be a terminal (as can be seen by the fact that the the IND is 4 tracks all the way out to 179th Street), but rather a yard access or possible branch (as it served for the world’s fare).

Why not run some or all of the IND locals out to 179th Street (running some F’s on the express tracks if needed)? Before the archer avenue extension, 179th street was the terminal for and turned around all E’s and F’s which much have been in the high 20’s train per hour.

SEAN August 8, 2018 - 10:14 am

In fact, F should be express full time to from 179/ Hillside & M or R trains should run local to & from there. There’s demand east of Kew Gardens not being met with the current service configuration.

J Adlai August 14, 2018 - 8:05 am

After the opening of the Archer Ave subway, the original service plan had the R train operating to 179th street as a local (see a service guide here). This service plan was dropped at the behest of ridership.

AMH August 15, 2018 - 11:13 am

That should absolutely be a priority with the R179 fleet expansion.

Random fan August 18, 2018 - 12:54 am

The R179s are NOT for fleet expansion. The B Division (lettered lines) have been running with a car shortage since the R44s decided to kick the bucket. Sure there will be more trains, but there will not be that many trains to expand service, such as the R to 179th Street.

Michael549 August 17, 2018 - 8:24 pm

From a previous message:

“71st Ave was not meant to be a terminal (as can be seen by the fact that the the IND is 4 tracks all the way out to 179th Street), but rather a yard access or possible branch (as it served for the world’s fare).”

This is a very much an un-true statement. The IND Queens Blvd. Subway line to 71st Avenue-Forest Hills subway station was opened in 1937 as the terminal for the GG line. In 1936, the previous terminal was Roosevelt Avenue with the extension by eight stops and 3.5 miles.

THere’s the http://www.nycsubway.org website with the following map – https://www.nycsubway.org/perl/caption.pl?/img/maps/ind_1937.jpg.

The GG, the Brooklyn/Queens Crosstown Local – operated as a Queens Blvd local service from since 1937 with the 71st Avenue-Forest Hills subway station as its Queens terminal. In 1937 the E-train express run to the 169th Street-Hillside Avenue terminal.

In 1955 the opening of the 11th Avenue Cut allowed the connection between the BMT 60th Street Tunnel and the Queens Blvd line. With the QT, RR, EE, N and now the R line all serving the Queens Blvd. local stations with the 71st Avenue-Forest Hills subway station as their terminal.

Please note that while the 179th Street-Hillside Avenue terminal was planned in 1928, it was not completed and opened in 1950, becoming a major transit hub.

So the City’s Board of Transportation, the city’s Transit Authority, and later the Metropolitan Transit Authority has continued over the decades to use the 71st Avenue-Forest Hills subway station as a terminal several editions of its Queens Blvd local service.

Just stating the facts.


Michael549 August 18, 2018 - 6:30 pm

I forgot to mention that the V and M train lines also used the the 71st Avenue-Forest Hills subway station as its Queens terminal.

ChrisC August 10, 2018 - 12:36 pm

Are they doing any other works at the closed stations – deep cleans / repairs / paint / fix any track etc issues

Given the stations are closed it is an opportunity to fix any and all problems in one swoop and it will be cheaper too.

AMH August 15, 2018 - 11:09 am

This line really got me: “…claiming the L train shutdown is serving as cover for the city to implement transit improvements…”

God forbid we ever have transit improvements!

smotri August 15, 2018 - 11:24 am

Indeed! If anything, they always use something like this to UNimprove things, whether it is the City, the State or the MTA that is doing things.


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