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?