Home L Train Shutdown Gov. Cuomo’s L train tunnel inspection is a stunt but the MTA has to pretend it isn’t

Gov. Cuomo’s L train tunnel inspection is a stunt but the MTA has to pretend it isn’t

by Benjamin Kabak

The L train tunnel seen here in 2012 shortly after Sandy will play host to Gov. Cuomo on Thursday night. Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

In four months, give or take a few weeks, the MTA is finally going to shut down the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan for Superstorm Sandy-related repairs. The looming closure is hardly a secret, and talk of the work and mitigation plans have consumed NYC’s transit realm for the past four years. I first wrote about the L train shutdown in late 2014, and it has since been the subject of numerous presentations, meetings, plans, reports, studies and even lawsuits. What was once supposed to be a 18-month shutdown has been whittled down to a 15-month sprint, and with prep work already well under way, the biggest concerns are about the effectiveness of the mitigation plan. The biggest concern, that is, until this week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, once again in charge of the MTA, decided to step in.

Until this week, Cuomo had been largely quiet on matters related to the L train shutdown. Content to let the city, his favorite transportation foil, bear the brunt of work (and criticism) over mitigation efforts that everyone expects to fail during the first morning rush hour on the first day of the shutdown, he hasn’t said much about the work. And then he went on Brian Lehrer’s show on Monday. For some reason, something or someone drew his attention to the L train shutdown, and on the WNYC show, he announced plans to tour the tunnel this Thursday with a team of “national experts, international experts,” as he put it, to determine if 15 months is the right amount of time for the work or if the MTA can speed up the plans.

This announcement seemingly caught the MTA by surprise, and as late as Wednesday, the agency still had not announced the operations plan for Cuomo’s visit. We know he’ll be there at or around midnight on Thursday night, and we know the MTA is going to try to single-track L trains through the tunnel for around 90 minutes or so to accommodate the governor’s desire. He hasn’t told anyone which “experts” are coming with him, and it’s not clear how much of an assessment these experts can perform in such a short time period or whether this assessment is really just another infrastructure-related photo op. This thing reeks of a political stunt that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First up is the why. Why is Cuomo doing this and why now? On Brian Lehrer’s show, he told a story about constituents bugging him about the shutdown: “I can’t tell you the number of people in Brooklyn who have looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Are you sure that there is nothing else that can be done and there’s no way you can possibly shorten this?’ I said, ‘I will make sure, personally, that there’s nothing else that can be done, and this is the best option.’”

But then on Tuesday, he made a brief appearance on one of Alan Chartock’s many WAMC shows on Northeast Public Radio out of Albany and had a different story to tell:

And I actually had a gentleman come up to me who said, have you personally gone through it? And I said, no, I didn’t personally go through it, but that’s not what I do. He said, well they told you you couldn’t replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, right? I said, yeah, well that’s right. He said, but you did it anyway, right? I said, yeah you’re right. He said, well, why don’t you go look at these plans and bring the best people to look at the plans just so we know? And that’s that New York logic, right? Cynical, make sure you try everything.

This might be one of those political ticks that doesn’t really matter, but it sure seems as though Cuomo is creating some straw-people to give him cover at this late date. Who knows who planted this seed? Cuomo often acts on his own based on his own impulses whether his advisers suggest he do something or not, and this may just be a situation where he doesn’t want to say that disrupting late-night L train service was his own idea.

Lending further credence to this theory is the timing of it. One and off since the summer, the MTA has halted L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan over the weekend to prep for the Sandy Fix-and-Fortify work. Had Cuomo wanted unfettered access to the Canarsie Tunnels, he could have gathered his groups of experts at any point over the past few months for hours upon hours of access to the tubes without inconvenience a bunch of people just trying to get home or get to work late at night.

And what of these experts? As I noted, Cuomo has been awfully tight-lipped about how these experts are. He offered some additional commentary to Chartock:

We’re assembling a team of outside the box thinkers who have nothing to do with government. They’re just international experts in tunnel construction and electric systems and I’ve asked them to come take a look just so New Yorkers have confidence that every option has been explored. I think if they know that they’ll feel better about the delay because they’ll know it wasn’t capricious, it’s not arbitrary, it’s not incompetence. Everything that can be done has been done and that’ll make me feel better on a personal level if nothing else.

Imagine being the people at the MTA who have slaved over these plans for years, faced with the pressure of reducing the timeline as much as possible, just to Cuomo step in with a bunch of folks at the last minute to second-guess your work for a photo op. Perhaps the MTA hasn’t earned the benefit of this doubt, and heaven knows we can point to countless examples of ineptly managed and delivered MTA construction projects. But the Sandy work has been smooth and on time. There is no reason to think the L train work wouldn’t be, and anyway, the time to consult with experts was years ago and not months before the shutdown starts and after work has begun and contracts awarded. That Cuomo hasn’t even opened this event to press indicates to me as well that his experts are far from expert, but we’ll only find out from the MTA or Governor’s office (or if anyone stakes out either end of the L train tunnels to see who shows up with the governor on Thursday night).

Ultimately, here’s what I think is happening: After two years of lengthy discussions, numerous studies and tons of public meetings, Andrew Cuomo is stopping L train service for some period of time so he can hold a photo op inside a tunnel that’s shutting down in four months. In a few weeks, the MTA will hold a press conference to announce that they’re going to try to finish the L train work in less than 15 months — perhaps, say, 13 months — but can’t make any guarantees. Cuomo, suddenly in charge of the MTA again, will take credit for the good news, and that will be that. It’s a blatant stunt with a clear endgame for no real reason, but make no mistake about it: Yet again, it’s a clear sign that Cuomo is in charge of the MTA, and the MTA will respond to his whim no matter the scope or impact on customers.

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Larry Littlefield December 13, 2018 - 10:10 am

All the has to do is cancel the shutdown, order the MTA to “study” building a replacement tunnel, not fund anything, be cheered as a hero. And resign as Governor after losing out on the Presidency in 2020, before there are any consequences.

Much as these pols tick me off, however, and as cynical as I am about the extent to which they give a damn about any of us, transportation construction expenditures have gone up as a share of city residents’ income since Cuomo has been Governor. Data here.


Roy December 13, 2018 - 10:56 am

I’d love to see the look on Cuomo’s face if his hand-picked experts conclude that fifteen months isn’t remotely long enough.

jose ruiz December 13, 2018 - 3:44 pm

I too thought the same thing.

Comradefrana December 21, 2018 - 5:14 am

One can dream. But realistically, they’ve been hand-picked to tell him what he wants to hear.

ChrisC December 13, 2018 - 11:18 am

He’s gone from “the MTA isn’t a NY Sate agency so nothing to do with me because it’s not based in Albany” to virtually running it.

What next? Personally signing off every order for paper clips and toilet paper?

As you say if he wanted a proper look with experts he’s have done it on an existing shutdown. He could have still had his photo op but not hack off commuters. I hope those disrupted unnecessarily let him know in uncertain terms their dissatisfaction.

Peter L December 17, 2018 - 3:31 pm

What next? Personally signing off every order for paper clips and toilet paper?

Please don’t give Cuomo The Younger any ideas.

Flavanation December 13, 2018 - 11:59 am

This is my naively optimistic take: Maybe Cuomo will use his influence to get the MTA to build tail tracks at 8th Avenue? Last I heard they were not planning to build them despite the golden once-in-a-generation opportunity to do so. They should use this chance to upgrade the infrastructure to 30 tph instead of the 20 tph currently operating.

Nyland8 December 13, 2018 - 2:27 pm

At minimum! If there’s anything about the shutdown that irks me the most, it is what won’t be undertaken during it – chief among them the failure to tunnel westward and produce trail tracks. Not only would several hundred feet of tail tracks allow them to enter the station at speed – it currently CRAWLS into 8th Ave – but they might even get deep and long enough to store a train or two. And in some ideal alternate universe, the L Train eventually goes across the Hudson all the way to Lautenberg Station in Secaucus. A better time to do this won’t come in any living person’s lifetime . . so DO IT NOW!

AMH December 13, 2018 - 5:31 pm

This would be a best-case scenario, but first someone has to convince Cuomo. He’s not going to think of something this useful on his own.

Alex December 14, 2018 - 3:30 pm

I wish it were that easy! But if there were to add tail tracks past the 8th ave station, impact and environmental studies, Public hearings, meetings will all have to be done before design phases begin! All that would take a few years. As great as that would be to increase speeds and capacity to the line, most people don’t realize what it takes for such a project. What made me laugh a lot when the shutdown was first announced was all these “know it alls” saying “well why don’t they just build new tunnels under the river for trains to use while they fix the old ones?”

sonicboy678 December 15, 2018 - 5:15 am

That pretty much sums it up.

AMH December 17, 2018 - 10:02 am

Exactly! What a waste that would be. If you’re going to build new tunnels, there are a lot of other places where they would make more sense.

Tower18 December 17, 2018 - 4:47 pm

Also 14th St between 9th and 10th has been under intensive construction for the past like 6-12 months…all new cobblestones. Missed a big opportunity for cut and cover.

BruceNY December 13, 2018 - 2:32 pm

I have to say, the MTA appears to have a better record of repairing damaged infrastructure vs. building anything new. I seem to recall they finished repairing the Montague St. tunnel ahead of schedule. And after some fire that destroyed a signal tower on the A-train in lower Manhattan, predictions were that service would take months to get back to normal, but it turned out to take only a few weeks.

Having said that, if this were some other 1st World City, we could have spent the past four years building a new tunnel connecting 2nd Avenue on the F to the phantom South 4th Street station in Williamsburg which would have made shutting down the Canarsie tunnels far less painful.

Adirondacker12800 December 13, 2018 - 3:55 pm

I suspect the people along the F in other parts of Brooklyn would take a dim view of that.

Bruce NY December 15, 2018 - 12:17 pm

The F can continue its normal route on the local tracks. A new route, perhaps resurrecting a V train would head to Williamsburg.

Adirondacker12800 December 15, 2018 - 1:39 pm

then the people on the B, D or M would be perturbed. Pesky people already using the Sixth Avenue lines.

Iron Train December 13, 2018 - 2:51 pm

“First up is the why. Why is Cuomo doing this and why not?”


John yessis December 13, 2018 - 4:25 pm

I suggest mta operate the L from Bedford avenue to broadway junction, Thru train yard to J tracks to Manhattan
Yes cumbersome thru yard and extra switching, but you can transport more riders than buses or ferry’s
Maybe some from Canarsi too

John December 14, 2018 - 1:31 pm

The L is already planned to operate from Bedford to Canarsie during the shutdown. Putting the L on the J tracks would cause further congestion when the M joins after Myrtle-Bway. J and M runs are already being increased during the L shutdown anyway.

Alex December 14, 2018 - 3:37 pm

Not to mention the switching involved with such a move. Along with reversing directions, the speed limits thru the yard, as well as all the switches in that yard are hand thrown, would make such a routing take at minimum 20 minutes. They have a better option in bringing back the original “K” route with having trains from Canarsie, and routing them to the J line at Bway Jct. But the bulk of the L train ridership is between Ridgewood and Manhattan. In all honesty, the shutdown isnt going to be as crowded as most think. Platforms wont be a dangerous capasity. Theres too many options. Most people who are panicking are 1) riders who dont know much and are letting the media scare them, 2) Williamsburg hipsters who dont know what its like to have to take more than one train to and from work and 3)Manhattan residents who dont even take the line, who are scared of losing parking spots.

Berk32 December 19, 2018 - 4:36 pm

It wouldn’t go thru the yards – it would have to go to Atlantic Ave then reverse direction (direction connections from L to J tracks are between Atlantic Ave and Broadway Junction)

It would still be a terrible idea.

AMH December 13, 2018 - 4:43 pm

That requires a reverse move and reduces capacity on the Jamaica line for no real benefit. Why would anyone ride that lengthy detour when they can transfer to the M at Myrtle-Wyckoff, and transfer to the A C or J at Broadway Junction.

Gray December 14, 2018 - 8:47 am

‘I will make sure, personally, that there’s nothing else that can be done, and this is the best option.’

When you think about it, that line can be read in a way that I don’t think Cuomo intended it to be…

MTA December 15, 2018 - 7:50 pm

Having worked at the MTA I know first hand how incompetent their leadership is especially Wael Hibri and Jim Sirna.

Since both have assumed leadership at the MTA BSC there has been nothing but negative consequences as they have both worked tirelessly to do their best to ensure others are blamed for faults and no one is ever held accountable.

Peter L December 17, 2018 - 1:53 pm

We’re assembling a team of outside the box thinkers who have nothing to do with government. They’re just international experts in tunnel construction and electric systems and I’ve asked them to come take a look just so New Yorkers have confidence that every option has been explored.

His “expert” is Elon Musk.

ChrisC December 21, 2018 - 3:47 pm

So what actually happen on this tour?

Joe December 26, 2018 - 9:33 pm

We were better off with Client #9 as guv


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