Home L Train Shutdown Cuomo’s L train maneuvers create a crisis of credibility

Cuomo’s L train maneuvers create a crisis of credibility

by Benjamin Kabak

Gov. Cuomo sits with interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer and deans from Columbia and Cornell during last week’s L train announcement.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo held an impromptu press conference on Thursday essentially canceling the L train shutdown and torpedoing years of advance planning in the process, he thrust his MTA and his administration headlong into a credibility crisis. It certainly wasn’t Cuomo’s intention to do that; he clearly wanted to be seen as the governor-slash-hero whose attention to infrastructure innovation cast him as the savior to New Yorkers gearing up for 15 months of transit headaches. But through the way he handled the announcement and his comments afterwards, the fact that his plan is currently just a set of bullet points, and the way he didn’t involve the MTA or public in his decision, he has created a situation where neither he nor the MTA can be trusted, and it’s going to take years for anyone involved in this to recover public trust.

The MTA’s credibility crisis has been decades in the making, self-imposed by an agency that can’t even do something as simple as rebuild a staircase on time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the MTA started losing the public trust since many would argue the agency had never earned that trust to begin with. The charge that the MTA kept “two sets of books” was one that lingered for years, even after it was debunked in court, and the agency’s inability to finish any project, whether a basic station rehabilitation or a massive capital project, on time or on budget has long been a public punch line. East Side Access, after all, was once supposed to cost $3.5 billion and be open by now, and that’s just one example among hundreds.

Lately, as the MTA has struggled to deliver on basic technological enhancements, the wheel-spinning has turned into the agency’s dirty laundry, aired publicly. The MTA has talked about the Metrocard replacement project for so long that no one really believes the upgrades are underway, for instance, and the current jury-rigged countdown clocks (also imposed by Andrew Cuomo) are a daily reminder that people don’t trust the MTA. On Friday, while heading from Midtown, I checked the MTA’s app at 9:39, and it told me a D train would be arriving at 9:42. At 9:42, that train was scheduled for 9:44; at 9:44, 9:46; at 9:46, 9:49. It arrived at 9:48, a time not once projected by the app. The MTA blamed a work train, but this is far from an isolated incident. On a daily basis, riders report countdown clocks that aren’t right and arrival times that come and go with no sign of a train. If the MTA can’t get this standard transit technology right and can’t provide reliable arrival times to the public, what can they New Yorkers trust them with?

Politically, before his departure, Joe Lhota earned headlines and the ire of good governance groups for his perceived conflicts of interest as he held multiple jobs at once, casting doubt on his ability to be a partial and fair leader for the MTA. Could New Yorkers always trust that Lhota had their interest and the MTA’s interests in mind if he was also serving as head of a hospital and on the board of Madison Square Garden? Transportation is such an ingrained part of every NYC life, after all.

The L train, and Cuomo’s machinations, is now a direct challenge to any public trust in the agency. For three years, the MTA has engaged in numerous public meetings, rehashing over and over again the need to shut down the 14th St. tunnel in order to rebuild the bench wall, reconstruct the track bed and replace ties and the third rail. A tunnel shutdown was the only way to accomplish the scope of the work the MTA said they had to achieve, and the choices were either a full shutdown for 15 months or a partial tube-by-tube shutdown that would have lasted closer to three years.

Until last week, no one had ever suggested that the MTA could simply let the bench wall be while installing cables elsewhere and doing the minimum to shore up the tunnel without closing it down. When Cuomo did it, he cast doubt on the MTA’s ability to assess projects holistically and consider all viable alternatives, including new ones. Since the announcement, the MTA deleted the special section devoted to the L train shutdown from its website. Even before the MTA Board, which must approve the new project, holds a meeting to do so, the MTA is trying to erase this history and three years worth of planning. To many in New York, this original lack of creativity and ex post whitewashing attempt is indicative of the MTA’s inability to see beyond what consultants tell them or what their management determines. If they can’t present all options — if they can’t consider a world in which a shut down can be avoided but the Governor can at nearly the last minute — why should we trust them with anything they say?

Over the weekend, this skepticism and the credibility gap manifested itself very clearly via social media. Jim Dwyer of The New York Times had Multiple Twitter threads (here and here) about the issue, and City Limits penned an article on the very same topic. Others questioned the MTA’s ability to ensure the enhancement work that was going to be performed during the L train shut down would continue.

I don’t blame anyone for questioning or denying the MTA its credibility. I responded to Dwyer with a Twitter thread of my own, but his complaints get to the heart of the issue. Nothing the MTA says will be trusted until they start delivering on their promises, and little they can do today or tomorrow will change this perception.

But he’s not the only one with credibility issues, and the Governor — who, dispute frequent protestations, does actually control the MTA — has next to no credibility at all. For three years, the MTA has been very public in its planning, and for three years, Cuomo has said next to nothing about the issue. He claims someone in Brooklyn came up to him, grabbed him by his lapels (without being instantly removed by security) and yelled at him to do something about the L train. This story, as I’ve said in the past, reeks of political poppycock. Cuomo probably heard from his staff and his donors that the L train shutdown was shaping up to be a nightmare, and so he stepped in with a few academic friends he could rustle up. Why wasn’t he involved for years with the biggest story and most comprehensive public mitigation effort impacting the MTA we all knows he controls?

And why should we trust Cuomo on transit after all? His big-ticket projects show a keen understanding about form over function. The Laguardia and JFK rehabs do not involve adding more runways, the biggest problems facing New York City airports; his backwards AirTrain is, well, backwards; and after years of careful planning and advocacy work, he torpedoed a real transit link on the Tappan Zee replacement at the last minute. Even his meddling on the Second Ave. Subway wasn’t welcomed by everyone as a few sources tell me his push to wrap the project by the end of 2016 both cut corners and cost the MTA significant money.

But if you feel that’s just my inherent skepticism toward Cuomo seeping through again, take a look at what a few other people are saying. As a team of reporters at The Post detailed over the weekend, Cuomo and his professors spent just an hour inside the L train tunnel, and it’s not clear what qualifies them to issue such a sweeping last-minute change. Danielle Furfaro, Nolan Hicks and Ruth Brown write:

Engineers from Cornell and Columbia universities spent just a few weeks examining the MTA’s years-in-the-making plan to shut down the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged L-train tunnel for repairs — before recommending an 11th-hour alternative to keep it open and just contain the damage with new walls built on nights and weekends. Mary Boyce, dean of Columbia’s engineering school, told The Post that the team had no experience working on a subway system like New York’s, but claimed the crew had enough combined infrastructure experience to know the plan would work…

Cuomo’s office confirmed that only one of the eggheads on the Ivy League panel, which the governor touted as “the best experts we could find,” has limited experience working on subways. And that one person, Cornell professor Thomas O’Rourke, struggled to name a comparable subway tunnel-rehab project he had been involved with. “Rehabilitation for subway tunnels? Mostly new construction for subway tunnels,” O’Rourke said…Meanwhile, the team never bothered speaking with subways boss Andy Byford and made just one trip, on Dec. 14, to the crumbling Canarsie Tunnel to see the problem for themselves, Boyce admitted.

Even former MTA Capital Construction head Michael Horodniceanu spoke cautiously of the new proposal. “It’s going to last for a while,” he said to The Post. “For sure it isn’t going to to be a hundred years. It might last 15 years and need to be fixed again.”

In comments to The Times, Veronica Vanterpool, a Bill de Blasio appointee to the MTA Board who is one of the members of that body willing to question both the MTA and Governor publicly, expressed her concerns as well. “The original proposal would have fixed and repaired the tunnel for 50 or 60 years. It’s not clear to me the longevity of this solution,” she said, adding, “This continues to show that the board is essentially an afterthought. We’re not consulted, we’re not briefed, but yet we’re expected to move important projects along.” Comments from others in the article too show that no one knows who to believe any longer.

Finally, advocates were quick to question the thoroughness and veracity of Cuomo’s stunt. “You’ll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance said. We need a full public release of the details of Governor Cuomo’s ideas, as well as the mitigation plans that will allow hundreds of thousands of L train riders to get around during the inevitable shutdowns and slowdowns in service. Actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt that will ultimately leave riders in the lurch.”

Ultimately, ten bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation without a full scope or an independent assessment of the efficacy of a plan do not constitute a fully-baked project, and Cuomo’s insistence that this plan is better the original and sufficient isn’t a claim anyone is in a position to assess because there is no plan yet. To push this point, Cuomo on Friday called for an emergency meeting of the MTA Board, but MTA Board members haven’t gotten word of such a meeting yet. Likely that’s because a meeting — and more importantly, a vote — can’t happen until there is an actual plan and the MTA knows what it’s asking its contractors to do. Maybe this is better, but right now we just don’t know. And for eight years, Cuomo has given us no reason to trust him when it comes to transit or last-minute meddling.

Railways are ultimately a conservative business. If something goes wrong, trains derail, and people die. It’s why planning takes longer than a few weeks and why the initial reaction to Cuomo’s move has been one of shock, outrage and pushback. “Move fast and break things” hasn’t exactly done wonders for the tech industry, and it’ll go over even worse in transportation. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening, and by wading in so carelessly, Cuomo has thrown doubt on his ability to lead through a crisis and the MTA’s ability to plan thoroughly, comprehensively and correctly. The crisis of credibility will far outlast whatever work ends up happening on the L train, and that’s a real cost New York City will have to bear.

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CPA TRAIN January 7, 2019 - 1:01 am

the right decision is not going to be be clear cut

the issues is that
Cuomo thinks that his solution has a x% chance of lasting of y years
others think that his solution has a q%*X% chance of lasting y years or less

the truth is that we will not know the truth (if ever) until down the road
even then the truth will be be but one out come in a very limited sample

the issues:
-who do we believe is providing better probability analysis
-do they have have the superior track record/skills to be doing so
-is private enterprise/insurance/bonding companies willing to back them
-where was cuomo where the matter was being debated

>>>>even if he is correct and has a solution that can save the region millions (billions?) the questions are:
…………why did he not step forward earlier before millions were spent on planning
…………does he/his proposals have credibility at this late time ?

CM Adams January 7, 2019 - 11:34 am


Let’s look at everything that Cuomo is doing, and all will come into focus with a wider view.

You’ll note that Cuomo has sponsored several big ticket items in the New York City region as of late. One of these is the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. Toll increases would be needed to finance construction of the bridge. Yet, Cuomo magically arranged for these increases to take place after 2020. Why is this year significant? The presidential election.

Cuomo has to show a record of accomplishments, even though the bill for what he’s done will come due after he’s gone from the Governor’s mansion. Pinching pennies on the 2nd Ave. subway on phase 1 will cost more money when building phases 2, 3, and 4. Pinching pennies (and time) to patch up the L train’s tunnels will only cause another rehab bill to be presented in 15 years instead of 50. Yet, if commuters don’t suffer today, they will be happy voters next year – and that’s what he counts on.

Cuomo’s father was nicknamed “Hamlet on the Hudson”. I didn’t like the father, and I don’t like the son. Both had/have national ambitions, and both would sacrifice New York City’s needs to win upstate votes.

Sadly, we are stuck with Cuomo for a while yet. But I don’t see him running for another term – and I am thankful for that…..

Jared January 7, 2019 - 7:31 am

I love you comment, “can’t even do something as simple as rebuild a staircase on time,” as I’m watching this at my local station. A staircase was closed in September with a sign that it would reopen on January 1 (which seems like a dubiously arbitrary date) and, of course, on January 2, they duct taped over the date and wrote March 31.

This is at the 190th Street Station on the A train, one of five to be getting new elevators soon and those projects will shut down the station for a year or more. I’ll bet that when they are done they don’t even unify the three elevators into a single call button which is more efficient, uses less energy, and provides faster service. I mean, why would they even think to make the elevators BETTER when they can just fix what’s there.

paulb January 7, 2019 - 8:31 am

Probably the guy who grabbed Cuomo’s lapels is the same guy who phoned the mayor on Brian Lehrer about ebikes. Is work on the subway a part of civil engineering? In that case, if Cuomo wanted a second opinion, I’d have been more comfortable if he’d worked through the ASCE.

BrooklynBus January 7, 2019 - 8:56 am

Once again, a truly excellent article, Ben. I remember early on in Second Avenue Sagas, I used to criticize you for agreeing too much with the MTA and not criticicizing them enough. I predicted that would change as you grew older and learned more and I think I was right. I always countered criticism about the MTA when I felt they were unfairly targeted when people would make comments such as everyone at the MTA is lazy. But I was never afraid to criticize them when I felt they were wrong which was much of the time. I think you now agree with that,

You hit the nail on the head with this one questioning Cuomo’s conclusions after one week verses the MTA’s three years of hard work. And yes the most important issue right now is one of credibility regarding the Governor as well as the MTA.

Stephen Bauman January 7, 2019 - 9:11 am

Cuomo and his professors spent just an hour inside the L train tunnel

I’m surprised it took them that long. Anyone with an engineering background is amazed by the archaic techniques still employed by the MTA.

the team had no experience working on a subway system

Part of the MTA’s rationale for employing obsolete and expensive techniques is that subways are unique. Proven techniques developed within the last 100 years don’t apply to subways, according to their gospel.

eo January 7, 2019 - 11:07 am

The concrete from the decaying bench walls needs to be removed eventually. It is decaying and eventually will represent derailment threat to any passing train. What Cuomo is doing is basically just postponing this to a future time.

Cables in conduits on the wall? That is for the MTA to answer why they wanted to re-pour the benches rather than do this. One reason for that to have been rejected is that the conduits need to be attached to the walls, and these walls are old concrete from almost a century ago. Can the anchors be installed in this century old concrete and hold up? New tunneling technology does anchor the conduits on the walls, but this is new high strength concrete with special additives and such. Concrete was new material when these tunnels were built and it is unlikely that it matches current technology.

The above also applies to metal walkways installed along the walls instead of the bench being used as a walkway. The existing bench walls survived and served relatively well for many decades until the big flooding. It is an open question whether any metal (of fiberglass) walkways will survive that long in the environment of these tunnels.

“Smart sensor” to monitor wall deterioration? That is a joke. The MTA cannot properly maintain its signal system which is a very well understood technology that they have experience with and now they need to take care of this fancy “new system”? It will be our of service within a few years after installation, most likely immediately after the warranty period from the installer expires.

eo January 7, 2019 - 11:18 am

Someone should file FOIA requests and figure out whether the MTA considered and discarded (and why?) any of the solutions proposed now by the Governor before we are able to assign the blame. The Governor controls the MTA, so even if they had good reasons to reject these solutions before, the MTA will not publicly come and defend itself. And that is a problem because it hides the truth about whether the MTA and its constructionconsultants were incompetent or whether the Governor is using this as a publicity stunt.

If the MTA considered and discarded the Governor’s solutions chances are it was for very good reasons and the Governor is just choosing inferior solutions for publicity gain. If the solutions were never considered by the MTA and any of its consultants and there is no written record of any of these ideas anywhere, then yeah, the blame is all on the MTA and its ability to use new technology and new construction practices.

Let’s hope that someone somewhere has the time and resources to get to the bottom of this.

Stephen Bauman January 7, 2019 - 1:05 pm

Someone should file FOIA requests and figure out whether the MTA considered and discarded (and why?) any of the solutions proposed now by the Governor before we are able to assign the blame.


If the MTA considered and discarded the Governor’s solutions chances are it was for very good reasons

Whether or not such reasons were “very good” depends on the reasons.

Let’s hope that someone somewhere has the time and resources to get to the bottom of this.

What’s the use of mistakes, if one cannot learn from them? I’d like to subject all substantial expenditures to this kind of scrutiny in the future.

JJJ January 7, 2019 - 11:50 am

It is seriously concerning that nobody has credibility. Nobody.

You’ve covered well about how we can’t trust Cuomo and the MTA, but what’s worse is that there’s no regional partner that is an expert – even though they’re working on very similar projects that are the result of Sandy damage.

Take Amtrak. They have been single tracking the Hudson River tunnels on nights and weekends for what must be five years now. That results in nasty NJTransit schedules where all the trains leave the city and the top of the hour, and then all come in at the other end.

So if youre going to the Newark airport, you can take the :04, :011, or :20…and then nothing until the next :04.

What exactly have they managed in those 5 years? When will the weekend shutdowns end? Why does nobody care?

And then you have PATH, who after years of shutdowns for the WTC construction and then new signaling system gave New Jersey 3 weeks notice that the WTC line would be closed on weekends for 2 entire years with zero mitigation for Sandy work. Oh wait, theyre adding a ferry shuttle that makes zero sense. Three weeks notice!

Ed Unneland January 7, 2019 - 12:18 pm

* Is the Fix and Fortify program (of which I think the Canarsie Tunnel work is a part) being paid from FEMA money for Superstorm Sandy?

* If so, this money would be a one-time opportunity for funding from outside New York State which is not likely to be repeated.

* If the above two are correct, then does it not make more sense to use that money for a fifty year fix rather than a fifteen year fix?

* Rebuilding the tunnel from the cast iron tube would then be the best approach.

Stephen Bauman January 7, 2019 - 12:59 pm

The concrete from the decaying bench walls needs to be removed eventually. It is decaying and eventually will represent derailment threat to any passing train.

It can also be encapsulated, which is what is proposed. Whether or not the concrete must eventually be removed depends on whether it’s easier to maintain the encapsulation than remove the concrete.

What Cuomo is doing is basically just postponing this to a future time.

There’s a distinct possibility that removal would be less disruptive and costly at a future time because of technologies that are not currently available.

Can the anchors be installed in this century old concrete and hold up?

If the tunnel concrete liner cannot hold up for the anchors, it won’t hold up much better under the stresses of operating trains.

It is an open question whether any metal (of fiberglass) walkways will survive that long in the environment of these tunnels.

Maintainability involves mean time to failure (MTTF) and mean time to repair(MTTR). I’d assume that subsequent fiberglass segment replacement would be quicker and less expensive than the original installation.

“Smart sensor” to monitor wall deterioration? That is a joke. The MTA cannot properly maintain

Concrete requires maintenance and repair. A duct bank replacement will start deteriorating before the first train runs. Many flaws have been discovered in the MTA’s current visual inspection procedures for monitoring its infrastructure. Constant machine monitoring should be welcomed whether the duct bank is replaced or encapsulated.

eo January 7, 2019 - 3:00 pm

You speak like an expert. Are you an engineer or do you work in the construction industry? The last time I poured concrete was a little more than a month ago. I have also installed anchors in concrete. Let me tell you from experience, new concrete (up to a few years old) will tolerate Ramset (basically nails for concrete). Whether any concrete older than 10 years tolerates them is like playing coin toss. 50% they hold, 50% they do not hold. And when they do not hold you end up with expensive and labor intensive to install anchors that require drilling, grouting and so on all by hand. I have no idea what state the concrete liner of these tunnels is in, but it cannot be great given the shape of the bench walls and both date from the same time period. I am glad I am not the one installing this stuff there. It will not be easy or cheap.

Construction techniques have not improved that much over the ages. 100 years ago removing concrete meant breaking it down with hammers and shoveling it away by hand. Now removing concrete means breaking it with jack-hammers and scooping it with a machine. Chances are 100 years from now it will still be done the same way, just maybe the machines will be autonomous. This is the old physical world, not the tech sector where things do leaps and bounds.

And concrete has one definite advantage over the alternatives proposed so far: it tolerates neglect much better than any smart monitoring system ever could. And neglect is what the MTA apparently is very good at …

Stephen Bauman January 7, 2019 - 6:00 pm

Are you an engineer

I received undergrad and graduate degrees in electrical engineering 50+ years ago. My observations are based on both “book knowledge” and “real world” experience.

you end up with expensive and labor intensive to install anchors that require drilling, grouting and so on all by hand

I’d guess that the worst case procedure you’re describing is quicker and less expensive than the gut rehab method proposed by the MTA.

Chances are 100 years from now it will still be done the same way, just maybe the machines will be autonomous.

Replacement of humans by robots is one of the two technologies I was thinking of. It won’t take 100 years. There are two areas using robotics today that I can see being applied to the Canarsie Tunnel. The first are the autonomous space exploration robots like the Mars Rover and China’s moon probe. The second are the family of remote control robots that are being developed and used for the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cleanup.

The second technology is the use concentrated heat sources, like high power plasma torches, to convert the concrete duct bank into glass before demolition. This eliminates silica dust during demolition. Silica dust contamination during concrete demolition is not limited to the Canarsie Tunnel. Using plasma torches to convert concrete into glass is being tried in Europe, where there are stricter worker protection standards and more concrete structures to demolish. I’d expect this will likely be common practice 20 to 25 years from now.

J Adlai January 7, 2019 - 9:06 pm

We’ve been over the plasma torch issue before. There are pretty obvious reasons why it’s a bad idea for this application.

smartone January 7, 2019 - 1:55 pm

The NYC Subway should be municipal controlled.. the Governor and MTA Board are so removed from responsibility and accountability as to render them useless

NYC Subway municipal controlled. divided into 3 groups
Day to Day operations
Upkeep and minor repair
Major Repair and Expansion

Jim T January 7, 2019 - 2:41 pm

I agree with all the criticism of Cuomo and the MTA that Mr. Kabak has published, here and elsewhere. Yet I am cautiously optimistic about the new proposal, provided it is thoroughly investigated. A team of outsiders taking a look at this problem might be just the thing we need.

What about the team? They have serious credentials in Mechanical and Civil Engineering. (I’m an engineer). There was a useful suggestion that the MTA should consult the American Society of Civil Engineers. Note that George Deodatis is a past president of ASCE. The others have deep qualifications as well.

It’s true that as academics, they don’t have P.E. licenses or hands on experience designing subway rehab projects. They teach, and in some cases, chair the departments which train the P.E. engineers.

But the experienced engineers should get involved, and, it is to be hoped, they will produce the detailed studies and plans in the next stage of this proposal. And if any information is brought to light which indicates that the plan won’t work, as licensed professionals they would not sign off unless and until a solution is found.

Why do I like the proposal? I am extremely, extremely dissatisfied with Cuomo, but, reluctantly, I will give him a tiny bit of credit for recognizing, belatedly, that a full multimonth shutdown of the L Carnarsie tunnel is too high a pain point for the affected community, despite all the good contingency planning that has been done by the community, city agencies, and yes, the MTA itself. This is a political judgement, but it’s also a judgement about priorities, values, and when and where we should spend our money.

The commuters using the Montague tunnel endured a shutdown of similar length, but that situation is different because there are several nearby alternative routes. Every commute is unique, but it’s clear that the L train tunnel shutdown would result in much longer journeys for most riders.

These disruptions have economic costs, which must be considered in addition to the capital outlays of the project itself.

It is true that the original plan gives the MTA the near equivalent of a brand new tunnel, and I certainly understand why the people responsible for operating the trains would want such a thing. The revised plan promises greatly reduced travel disruption in exchange for the possibility that additional remediation work may be required in the future. I think it’s worth it, provided that a proper, detailed analysis shows the new plan is workable.

Money spent in the future is worth less than money spent today. (Of course, that’s the basis of interest rates). If some expenditures can be postponed, legitimately, it makes us better off. This is not to say that it is OK to starve the system of maintenance and allow it to deteriorate.

The concept of separating the functions of the bench wall is an excellent idea that needs to be examined in detail. The video which Mr. Kabak linked in an earlier post shows serious deterioration in some portions. However, watch the video again and observe how much of the wall has no evident damage. Much of this may last indefinitely, as is or assisted by polymer. Those benefits likely are not possible unless the conduit function is made separate from the wall’s function as a walking platform.

New projects may be required in future to keep the tunnel in good repair. The risk of falling debris needs to be managed, but that is true for both plans, and, in fact, for all the other tunnels as well.

I am cautious, but hopeful, that this episode, despite its regrettable aspects, might lead to a better outcome for our city.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera January 7, 2019 - 8:45 pm

Governor Crony is as Governor Crony does while aspiring for president in 2020: ‘I’ll save the day my fellow NYC citizens,’ he shouted.

J Adlai January 7, 2019 - 9:40 pm

There’s a lot of good questions asked here in this article. Honestly, as a construction professional, I’m not sold on the concept of encapsulating a crumbling concrete structure within fiberglass and then monitoring it with sensors. A portion of this wall failed before, and it will likely fail again. Repair it now while you have the federal funding to do so. Also, it does not seem like there has been a complete thought process to schedule. Can it REALLY be complete in only 15 months working nights and weekends? I’m skeptical.

The biggest issue here though is a broken process. Many have rightfully pointed out that the MTA suffers from a bad case of “not-invented-here-itis”. In this case, there was an independent review, but it seems ill-conceived and far too late. Perhaps an Independent Engineering Review process could be borne out of this. Leadership should be about establishing the process and making sure it works, not swooping in at the last minute to make a save.

M January 7, 2019 - 11:24 pm

Academic engineering and actual, professional, practicing engineering are two completely different fields and completely different skill sets. (I’ve worked in both.) I wouldn’t trust a full time academic engineer (professor, dean) with making anything more complex than baking a cookie. A PhD sounds impressive until you realize that its attainment required no actual engineering. The good engineering firms assume that all recent graduates (Bachelors to PhD) have the same basic skill set when leaving the academy — no skills — and train their newly hired engineers from scratch.

The academics are interested in studying the degradation of the tunnel, not repairing it. Academics don’t make durable products. They produce “knowledge,” in other words, unintelligible papers. If the knowledge is experimental, often the experimental system is hastily built, poorly executed, and non-reproducible.

There’s no way that these sensors are going to effectively monitor the condition of the duct bench. If this was an effective method of monitoring concrete degradation, it would be used elsewhere. It isn’t. It’s a way for a professor to get sensors into a tunnel and a grant to publish some garbage conclusions from the data.

Having cables in the track bed will probably complicate any future track rehab. It’s much more difficult to chisel out ties and replace signaling equipment if there are thick, 600 V cables running within inches of your pneumatic hammer. Also, drains might clog more easily leading to increased instances of track flooding.

I don’t blame the MTA for using this opportunity to attempt a 100 year solution. There are certainly ways in which the organization can cut costs, but everything about the Cuomo proposal seems like a duct-tape solution.

DC January 9, 2019 - 4:00 pm

You’re absolutely right about the sensors (and most of your other points too). Proposing to use fiberoptics here highlights academia’s detachment from reality. Real-time frequency is not necessary to detect spalling and the technology is not robust. The most likely outcome would be a bunch of costly false alarms. Better solutions do in fact exist and have even been used by MTA consultants post-Sandy! See pp 61-65. Maybe they know what they’re talking about.

M January 7, 2019 - 11:39 pm

Cables in the track bed would also make it difficult to walk in the track bed, which, depending on the cable configuration, might significantly complicate maintenance and inspection tasks. This configuration might create a safety hazard for MTA employees walking in the track bed.

Additionally, no electrical engineer wants to route cables on the ground unless he or she absolutely has to (like in order to make an electrical connection to the track). From the presentation it appeared that the cables would not be placed in conduit. A dropped tool (think large, heavy metal object) or collapsed bench wall could damage the insulation. If there is additional inflow or a pump goes down, the cables are at a higher risk of being submerged, which is never desirable.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is some logic to the original tunnel rehab plan.

M January 8, 2019 - 9:34 am

Cuomo’s comments about an MTA premium are true. Contractors and consultants know that it costs a lot to work with the MTA are true. On the design side, there are two rough types of engineering consulting firms — those that focus on private projects (hotels, office buildings, apartments) and those that focus on public projects (roads, tunnels, bridges, etc.). Most of the private design firms won’t even bid on MTA contracts due to the cost and difficulty of working with the MTA. However, there are very few private bridges and tunnels, so the design expertise for these sorts of projects tends to fall within the latter group of design firms. Many years back the MTA tried to solicit bids from private design consultants — those outside of their go-to crew. The private consultants didn’t take MTA’s bait. They didn’t want to work with the MTA.

Cuomo’s talk of a “transportation industrial complex” might be a little overblown. Yes, there is a revolving door between the MTA and engineering consulting firms at the higher levels. However, the design work for projects tends to a relatively small chunk of the total project cost. What Cuomo appears to be frustrated about is the conservative nature of civil engineering work. Civil engineering research is extra expensive and slow due to the physical scale and time scales involved. Civil engineers are extremely cautious since failure tends to involve collapse and loss of life. Further, the field is quite fragmented. Consultants don’t make substantial profits so they aren’t particularly motivated to invest in R&D. Consequently, the field changes very slowly.

Getting back to a tunnel discussion. Yes, the MTA screws up design work. Often. In my opinion stations should be as shallow as possible with as few bells and whistles (concourses, escalators, architectural trim pieces, air conditioning systems) as possible. Why do all of these appear in the final designs? Probably people like Cuomo, who don’t care about long-term operations and maintenance costs, interjecting in the design process. In many cases there is a mentality of “if it doesn’t have/do _______ it won’t get built (won’t get some approval) so we need to add it… an imperfect subway is better than no subway.”

That being said, wanting the new L tunnel to perform like the old one (full rehab, not band-aid) isn’t an unrealistic desire.

J Adlai January 9, 2019 - 7:57 am

The “transportation industrial complex” includes more than simply design firms. The construction costs that make up a huge chunk of those costs would fit into that category as well, and there is a close relationship between contractors and senior MTA personnel that is somewhat problematic.

In my opinion stations should be as shallow as possible with as few bells and whistles (concourses, escalators, architectural trim pieces, air conditioning systems) as possible

To be sure, some simplification is probably needed, but I think the case has been made that costs are out of control for many other factors than just “over design”. Plenty of other cities have aesthetically pleasing stations that don’t cost what ours do.

Jim T January 8, 2019 - 11:38 am

Comment on M’s useful remarks.I agree with most points.

I didn’t see a proposal to put cables in the track bed. The press release refers to a wall mounted racking system.

Keep in mind that all of the tunnel concrete was exposed to seawater, including the ceiling. If there is no confidence that damaged concrete can be spot replaced, repaired, stabilized, and monitored, I don’t see any alternatives to abandoning the tunnel.

M January 8, 2019 - 12:29 pm

If I recall, the return (ground) cables would be placed in the track bed. I’m not up to speed on subway power distribution, but I’d assume these would have similar amperage and voltage ratings as the supply (hot) cables.

corinne January 8, 2019 - 7:57 pm

Thank you! Me too (:

dannyb January 8, 2019 - 11:45 pm

A related concern: The subway tunnels are a _very high hazard_ environment. What’s the flammability and smoke rating for all this proposed epoxy, fiberglass, and cable insulation?
Think back to the NYTelephone fire on 13th street and 2nd Ave back in 1973 (whew… I’m dating myself…). Lots of material that everyone thought was fireproof, well, wasn’t…

eo January 9, 2019 - 11:27 am

By the time this is all fleshed out as a full plan all cables will end up in rigid metal conduit (read “pipe”), so really the only saving is the concrete (metal conduit would have been used for the bench wall repairs). Plain non-metallic sheathed cables are very rarely allowed in industrial applications — typically only when buried or if they are low voltage cables. For exposed application like this, there is no way around the metal conduit in which the cables will be pulled.

I do not know about the “epoxy and the fiberglass”. Most modern materials are engineered with flame retardants, so they do not burn, but smoke. Smoke is certainly the bigger risk in a long tunnel than fire itself.

J Adlai January 9, 2019 - 11:26 pm

It looks like what they are suggesting is utilizing cable with Low Smoke Zero Halogen jacketing. That would mean going with an exposed cable that requires no rigid or flexible raceway. If that’s what ultimately happens, we’ll just have to see.

Also, typically, conduit encased in concrete in these applications is usually PVC, not metal. Here’s an example.

eo January 10, 2019 - 5:19 pm

You are right about the PVC conduit encased in the concrete. The exposed work is all metal though. I guess there is some savings between PVC and metal, but I cannot imagine that it is the major cost.

dannyb January 10, 2019 - 11:41 pm

About 20 years ago (which could easily be thirty or even 40..) the subway system installed lots of 120/208/240 vac wires in PVC conduits.
Big, big, battle over the flammability/toxic smoke issue led to them retrofitting it all into metal conduit.

J Adlai January 12, 2019 - 5:50 pm

The major advantage of going with PVC inside concrete (or really any flexible type of raceway) is the reduced labor to install it. EMT and RGS both require a lot of labor to bend and install the actual conduit.

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