Home L Train Shutdown Following contentious Board meeting, MTA officials strongly suggest L train plan a done deal

Following contentious Board meeting, MTA officials strongly suggest L train plan a done deal

by Benjamin Kabak

WSP presented its new plans for the L train work during a special session of the MTA Board on Tuesday. The MTA later said it planned to move ahead with this work despite no Board approval yet.

About mid-way through hour three of Tuesday’s interminable MTA Board venting session on the L Train Shutdown Shutdown, it started to dawn on a few astute members of the board that they were in essence being iced out of the decision-making process. They weren’t in the room to start an informed dialogue and evaluate different approaches to the necessary repair work on the L train tunnel; they were in the room to serve as foil as a bunch of MTA and contractor executives laid out the argument for a decision that had been made for them. No matter what the MTA Board said they wanted to do, the MTA was going to listen to orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and cancel the full shutdown in favor of the new plan.

The conversation began when Neal Zuckerman and later Polly Trottenberg started pulling on the threads of the MTA press release that trumpeted, in past tense, how the agency had “averted the shutdown” and the fact that signs touting the cancellation of the shutdown had appeared in L train stations. If the MTA Board still had to chime in, Zuckerman and Trottenberg wondered, why was MTA management treating this as a done deal? The exchange between Trottenberg and Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer was a fascinating one, captured by Gothamist in its liveblog, and it’s well worth replicating here:

TROTTENBERG: As the MTA has gone off and put up signs that said L train shutdown averted, the board has had no vote on changing the contract or any of the terms here. Is the decision made? Do we have any actual role here? I’m not hearing that we do?

FERRER: I can address that commissioner. See there isn’t a change in a contract before us because there is no actual change to a contract at this point. Once there is, I am happy to have that brought before the board if I am still acting chairman. That’s my job, that’s my responsibility to consider it. If we have to consider an amendment to a contract or any other action, at the appropriate moment that will be brought before us and we’ll vote yes or no and abstain.

TROTTENBERG: So you’re saying we could vote no. What would that mean? The L train shutdown isn’t averted.

FERRER: You vote whichever way you like. I’ve never suggested how you should vote.

TROTTENBERG: You think in the end it will be the board’s decision?

FERRER: That’s what I’m saying.

TROTTENBERG: Maybe it’s premature to announce it before the board has made a decision, isn’t it?

FERRER: Decision on what? You’re asking about a contract. Stop, stop. Let’s not conflate these things. You’re asking about board action relating to a change in a contract. If there is any other service change than we will deal with that at the appropriate moment.

TROTTENBERG: But will those service changes be subject to the review of the board?

FERRER: [Frustrated sigh]

VERONIQUE HAKIM: Contracts come to the board based on our procurement guidelines. Change orders at certain levels come to the board. Service changes I think the term in the board approved service guidelines is “major service changes” also comes to the board.

TROTTENBERG: This seems like this is a major service changes. If we’re making major changes to the contact in terms of scope, in terms of price tag, in terms of liability, those are things that come to the board. I’m not saying we wouldn’t be in favor of all of this, I’m just confused: Does this plan need approval by the board or not? I am confused about it.

FERRER: The purpose for this meeting was to share information. Once there is a change, a plan, it becomes before the board again. We’re not going away.

TROTTEBERG: So if the signs says shutdown averted, it should have a footnote that says “subject to board approval”?

At this point, Ferrer answered but with his microphone off, and when asked about his unheard comments following the meeting, he grew testy and reiterated what he said to Trottenberg during the exchange. At no point did he address her concerns, or Zuckerman’s before her, about how the MTA was messaging a done deal before an independent engineering assessment or Board vote. On Tuesday night, the MTA all but confirmed this outcome in a statement emailed to reporters.

So is that it then for the L train shutdown? The statement from the MTA sure makes it sound like this was a decision made a few weeks ago when Gov. Cuomo held his press conference. MTA Board members haven’t yet voiced their views on tonight’s development, and the full Board is scheduled to meet next Tuesday in what is now a can’t-miss session for MTA watchers. To borrow a football image, though, the MTA is sprinting downfield at their opponent’s 15-yard line with no defenders in sight.

Concurrently, the other person who was about to throw up some roadblocks on the way to changing the L train plans has been sidelined too. As part of the meeting today, the MTA essentially moved this project out from Andy Byford’s purview. He will, as Ferrer said, be in charge of running the largest rail network in North America but will not have day-to-day oversight of the L train work as this project now belongs to MTA Capital Construction. Byford had spent last week trying to put the brakes on a headlong rush into something new by, among other things, calling for a truly independent assessment of the plan, a call echoed Tuesday by MTA Board Members before the MTA’s statement landed in inboxes a few hours later. (Dan Rivoli had much more on Byford’s role.)

If that’s it for the MTA Board’s role in this project, it’s an ignoble end and one that effectively neuters the Board. What’s the point of an oversight body that can be so thoroughly circumvented? Following the meeting, Nicole Gelinas wrote a column questioning Cuomo’s approach to the L train, and she hit upon this issue tangentially in concluding that the governor, via his meddling, “created a problem that did not exist.” Now, he or his MTA executives are pulling harder on that thread, trying to unravel the entire oversight structure. The MTA Board will be reduced to voting on contract changes and service patterns when and if those arrive, but as with the budget votes, they’ll have no real choice. It’s not yet clear why or what the ramifications are yet, but I’m sure we’ll find out in due time.

An Overview of the Meeting

With the behind-the-scenes machinations out of the way, let me do a quick run-down of today’s meetings. You can check out my Twitter threads that begin here and here for some running commentary. Unfortunately, the slides aren’t online, and they do add some context considering The Times report on Tuesday morning that the MTA had considered and rejected a similar plan in the past. WSP officials insisted the new plan was sufficiently different due to the cable racks and monitoring systems, and they spent the meeting claiming that they can mitigate the impact of silica dust in a way that won’t interfere with restoring rush hour service. I’ve highlighted two key points:

We do not know when the work will begin, how long it will take, what mitigation plans will be in place or how much it will cost, but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show? If you’ve walked away from this week believing the fix is in, you’d be right to think so. It’s still, as I keep saying, not clear why, but the fix is in.

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Larry Littlefield January 16, 2019 - 10:13 am

All I have to say is that if disaster occurs — the iron tunnel walls breached, the bench collapsed, a fire leading to deaths — down the line, I hope no member of New York’s political class will be allowed to commiserate. Only celebrate.

BrooklynBus January 16, 2019 - 10:34 am

I am wondering if the Board ever had a real role. In the past they have merely been a rubber stamp to what the governor wanted and if I remember correctly any board member who dared to not vote along with the majority just had his term not renewed when it expired. Isn’t that incentive enough to go along with the pack?

So the questions are if there is an unfortunate disaster and people die who will the people believe when Cuomo blames others saying once again that he doesn’t run the MTA and merely made a suggestion they analyzed and approved? And what changes should be made with the MTA (including dissolving it) to ensure bad decisions are not made again?

Walt Gekko January 16, 2019 - 2:17 pm

I suspect in this case, Cuomo wants this all over with before he decides whether to run for President:

While most of us know Cuomo has NO realistic chance of getting out of the Democratic Primary, CUOMO himself may think HE does have a chance to become President in 2020 and THAT trumps anything ANY of us may think on this.

This is also why there are those who think Cuomo’s donors DEMANDED Cuomo do this or they would not support a bid for the Presidency, likely worried that shutting down 14th Street to all but buses would cause THEIR drive time and/or that of others who drive to balloon, with many who do drive doing so because they either:

1. Have no sufficient public transportation near them.

2. Going to a Park-and-Ride and doing it that way is a major hassle.

3. Are afraid to ride public transportation fearing “riff-raff” simply looking to cause trouble.

4. Look at public transit as “beneath them” and insisting on driving no matter what.

That to me also likely was a concern, especially for those coming in from New Jersey for whom while they might be a considerable distance away from 14th Street would be adding on to the traffic nightmares some envision.

VLM January 16, 2019 - 2:27 pm

You say this in every available forum, and I’m not sure you could be more wrong about Cuomo’s presidential plans or his donors demands. You sound completely foolish pushing this too. I suggest you reassess or talk to anyone who know who may have ties to the governor before going on about this for much longer.

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2019 - 2:29 pm

I was happy when Cuomo said he wasn’t running. Less likely to sell his home state down the river.

But history is on Walt’s side. They all deny, and reneg.

Walt Gekko January 16, 2019 - 2:39 pm


History is on Cuomo deciding to run and likely wants this out of the way before he announced a Presidential run. It’s been a long-running opinion of many Cuomo has been eyeing a 2020 Presidential run (even if he has said otherwise) and if so, Cuomo needs his ducks in order before he were to announce such a bid.

VLM January 16, 2019 - 3:00 pm

I know we all think NYC is the most important thing since the invention of the wheel, but no one outside of a part of NYC cares about the L train. He’s also made press coverage for him immeasurably worse. This ain’t about running for president, which is anyway a decision Cuomo has to make immediately or else risk having no staff available to him in key states.

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2019 - 4:03 pm

Let’s just hope the no really is no. No DeBlasio either.

Want to elect me President? They I’ll accept someone one day older than President Obama. Otherwise I want someone younger. Those older have done enough damage as it is.

Walt Gekko January 16, 2019 - 2:35 pm

It was people in other forums who brought up the donors demanding such (“correcting” me on that), I was not thinking that way originally:

My view is Cuomo is seriously mulling a Presidential run (even if we know he has no shot) because HE thinks he can win (doesn’t matter what we think) and a full shutdown of the (L) as the New York primary is going on is something that would be in many’s minds if that happened. While it would make no difference in MANY of the early states, New York is where it would matter, followed to a lesser extent by New Jersey and Connecticut and to another lesser extent by Pennsylvania. That to me is what is driving this and Cuomo would have left such alone were it not for the 2020 Presidential election.

will January 17, 2019 - 6:46 pm

Trust me hes like daddy

will January 17, 2019 - 6:44 pm

Biden will clean the floor with him and take train and put ut up cuomos butt

Manny Steier January 16, 2019 - 5:59 pm

Have not seen an inventory of the cables. Which cables are not transit related. The types of the cables. The nodes within the tunnel. The data capacity of the non-power cables.

Would think with modern multiplexing, all the data would fit on a single fiber. Another should be installed for growth, testing and redundancy.

Wing Shun Kong January 17, 2019 - 12:21 pm

The idea of hanging cables by the side of walls by a racking system is not new although the engineers who were there to testify at the special emergency meeting mentioned that it was. Singapore has been doing that since 1982 for the North-South line underground tunnels since it first open.

Walt Gekko January 17, 2019 - 2:29 pm

Then why haven’t we heard of this until now?

What you’re saying is that this can actually work!

SEAN January 17, 2019 - 4:23 pm

Then why haven’t we heard of this until now?

Because US transit systems aren’t known for using global best practices. NYC in particular suffers from the condition known as Not Invented Here Syndrome. One only needs to look at the MetroCard for proof.

What you’re saying is that this can actually work!

Maybe, maybe not. we’ll see what happens in a few years if this gets implemented.

Wing Shun Kong January 18, 2019 - 11:44 am

Some of the reasons why this has not been heard till now is as follows :

1) Not enough pople on the board with engineer experience and asking the right questions.
2) The board &/or MTA did not explore best practices around the world.
3) Contractors choose options that best suited to their agenda and spoon fed MTA to go with it.

AMH January 18, 2019 - 10:18 am

It’s standard in new tunnel construction (e.g. Singapore, NYC Second Avenue Line and Flushing Line Extension). It’s not common to retrofit an old tunnel with racked cables because of limited clearances and old concrete that is not designed for the load.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera January 20, 2019 - 4:50 am

Its the possible presidential aspirations in 2020 that made the superbly hypocritical Governor Crony to make everyday dumb MTA-based dumb decisions like this.


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