Home L Train Shutdown Cuomo’s end run around MTA Board complete as L train shutdown is officially canceled

Cuomo’s end run around MTA Board complete as L train shutdown is officially canceled

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA will move forward with the new plans for the L train tunnel without putting the matter to a Board vote. (Source: PDF).

The bizarre and tiresome saga of the L train shutdown shutdown seemingly came to a conclusion Thursday as the MTA officially called off the shutdown in one of the strangest press release I’ve seen the agency issue in nearly 13 years of running this site. The move, rumored to be on direct orders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, completes an end-run around both the MTA Board and Andy Byford that had been strongly suggested during Tuesday’s meeting and effectively neuters the MTA Board. The new project is less safe and less comprehensive than a full shutdown but doesn’t carry the headaches that would have accompanied closing the L train for 15 months. It is now, for better or worse, firmly Andrew Cuomo’s move to own.

The press release is written as an “MTA update to L train riders” and isn’t available on the agency’s website. You can read it here on the state’s website in all of its informal glory. It starts out with a strangely familiar “as you know” and goes from there to stress that the shutdown “will not be necessary.” Here are the newsworthy bits:

This project is a major priority for the MTA and reconstruction will be supervised by MTA Capital Construction and overseen by MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim. The MTA will also hire an independent consultant to oversee safety operations that will report directly to the Board.

The MTA is now working with the various contractors on a new final construction schedule and contracts which delete some elements of the initial construction plan and add the new design alternatives. We do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase, and given the tremendous benefits to the riding public, reduction in the volume of traffic and savings from the traffic mitigation efforts, it is a clear positive alternative and in the public interest.

We expect the formulation of the final construction schedule and contract completions to take several weeks. The current construction estimate is 15 to 20 months. As soon as we have more definitive information we will provide it to our customers and the public.

A few days ago, Byford and the Board had requested the ability to hire an independent engineer to assess the new plan for its pluses and minuses before the MTA was to go forward. This press release clearly shifts the conversation as it is clear the agency is going forward, and the Board’s oversight role is diminished as the MTA — and not the Board — will hire “an independent consultant to oversee safety operations.” This isn’t an independent assessment of the plan but rather a safety oversight position. This move is not what Byford or the Board wanted, and it’s a clear sign that someone high up in Albany did not want this plan subject to the scrutiny it should receive.

Next, note that the MTA says “we” — whoever “we” is supposed to be here — “do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase.” This is significant as it’s how the Board is removed from the equation. If the costs are to increase, the Board must approve a modification to the contract. If the costs are to remain the same (or decrease, as may be the case here), the MTA can execute a change order to its contract with WSP and avoid any Board oversight of the new plan. This is how Cuomo is apparently legally removing the Board from the equation.

I’ve reached out to some MTA Board members for comment and have not yet received a reply. The full Board is scheduled to meet for its regularly monthly sessions next week, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see how they respond to this maneuver.

So we do not know the plan for mitigation; we do not know when the new work will start; we do not know how long it will; we do not know how the MTA and its contractors will manage silica dust or if the cable casings will be up to par for use in the L train’s tunnel. We do know that consultant on Tuesday said, “It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them.”

The Post has a good rundown of some behind-the-scenes goings-on related to this L train move. One source they refer to as an “MTA insider” had harsh words: “Cuomo is saying he knows more about the technology stuff than the technology experts on the MTA board. “It’s just a demonstration of who runs the show. This is Cuomo being completely dominant over the MTA…We’re starting out marginally less safe. And that’s not a good place to start.”

Meanwhile, I’m still left wondering why Cuomo is doing this while also pushing for MTA reform. His call for reform involves more say and sway over the Board, but he’s demonstrated this week that he can simply dismiss the concerns of the Board if he wants something. Was this an intentional move to highlight how the Board is ultimately a figurehead? Or was this an example of Cuomo being Cuomo and one of those situations where he decided the way forward and heaven help anyone who tries to slow him down? We don’t yet know, but the L train shutdown is off, and the MTA Board isn’t getting a say in the matter after all.

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Otis Boone January 18, 2019 - 12:30 am

Mr Byford and the entirety of the non-Cuomo board (and Cuomo appointees with consciences) should resign in protest; DeBlasio should not appoint replacements, and et cetera.
But we know that backbone and conscience are in short supply when it comes to New York politics.

Walt Gekko January 18, 2019 - 12:45 am

Except as noted in my comment below, it’s quite possible as some in other forums have suggested that Cuomo’s DONORS demanded this be done or they would withdraw support, especially for a 2020 Presidential bid.

ChrisC January 18, 2019 - 3:32 pm

Are these donors as real as they guy who shook Cuomo by the lapels in anger at the shutdown? (where was his security??)

TBH people would have more respect for him if he did close the line on the basis that he could claim that he took hard unpopular decisions!

Otis Boone January 18, 2019 - 4:33 pm

His political advisers are stupid. This was a scenario where the only thing he’d do is lose popularity.

Intervening at the deadline as the “White Knight” led folks to beg the question “Why didn’t YOU step in before and mention this since YOU pick the MTA Board” – which is what happened; cancelling it might be popular amongst the crowd that voted Cynthia Nixon, but it now showed that he actually does control the MTA and has mismanaged it since he took over after Paterson.

Staying out of it wouldn’t have lost him anything.

That’s what my friend WallyHorse above doesn’t get – a semi-competent adviser team would’ve kept him away from this. This is ego and hubris.

Walt Gekko January 19, 2019 - 2:53 am

I have said numerous times that is the opinion of people in other forums who “corrected” me by saying it was his donors.

Walt Gekko January 18, 2019 - 12:42 am

Now if we indeed find out soon that Cuomo is running for President, it would not surprise me one bit:

To me, it’s obvious either Cuomo himself wanted this OR his donors said they would not support a Presidential bid UNLESS the (L) shutdown was canceled and another method that would keep the (L) running on at least weekdays OR said donors demanded such (as some in other forums think) because THEY fear doing so and closing 14th Street to all but buses would create unintended commute problems for them and their workers, especially those who drive. I still suspect Cuomo was fearful if the (L) shutdown still was going on when the New York primary took place it might cost him just enough votes in NYC to lose his home state with the same true with voters who work in NYC but live in New Jersey and Connecticut to a lesser extent and to another lesser extent Pennsylvania, where many come up from the Philly Universities to NYC for job interviews for instance along with others who come into NYC from Philly in particular (while yes, that is small, it sometimes is the smallest thing that proves to be the difference).

VLM January 18, 2019 - 1:15 am

You keep saying this and I’ll tell you again: I know for a fact you are wrong. Cuomo isn’t running for President and he’s not doing this on orders from his donors. Just drop it already.

Walt Gekko January 18, 2019 - 10:45 am

Until Cuomo actually says he is not running, I won’t believe that:

History has repeatedly shown such deny and then say they are running. The one thing that might keep him from running is that Kirsten Gillibrand has already announced and she likely crushes him.

Ferdinand Cesarano January 18, 2019 - 12:25 pm

Cuomo has twice said that he wasn’t running for president, the first time during the debate with Cynthia Nixon, and again after he was re-elected as governor.

Of course, he might go ahead and run for president anyway. But he has indeed said that he won’t. (And, if he runs, he will get nowhere; and he’ll be sent home very early in the process.)

Walt Gekko January 18, 2019 - 2:43 pm

I won’t truly believe he is not running until he says it again. Too many have denied and then ran anyway.

Only reason as noted as to why he would not run is Kirsten Gillibrand is already running and he’d lose to her easily in New York State.

SEAN January 19, 2019 - 2:07 pm

As much as I disagree with WG, he has a point. Quomo may say he isn’t running for president, but until that becomes official nothing is technicly off the table. Besides who here ever suspected that Donald Trump would win in 2016.

SEAN January 19, 2019 - 2:11 pm


wise infrastructure cpa January 18, 2019 - 1:20 am

yes ………..how this was done by cuomo is distasteful

but…………why were these ideas not even presented by the MTA?

hanging wires with 21st century insulation as opposed to replacing inaccessible wire banks requiring closing a tunnel seems like something that should have at least been put on the table as an option – why was it not?

that cuomo’s solution may last only 50 years vs the 100 years for the MTA plan?! -maybe this is not relevant as within the next 50 years (or shorter) elon musk (and others) may have tunneling technology reduced to laying a large garden hose on the bottom of the river, which will allow tunnels to be viewed as a consumable with new ones replacing old ones.

sonicboy678 January 18, 2019 - 2:20 am

You’re talking about a new installation on (very) old concrete.

This “plan” is little more than putting bandages on an infected wound and hoping no one will notice. What makes it especially bad is that with some amount of benchwall replacement, we’ll be putting the riding public at immediate risk thanks to silica dust (and that’s not even getting into the many other issues).

M January 18, 2019 - 8:43 am

We used to design bridges for 50 year life spans (more or less). In fact, the old Tappan Zee bridge was designed to last 50 years. The new one (the Mario M Cuomo bridge) is designed to last 100 years.

There’s a reason we’ve increased the design life of critical infrastructure. In 50 years, it’s often too much of a disruption or too expensive to rebuild a bridge or tunnel. We’ve realized that it’s much more prudent to design a structure to last 100 years than to design it for 50 years and spend the next 50 with our fingers crossed.

Why does the bridge get a 100 year rebuild while the tunnel is stuck with (now) 40?

sonicboy678 January 18, 2019 - 8:46 am

Honestly, 40 seems too generous.

BrooklynBus January 18, 2019 - 9:57 am

Moses designed his bridges to last longer than 50 years as were city bridges built before him. The Tappan Zee is the only major bridge in this area that was designed for 50 years.

X January 18, 2019 - 10:31 am

It’s an often repeated myth that the TZB had a design life of 50 years. It probably persists because happens to be convenient for the Thruway Authority. IIRC there was a NYT article on the subject at some point.

eo January 18, 2019 - 10:08 am

This is like beating a dead horse … Nobody is inventing anything great in tunneling technology during the next 50 years. Not Elon Musk, not the Pope, not Trump, no one. Just look at the history. The tunnel was build about 100 years ago. What has changed in terms of how we dig tunnels? We have tunnel boring machines, but it takes longer to build the tunnels compared to 100 years ago. The tunnels are still lined up with concrete. The new concrete is better concrete, but still concrete. There were cables in the tunnels then, there are cables in the tunnels now. Back then the cables were insulated with paper and tar, now we use cancer causing polymers that would not bio-degrade for centuries after their useful life.

What is being proposed is not a proven technology for rehabilitation of old tunnels. It is a construction technology for new ones. And the old versus new matters. A lot … Tunnels live in the old economy of the physical world, not the new information economy. In that physical world, tunnels are a mature technology, so any improvements are only incremental and happen at a snails pace. In the physical world the older the technology, the slower the pace of incremental improvement being.

And do not forget, as per The Times article, these ideas were considered by the MTA and discarded due to the risk. The fact that Byford is not signing up behind this plan is also very telling. He has seen a thing or two about tunnel construction and maintenance when he was working abroad and surely can smell a rat when he sees one.

Walt Gekko January 18, 2019 - 10:57 am

Which is why I think Cuomo is doing this because shutting down the tunnels would derail any hope of his becoming President (though with Kirsten Gillibrand having already announced, it likely makes it impossible for him to win though we already knew that):

I would not be surprised if some group concerned about the unintended consequences of this change now takes Cuomo to court to force the MTA to go back to the original plan, overriding Cuomo, trying to at least force Cuomo he’s doing this either:

1. For his ego.

2. Because he fears a shutdown would derail any chance of becoming President.

3. Because his donors ordered him to do it, citing fears of massive traffic problems in Manhattan.

AMH January 18, 2019 - 10:25 am

And 50 years ago, everyone was supposed to have flying cars by now.

M January 18, 2019 - 8:34 am

I had a dream last night of Cuomo conducting another (dreamt) track inspection on some elevated track during which he engineered by edict. It was a bit of a nightmare. Materials behave according to the laws of physics, not the whims of politicians.

Larry Littlefield January 18, 2019 - 9:50 am

Nice of the MTA Board to speak up now after meekly accepting 25 years of soaring debts, the 2000 and other retroactive pension increases, soaring contractor costs, and labor deals that (including those pension changes) made existing and retired MTA employees richer and richer relative to most New Yorkers, while cutting the pay and benefits of those hired later.

Whatever engineering crime might be committed here pales in comparison with the financial crime.

Where’s Joe Lhota?

sonicboy678 January 18, 2019 - 12:11 pm

Oh, him? He already bailed.

BrooklynBus January 18, 2019 - 9:58 am

Moses designed his bridges to last longer than 50 years as were city bridges built before him. The Tappan Zee is the only major bridge in this area that was designed for 50 years.

eo January 18, 2019 - 10:20 am

For the record, the Tappan Zee bridge would have lasted centuries with proper maintenance and the traffic it was carrying was something like a third or less of the actual traffic it was carrying. It did not get proper maintenance exactly for the same reason the L tunnel is not getting proper maintenance: so that some people are not inconvenienced by closures for such maintenance and replacement of structural elements. It was also abused by way more traffic that it was designed for. The L tunnel is not getting abused by the same factor, so the deterioration is slower, but surely one day the lack of proper maintenance will catch up with it. It likely will not be while the current voters are around, but the lack of proper maintenance will surely catch up with it and whoever needs it then is going to be the one screwed. As Larry likes to say, there is a future generation that will be worse off for this decision that was taken today.

BrooklynBus January 18, 2019 - 10:03 am

If the state comptroller was doing his job he will launch an investigation Why the cost should be almost the same for a project with a much smaller scope. I wouldn’t be surprised if Byford does resign over this.

Walt Gekko January 18, 2019 - 11:53 am

Or Byford waits out Cuomo in the hope Cuomo is impeached or otherwise is forced out or is NOT re-elected to a fourth term in 2022.

Jedman67 January 18, 2019 - 4:46 pm

Coumo thinks he knows best, doesn’t listen to anyone, so don’t care about his political priorities more than the public who benefit or suffer from his decisions. A competent transit planner would have include a direct link to the subway for the LGA air train, which may be more expensive in the short run but would pay for itself in traffic over the years. He chose to ignore transit advocates to build a rail link into the new Tappan Zee, despite the benefits of opening up a potential Metro North extension into Rockland County. I don’t know what Byford is thinking now, but if anything becomes a sword to fall onto this is it.

paulb January 19, 2019 - 9:50 am

This is so shabby. A friend is a longtime staffer at NY Transit (I’m not sure his title) and he works very hard; long hours, a lot of stress. Our governor has kicked dirt all over him and the people he works with. Cuomo wouldn’t have dared do this to the unionized employees. And I still say, of the citizens who live along the L train, the majority, a big, almost complete majority, would have coped with this and found their commute maybe a quarter hour longer in each direction. That’s not great, but the 15 months would have gone by quickly and at the end the work would have been done correctly with all the improvements and the agency would have a precedent for the shutdowns it will need to do upgrades on other subway lines.

It appears that adding more housing in many neighborhoods, removing free parking, making necessary repairs to the subway and many other things will run into the refusal of many NYers to consider any personal inconvenience, or “inconvenience” since a lot of this is asserted with no evidence, no matter the benefit to the city.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera January 20, 2019 - 4:47 am

It’s #CuomosMTA, which makes the superbly hypocritical Cuomo to control the dysfunctional agency if he seen fit while aspiring to run for president in 2020.

Brian January 22, 2019 - 2:17 pm

Regarding silica dust, there is a new Frontline/NPR program premiering Jan 22, discussing its danger, as related to coal miners. From the newsletter about the program:

“From 2011 to 2016, federal researchers at NIOSH had counted only 99 cases of this incurable disease nationwide; however, FRONTLINE and NPR identified more than 2,000 in Appalachia alone in the same time frame. In most cases, silica dust, not coal dust, likely played the key role.

“Silica dust is known to be nearly 20 times more toxic than carbon-based coal dust — but as the film reveals, federal regulators and the mining industry never treated the lethal dust as a unique threat.”

Not sure what it means for the L train tunnel, but interesting nonetheless.



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