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.