Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the MTA’s much-dreaded 15-month tunnel closure isn’t needed. But this twist raises disconcerting questions.
Well, this is no way to run a railroad.
In a press conference on Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised New York City by cancelling the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to close the subway’s L train tunnel for 15 months of repairs, a much-dreaded infrastructure fix that promised to aggravate commuters with untold delays and stress. If all goes according to a hastily sketched plan that MTA board members must still approve, the tunnel will remain mostly open throughout the construction period, which remains set to begin in April.
First: the details. The L train tunnel connects Manhattan to Brooklyn starting in Williamsburg, and it was badly damaged by flooding from Superstorm Sandy. After extensive deliberation, in 2016 the MTA announced plans to shutter the tunnel completely for 15 months, starting in 2019. This was chosen over an alternative, partial shutdown plan which would have dragged out the repair timeline further.
The impending shutdown has since been a boogeyman for any New Yorker who commutes. The L line moves a mid-sized city’s worth of people every weekday—about 400,000 passenger trips. Even if your commute isn’t one of them, the overflow from the displaced masses was destined to effect every subway line in the vicinity, plus surface traffic, plus ferries.
City and state officials had spent years planning for this misery, arguing bitterly for new bike lanes, bus routes, and protected bus corridors to help absorb the victims of L-pocalypse. New private mobility services (including a van shuttle service dubbed “The New L”) appeared to pick up deep-pocketed subway refugees. And the anticipated gap in transportation to and from Williamsburg, a famous neighborhood with hefty economic clout, seemed to depress market rents as home-seekers looked to other parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The business community there has been trying to mitigate the effects of the neighborhood’s “perceived loss of accessibility,” according to Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a local interest group for the city’s private sector employers. “[They’ve offered] reduced rents, special offers, and deals on for-hire vehicles to compensate for what was perceived to be a huge economic threat,” she told CityLab.
Through it all, the MTA had defended, again and again, its decision to move forward with a full shutdown, arguing that this was the best of all possible options.
Now, less than four months before the shutdown was due to take effect, Governor Cuomo has stepped in with a plan that was developed by a panel of academic engineering experts, reportedly in a matter of weeks. Now, instead of 15 months of total L-train blackout, commuters can expect 15 to 20 months of construction requiring only night and weekend service outages, with regular service during peak hours on weekdays, MTA officials said. (Cuomo later told reporters that promising a concrete timeline would be “silly.”)
What’s different? Based on the details presented thus far, the game-changer in this new plan is that a concrete “bench wall” will no longer need to be torn down to replace old power cables. Now, new cables will be attached directly to the wall in a special fireproof fiberglass pipes. It sounds simple enough, but this is a process that has never been used in a tunnel rehabilitation project in the United States, according to Cuomo, who touted the plan as using “many new innovations that are new to the rail industry in this country.”
The MTA had previously argued that the structural integrity of the subway tunnel required that the wall in question be fully replaced. But on Thursday, officials made no such claim. MTA board members still need to approve the changes; Cuomo is now calling for an emergency public meeting for the board to review the new plan. But at Thursday’s press conference, MTA acting chairman Fernando Ferrer boosted the new plan alongside Cuomo.
“You might ask, ‘Well why wasn’t this approach considered earlier?’” Ferrer said at the presser. “The answer is that the integration of these approaches—there are several—and the technology had not previously been applied in the context of a rehabilitation project. It’s innovative, creative, and we deem it a sound plan.”
Certainly, throwing the L-train shutdown plans out the window should come as a relief for the city’s commuters and employers. “It’s hard to fathom how disruptive this was going to be,” Jon Orcutt, the policy and communications director of TransitCenter, a local transportation advocacy group, told CityLab. “So to not have that facing us for more than a year is great.”
But this abrupt reversal raises new and troubling questions. Having an MTA official approve a plan that appears to have been devised over the holidays by two external researchers—at the bidding of a powerful leader known for his micro-managerial tendencies on infrastructure projects and keen sense of political opportunism—doesn’t read as good governance. It could undermine what public trust in the MTA as an authority on transit still remained, after so many years of declining service and inadequate excuses from the agency. Why weren’t MTA engineers aware of a relatively straightforward-sounding idea for using different construction materials that have been implemented in Europe and other parts of the world? Or if anyone knew about them, why hadn’t they been seriously proposed?
“From a policy and institutional point of view, there are a lot of questions and strangenesses that this raises,” Orcutt said. It’s a bad look for the MTA, and disconcerting for riders, that Cuomo has jumped in and called an audible on the MTA’s hard-fought plan, he added. But it’s not out of line with what’s known about the agency’s culture of decision-making, where the status quo tends to be prioritized. In that way, Orcutt said, “it is a good outcome to blow the lid off that.”
Adam Rahbee, a researcher and consultant who’s gone deep into the weeds of institutional culture and decision-making at transit agencies around the world, including at the MTA, agreed that this twist in the L-train story comes as little surprise. In mid-level management at large bureaucracies, workers can be disincentivized to present ideas that go against accepted wisdom and inherited processes, he said. The proposed changes to the L train’s construction plan “don’t sound like rocket science,” Rahbee said. “But someone just had to say it.” Within the MTA, that might have been the hard part.
More details about Cuomo’s new engineering plan still need to surface to vet its reliability, and to determine whether it will in fact produce a better commuting experience. But the L-train shutdown-shutdown will surely be remembered as a watershed moment in the recent decline of New York’s subway system. It may be difficult to expect New Yorkers, or their elected representatives, to accept at face value construction plans devised by the MTA in the near future.
Whether that’s good or bad for the agency’s progress on billions of dollars in needed upgrades remains to be seen. But if bolting fireproof pipes to tunnel walls were all that stood between millions of commuters and 15-plus months of hellacious inconvenience, the city deserved to know. But it also deserves to know why this savior-train of an idea has arrived so late.