In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.
The L train shutdown and the plans surrounding it have not had a stellar public reception. “Angry About the L Train Shutdown? Here’s Your Chance to Yell at MTA Officials,” read one 2016 headline announcing a community meeting hosted by the MTA. The subsequent series of packed public meetings, where transit officials have tried to answer questions and quell public outrage, have not inspired hope for a peaceful relationship between the transit agency and the public. “I say no to this shutdown,” one resident said then, before leaving in anger.
So you’d think the meeting on Wednesday night in a cleared-out school cafeteria in East Williamsburg held to explain what life will look like during the shutdown would have been a madhouse. But surprisingly enough, the mood in the room was calm—or, at least, as calm as it could be.
This was, after all, the first “open house” after the MTA and DOT released the long-awaited mitigation plan in mid-December outlining a host of different alternatives, including new bus routes, ferries, and subway improvements aimed at rerouting thousands of people. (Three more meetings are scheduled.)
At past meetings, the agencies delivered the presentation to a full auditorium, with a few hours set aside for (angry) questions from the audience. This time, though, the agencies opted for an open-air walkthrough, where smiling officials stood aside placards scattered throughout, each detailing a different part of the mitigation efforts.
Sharon Nyamekye, 70, told me she has taken the L train every weekday for the past 11 years, from her home at the Williamsburg Houses—a public housing development just outside of the school—to her doctor’s office and daughter’s house in Manhattan. With the shutdown in mind, she said she’ll likely have to switch onto a J or M train nearby to get into Manhattan. From there, she’ll either grab a bus or walk—a commute time that could be nearly double what it is now.
The MTA and DOT expect 70 to 80 percent of riders to do what Sharon is planning—seek out alternate subway routes in order to make that interborough connection. But it’s not something that the Brooklynite is necessarily looking forward to: “I go to Marcy Avenue for the J and M now, and it’s like,” she said, before slamming her hands together.
But Sharon said she thinks the agencies were doing a good job in getting the information out and planning for the worst. To her, the L train shutdown will be another obstacle—the kind that New Yorkers grow accustomed to. “Some people are panicking, but it's not really a panic for me,” she told me. “I just know I have to find an alternative way to go. Some people only know one way.” (Although her friend disagreed with the expected timeline: “They say 15 months…”)
For defusing purposes, it also helped that Andy Byford made a surprise appearance at the meeting. The newly minted MTA chief—who arrived from Toronto, where he was transit head, and London, where he was once a manager, to somehow salvage our city’s ailing subway system—stuck around for over an hour, talking to riders, reporters, and whoever else approached him about the transit crisis that was sitting on his desk on Day One.
"Although the plan is very well advanced, and we think it's a good plan, and something we have to do, we have listened to the community who have said, 'Just get on with it. Just get this thing done,’” Byford told reporters in his innocent British accent. He later added, “[The Canarsie Tunnel reconstruction] was one of the first things I asked to get briefed on, and it’s super important to me that we get this right.”
Watching from afar, Kathy, a city worker who refused to give her last name, said Byford’s presence was helpful—it gave her some comfort, she said, that the MTA president would come to a cafeteria in Brooklyn just to hear from constituents like her. But that didn’t ease her other criticisms of his agency. “You don’t need pretty subway stations when your signals aren’t working,” the Williamsburg native told me. “When your signals aren’t working, your tracks are broken, and your system is just old, that should be your top priority.”
“Personally,” she added, “I think the whole subway system needs a do-over.”
For the last 60 years, Kathy has ridden the L train from Bedford Avenue to the West Side of Manhattan—a commute that has gotten much more crammed in recent years. Her plan for the shutdown is to take the B69 up to Court Square in Queens, and transfer to a Manhattan-bound 7 train. But she expects that it’ll be tough; from what she’s seen, the hub is already a rush hour shitshow. “I’ll have to wake up an hour earlier,” she said. “And I’m not a morning person.”
Like the other subway riders I spoke with, Kathy was resigned to the fact that the shutdown had to happen—that the damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 wrecked the tunnel she relies on every day enough to demand a full-scale closure to fix it. To fret about the alternatives, she said, wasn’t worth it at this point. “I don’t think anyone has any other alternatives, to be honest.”
After taking his tour of the presentation, Philip Leff, a 33-year-old resident of the neighborhood and volunteer with Transportation Alternatives, a transit advocacy group, said the night was “encouraging.”
“The seeds of a good plan are here,” he added. “But it’s all in the details.” Like others, he still had some questions: What would happen during peak hours? How would Grand Street, a major corridor which the school was located on, be alleviated of traffic? And aside from two station improvements at Bedford and 1st Avenue, is there anything else riders will get from the shutdown?
“To suffer through all of this, and then get the same old L train,” he said. “That would be a big let down.”
Follow John Surico on Twitter.