In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn 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.
Seven months out, the concerns over the L train shutdown have not gone away. Town halls are still drawing big crowds and worries of expected congestion are only growing louder as the city’s traffic has felt (and actually is) slower than ever. In the midst of all this elected officials are continuing to cast doubt over the respective agencies’ ability to handle the transit crisis’s fallout.
That has left the city in a dubious position. At a recent press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a “war room dynamic” at his Department of Transportation (DOT), which is responsible for the street-level portion of the official mitigation plan. “This is going to cause some real dislocation,” de Blasio told reporters. “It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be quick—it’s going to take 15 months—but I can say with assurance, people will be able to get around.”
Yet the tone sounds less confident from the New York City Council, whose members last week overwhelmingly passed three shutdown-related bills. Mayor de Blasio will still need to sign the bills into law, but together, they mark the city’s latest attempt to rein in whatever shitshow the shutdown might stir.
“Understandably, New Yorkers on both sides of the East River are getting more and more anxious about what some are calling the L-pocalypse,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at a press conference before the vote. “I understand their concerns, and share them.”
The first piece of legislation would require DOT and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to create “community information centers” in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, the two boroughs most affected by the shutdown, during the shutdown. Their purpose would be to raise public awareness around the project, and its progress. The second bill would designate an ombudsman position within DOT to essentially act as a hotline for frustrated commuters.
In remarks made to reporters, Speaker Johnson—who represents an outspoken portion of lower Manhattan that will lose L train service entirely for 15 months—said the agency “probably needed more than one person” to handle the shutdown. When asked what situations he could see the ombudsman being involved in, the legislator listed hypothetical problems sprouting from the proposed HOV-3 lane over the Williamsburg Bridge, or ‘busway’ on 14th Street, which will close the main artery to private vehicular traffic from 5am to 10pm, seven days a week.
“One thing I have really pressed the DOT & MTA to be open to is to not have a fixed plan,” said Johnson, when asked by VICE about the legislation. “We need to be open to see what the data is showing, what the real-time information is showing.” This, he gave as an example, could lead to tweaking the hours in which cars are banned on 14th Street.
The third act, a resolution sponsored by Councilman Rafael Espinal, would call upon Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA to make an “expeditious transition” to an all-electric bus fleet in time for the L train shutdown. (VICE profiled the Councilman earlier this year.) The shutdown’s mitigation plan will see 200 diesel buses added to city streets—a proposal that has alarmed both environmental advocates and local residents.
“The additional 200 diesel buses that are going to be added to our streets will release as much pollution as 4,400 cars per day,” said Councilman Espinal in a statement. “This can’t be the standard for how we move forward.” (Currently, the MTA has signed onto a pilot that will ultimately see 60 electric buses, or just 1 percent of the city’s entire fleet.)
In regards to the shutdown, it’s worth wondering what other last-ditch avenues the city could be taking—at least, legislatively—to help minimize its impact, whether it’s on commutes, communities, or the businesses who are poised to be immensely affected by the loss of foot traffic. The mitigation plan, save for on-the-spot adjustments, appears finalized, and the city, as it stands, has less control over the MTA, which is largely overseen by the state.
Yet in recent months, the Council has struck a decidedly different voice when it comes to the city’s faltering subway system. Speaker Johnson, who is often seen riding the subway, reiterated his support for congestion pricing earlier this week—a funding mechanism that the mayor has appeared open to, but not totally behind. In June, the Council also pushed City Hall to pass Fair Fares, an initiative that would subsidize MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, after years of hesitation.
What has remained common ground between the two branches of government is that if the state can’t fix the subways, then the city should step in. But what about the shutdown?
When asked by VICE about future action, the Speaker replied that the body’s members will continue to attend community meetings held, and demand regular interagency meetings during the shutdown to respond to issues that are bound to surface. The Council, he added, is also exploring alternate modes of micro-transit: the Speaker referenced the introduction of electric, pedal-assist bikes into the CitiBike system, and a bill that would allow electric scooters, like Bird, to operate on the city’s streets, which is currently being discussed.
“I think we can all agree there are no perfect solutions here,” said Johnson. “There will be significant disruption to straphangers and to residents.” Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow John Surico on Twitter.