After three years of planning, initial construction, mass frustration and paranoia, huge changes to the city’s streetscape, and multitudes of alternatives and targeted start-ups (all of which we’ve tried to document on this very website), the 15-month-long shutdown of the L train was canceled on Thursday.
In a startling press conference at his office in Midtown Manhattan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that after a review by engineering experts he commissioned, the planned 15-month full shutdown of the Canarsie Tunnel would be replaced with a different approach, which will not require major disruption to service between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Instead, Cuomo said, using what he described as state-of-the-art techniques, regular rush hour and daytime service will operate unfettered, and on nights and weekends, a train will run on a singular track. The project could last at least 15 to 20 months.
“There will be no shutdown,” Cuomo declared.
The announcement, which comes just a little less than four months before the shutdown was set to start, upends hundreds of hours worth of outreach and consultation done by the city’s Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which held dozens of information sessions, workshops, and visits citywide to discuss the plan with stakeholders. And frankly, it came off as somewhat bizarre at some points: that after three years of work by the MTA, a roundtable of outside engineers, separate from the MTA, were essentially invited to come in and dismantle the entire thing a few months out.
"I asked Columbia and Cornell to assist the state of New York, as good citizens of the state of New York. They agreed,” Cuomo said. “I said to them, 'Any new idea, outside of the box, creative, any way to reduce the 15 months, we are open.’ Let the MTA decide if that's an idea that is beyond reality. Or confirm that this is the best way that we can do it, so I have confidence in saying to the people of New York that this is the shortest, best route to the rebuilding of the tunnel." (Cuomo later mentioned that he also called Tesla to ask about running more trains.)
The central difference between the plans lies in the benchwall, which, as VICE reported last year, is the structure that carries the power and communication cables inside of the subway tunnel—the likes of which were heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The demolition of the benchwall, Cuomo said, is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and is largely what demanded the 15-month-long full shutdown.
But under the new design, Mary Boyce, the dean of engineering at Columbia University who traveled down with Cuomo into the 100-year-old tunnel in December, told reporters that new cables would instead be “racked” along the side of the tunnel, thereby no longer requiring bench wall demolition. The cables in the benchwall will be abandoned there, and new “fiber reinforced polymer” would be installed to fortify the weakened structure. Sensors would also be put into place to detect any shifts or cracks in the structure once completed.
Throughout the hour-long press conference, Cuomo repeatedly pointed out (and didn’t help tamper down any chatter of presidential ambitions) that other cities—namely London, Hong Kong, and Riyadh—have deployed this method, but New York City would be the first in America to do so.
"This could be a national model. Because it is a totally different way to reconstruct a tunnel. It's faster; it's cheaper; it's better than the way we've been doing it now. And New York should be the first. We're trying to be the first,” he said. “This state is the most aggressive state in building infrastructure in the United States of America. Period.”
What reporters and many observers tried to wrap their heads around (myself included) is why this news didn’t come out, say, a year ago, before businesses and residents starting to decamp from north Brooklyn. When asked, Fernando Ferrer, the acting chairman of the MTA, said that “the answer is that the integration of these approaches—and there are several—and the technology have never been previously applied in the context of a rehabilitation project. A rehabilitation project underground."
Negotiations on the new design’s implementation are ongoing with the contractor, Judlau, but the revised work is still on track to start in April, he said. The one-track train will operate with 15-minute headwinds, Ferrer added, which he said are the conditions that exist now. And as for the 15-20 month projected timeline? “I don’t make promises,” Cuomo, who also said he does not control the MTA, replied bluntly.
There were scarce details as to whether or not the planned transit alternatives would still be built out. As documented by VICE last month, construction has begun on components of the city’s transit system directly affected by what many were considering a transit crisis.
In a quick gaggle with reporters afterwards, Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit, lent his support to the plan. He said that ADA-compliant upgrades to certain stations will continue, and that he hoped the G train would still be lengthened, as planned. Temporary ferries, which were a part of the mitigation plan, would likely not happen now, he said. Ferrer said that more service on the 7, G, and M should also be expected.
In a statement, John Raskins, head of the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, demanded a full public release of the details in the coming days. “At the end of the day, what riders care about is whether the L train is repaired for the long term, and how much disruption it will take to get there,” said Raskins. “The governor's plan may or may not work, but you'll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input.”
As the news spread online Thursday, it became clear that a number of New York City elected officials — and even Byford, who reports to Cuomo — were left in the dark about the big change in plans until the last minute. "Anything that avoids disruption I favor, obviously," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at an unrelated press conference, before the plan was announced. "If there is a plan that can be better, that is great."
In a statement emailed to VICE, Councilman Rafael Espinal echoed criticisms that the new plan will have a disproportionate effect on low-income New Yorkers, who work on nights and weekends. “Today’s announcement will likely mean that there will be evening and weekend service disruptions for over three years,” Espinal said. “That may be a relief to some 9-to-5 commuters, but I am very concerned about how it will affect the commutes of service workers and other people who rely on the subway at night and early in the morning.”
“I hope the plan put forward by Governor Cuomo and the MTA will ensure that working New Yorkers are not unduly burdened or inconvenienced.”
VICE will have more updates as they become clear.
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