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Tunnel Vision

A Brief Timeline of the L Train Shutdown Clusterfuck

What the heck happened?

by John Surico
Jan 5 2019, 1:03am

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

As the dust settled on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s startling announcement Thursday that actually, no, the massively hyped and long-feared L train shutdown in NYC was (maybe, mostly) off, it’s fair to say many locals were still in a state of hangover-esque befuddlement.

Here they were, anticipating for years now what was to be among the biggest transit disruptions in the city’s history—some had moved (or prepared to), some had changed life plans, and most, if not all, were resigned to the fact that starting this April, some shit was about to go down. But then, just like that—poof! The shutdown that was not only going to reshape transit for Wall Street bros and entrepreneurs whose rent was magically paid by a third party every month (a.k.a. many residents of North Williamsburg) but, also, working-class people across the city, seemed to have vanished. And maybe, just maybe, some people were now going to be… better off?

Almost immediately, the questions turned more existential: What does this all mean, and why is our cruel Old Testament God—a.k.a. Andrew Cuomo—messing with us?



But to truly understand this shitshow—given the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board still has to approve the new repair regimen of partial service at night and on weekends, it may not be over—it’s important to look back at the many strange steps that got us here. What follows is a vaguely traumatic timeline of how one of the biggest transit crises America’s largest cities has ever faced was born, accelerated, and then, somehow, ended up being a sick joke:

January 2016

After Governor Cuomo announces that 30 subway stations will be shut down for expedited repairs, rumors begin to swirl that the Canarsie Tunnel—connecting the L line in Manhattan to its stations in Brooklyn—is in need of massive rehabilitation due to Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The MTA estimates it could take three years to repair the crossing.

February 2016

OK, maybe seven years?

March 2016

Pressure grows on the MTA to release the damage report for the Canarsie Tunnel. "The MTA has committed to a public meeting with the affected communities, and we’ll have robust communications with all the elected officials, community groups and others that we want to hear from as we develop our plans,” a spokesperson says.

Naturally, given the sheer volume of neurotic souls (and normal people who use public transportation) in NYC, panic begins to set in. A group of affected residents and business owners dawn the moniker "L Train Coalition" to push for more information.

April 2016

The public finds out that all five crosstown L stations in Manhattan may be closed during a still-unconfirmed shutdown. A 2019 start date is floated at an MTA board meeting. MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast says the authority “hasn’t made up our mind” on whether a piecemeal or full shutdown will be necessary. After extensive backlash from riders and businesses, public meetings are scheduled.

May 2016

Meetings are held. MTA officials present a video showcasing the damage done in the tunnel, and dangle two options: a three-year partial closure, or an 18-month full closure. (They much prefer the latter, as did the public, according to one survey commissioned by the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance.) Mitigation plans are scarce, but the idea of making 14th Street bus-only is suggested.

People, quite expectedly, are pissed. "They're showing us all this rusted stuff like we're supposed to be impressed with their expertise," one resident told Gothamist. "But the bottom line is, if they don't provide alternate transportation that can handle the same volume as the L train, all of this is bullshit, one hundred percent.”

June 2016

The idea of a goddamn gondola over the East River makes the rounds. And so does this condom-like bridge.

July 2016

The MTA makes its decision: an 18-month shutdown starting in 2019 it is. A mitigation plan of expanded subway service, buses, and ferries begins to take shape. Rage accumulates.

February/March 2017

The MTA and city Department of Transportation (DOT) hold four more L-pocalypse-themed “workshops” after earlier public meetings failed to appease the masses.

April 2017

The MTA announces that the 2019 closure will be shortened to 15 months, and a $477 million deal with a contractor is signed. This column is born, and the shutdown is expected in April 2019.

May 2017

The L train is shut down for two weekends to prepare for the 2019 closure. Early drafts of the mitigation plans are circulated among elected and other officials.

June 2017

System-wide, the New York City subways descend into free-fall, with regular delays, signal issues, and horrific commutes. Its woes become a national story as Cuomo declares a “state of emergency” for the largest mass transit system in America, one he insists isn't his fault (it is) despite the man from Queens getting his way basically always, and especially on the MTA.

July 2017

MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota presents a "Subway Action Plan" to stabilize the crumbling subway system. He says his plan will not affect the L train shutdown. Awesome.

August 2017

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo cannot stop fighting over who should (or can) fix the subway. New Yorkers resign themselves to awful service and (okay, they may have already been resigned to this) shitty leadership.

December 2017

After growing criticism from a coalition of business owners, transit advocates, and local elected officials, the MTA and DOT release the long-awaited official mitigation plan for the L train shutdown. It leaves aside the zany notions—the pontoon bridge, the gondola, and the condom—and codifies previously floated proposals: a bus-only 14th Street, more subway service, shuttle buses, temporary ferry services, expanded bike lanes, and restricting the Williamsburg Bridge to vehicles with three or more passengers.

January/February 2018

The MTA and DOT hold "open houses" to raise awareness of the mitigation plan. North Brooklyn and Manhattan residents increasingly accept the gnarly fate that lies ahead for them.

"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,’” newly installed New York City Transit President Andy Byford tells reporters. He adds later: “[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.”

April 2018

New Yorkers who live along the L in Manhattan sue the city and MTA, among others, over the L train shutdown.

July 2018

A startup called "The New L" dangles ultra-lux shuttle service for North Brooklynites looking to escape the shutdown. Many people on the Internet laugh.

August 2018

New York City becomes the first in America to cap for-hire vehicle companies like Uber and Lyft. Part of the ride-share brands' argument against such a move was they might help people get around during the L train shutdown. Rent starts to show signs of dropping in North Brooklyn.

September 2018

Actress Cynthia Nixon loses to Cuomo in the Democratic primary for New York governor, after waging an all-out assault on his performance overseeing the city’s still-screwed subway system and the state-run MTA, including the L train shutdown saga. New York City passes more bills aimed at offsetting the potential blowback from the shutdown.

October 2018

The overall subway system shows slight signs of possible improvement. An “e-ferry” is pitched for the shutdown, and a short-lived, shutdown-themed haunted house opens in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

November 2018

An official date is set for the shutdown: April 27, 2019. Democrats win full control of the state legislature in Albany, promising reform for the city’s beleaguered transit system. Amazon finally announces where (at least part of) its HQ2 will be: Long Island City, Queens, an area that already wasn’t looking good for the shutdown.

December 2018

A shutdown-ready New York City starts to take shape. Ride-share companies like Uber, Lyft, and Via draft their battle plans.

Cuomo takes a personal midnight tour of the Canarsie Tunnel with engineering experts from Columbia and Cornell University, as well as the MTA. (It’s off-limits for press.) Everyone’s kind of like, “What the fuck? But OK.”

"The tunnel is supposed to close in four months and I just want to be doubly sure that everything that can be done has been done, and when people come up to me on the street and say, did you check and make sure that everything can be done? I can look them in the eye and say yes," Cuomo says in an interview the next day.

In the end, he concludes: The shutdown plan is sound. Fifteen months it is.

January 2019

Appearing with those same engineers at a sudden press conference, Cuomo COMPLETELY FLIP-FLOPS. No shutdown is necessary, everyone, he says: A new high-tech plan had been devised that could do the work in 15-20 months, with partial service on nights and weekends. He also says, sort of unprovoked, that he talked to Tesla about running more trains, because of flying cars.

The MTA stance seems to be: OK, sure. (Cuomo later says this late change is all because an irate business owner in Brooklyn confronted him about it.)

And that’s it. In the words of our Old Testament God: “There will be no shutdown." Unless, you know, there is.

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