When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced four weeks ago that he was cancelling the full L train shutdown in favor of a new plan that would partially limit service on nights and weekends, one of the many questions left unanswered was whether the MTA would follow through on its long-in-the-works mitigation measures. If Cuomo's proposal lacked substantive plans to divert L train riders to other routes, MTA officials warned in an internal memo obtained by Gothamist, commuters could expect "on board crowding greater than anything ever experienced on the NYC subway system on a sustained basis."
An MTA spokesperson downplayed the memo's dire predictions, characterized Gothamist's interpretation of it as "clickbait," and promised that additional transportation options would be kept in place. But on Wednesday morning, the MTA announced that they were ditching the biggest mitigation plans and replacing them with some additional subway service.
In a phone call with reporters, MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim said that there would be no car-free busway on 14th Street, no HOV lane on the Williamsburg Bridge, and limited improvements in subway service to make up for the disruption. On weeknights, the L train service will be impacted starting at 8 p.m.—hours earlier than was previously disclosed—building to twenty minutes waits for trains beginning at 10 p.m. and throughout the weekend.
The most noteworthy element is that on weekdays the L will start seeing less passenger service at 8 PM as some trains are replaced by work trains getting into position. Not only will this reduce capacity but also slow service to some degree as work trains get in position.
— Aaron W. Gordon (@A_W_Gordon) February 13, 2019
While insisting that 95 percent of L train riders would still have access to adequate service, Hakim conceded that there are some concerns about the scope of the new plan.
"We kind of know that for some customers, with a 20 minute headway, they won't wait for that," said Hakim. "They won't be satisfied with that and they're going to choose alternate subway service. So we're not exactly sure what that means in terms of crowds." She added that the MTA was particularly "concerned about crowding on 1st Avenue and 3rd Avenue" on Saturdays, noting that "we have not figured out exactly how to handle that."
To make up for it, the MTA will be running some additional service on the 7, G, and M lines, and will continue with its plan to improve capacity and accessibility at some stations. Still, Hakim said, "it will be a disruptive service on the L."
Transit advocates painted an even bleaker picture. Without the 14th Street busway and HOV lanes on the bridge to pick up the slack, unexpected disruptions to L train service—like the one we saw this morning—will now lead to a "full scale L-pocalypse," according to Danny Pearlstein of the Riders' Alliance.
"The fear is that when people get frustrated they're going to hop in their cars, and it's going to cause many of the same traffic impacts we were afraid of with a full shutdown," Pearlstein told Gothamist. "The bus was going to be the direct route; the subway is the indirect route."
Abandoning these surface-level transit enhancements, advocates say, is further evidence of Mayor Bill de Blasio's allegiance to private motorists—many of whom have spent years lobbying against the proposed mitigation efforts.
"By changing course now, the mayor is making his priorities clear: he cares about maintaining a status quo bent on preserving convenient access for cars, even at the expense of everyday New Yorkers who could suffer for years from the effects of the newly announced L Train 'slowdown,'" Transportation Alternatives senior director of advocacy Tom DeVito said in a statement.
Eventually, Hakim said, the MTA will turn 14th Street into an SBS route, though that's not expected until after the new plan begins. Wiring is already in place at some SBS fare machines.
It also remains unknown how long riders can expect to endure the so-called slowdown. The goal, Hakim said, is to complete the necessary repairs in 15 to 20 months, though she noted that we should "stay tuned" for an exact timeline. The agency has not said whether there will be added penalties in place if the contractor doesn't complete the work on time, as there were in the previous project.
What does seem increasingly clear, at least, is that the MTA is plowing ahead with its new L train plan, despite the objections of its own board members and operations department. The board vote, initially promised by the governor, no longer appears to be happening. The independent consultant, intended to verify that the new plan will not harm riders, has not yet been retained.
But even with major details still to be worked out, the MTA expects that the L train plan—some L train plan—will take effect come April. "This is not a final plan," said Hakim. "This is an evolving proposal."
UPDATE 5:00 p.m. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio provided Gothamist with the following statement: "The Mayor hasn’t decided what to do with the city-controlled mitigation plans on the bridge and on 14th Street. As we learn more and more detail every day from the MTA about its closure of the L train, we’ll continue to design efforts and review existing plans to help affected riders."