One day after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he and his hand-picked group of engineering experts had found a way to avoid a complete 15-month L train shutdown, the governor told reporters that he didn't expect any of this to happen.
"Frankly, I assumed that they would confirm the original plan," Cuomo said in a conference call Friday morning. "I heard the conversation evolve, and they did not confirm the plan."
But Governor Cuomo has served two terms as governor while the MTA has seen declining ridership and deteriorating service, and the L train shutdown had been talked about and agonized over for nearly three years. Dozens of public meetings were held. Why annihilate years of transportation planning in the 11th hour?
One angry man.
"How I got involved, actually, uh, the vignette is, I was going through the campaign and I was in Brooklyn towards the end of the campaign, and a gentleman came up to me in Brooklyn and was very animated and came up to me and pulled the lapel of my jacket—I was wearing a suit—and went on at length about his dismay on the L train and it was gonna hurt his business, and this was a real catastrophe," Cuomo explained.
Here we will quote the governor at length:
I had heard complaints before but, I mean he was really vociferous, he was very angry slash irate, and he said, "Have you checked into this?"
And I said, well the MTA’s doing it and the MTA has these great firms and all the experts and I’m not really an expert and I’m not an engineer, I don’t really know.
And he said, "Well will you look me in the eye and tell me this is the best plan?" I said I’ll look you in the eye and tell you that all the experts say this is best plan, but I don’t know enough to tell you that I believe it.
He said but they told you that you couldn't build a new bridge at the Tappan Zee, didn’t they? I said yes. He said, ‘but you did it, didn’t you?’ I said yes.
He said well did you ever build a bridge before governor? I said no. ‘Well you figured that out, right? And you named the bridge for your father.’ I said yes, I was very proud to do that.
He said, "Will you give me your word that you will check into this L train tunnel?" I said I will give you my word, I will check into the L train tunnel. He said "OK, I’m taking you at your word." I said I give you my word, I will check into the L train tunnel.
And nobody heard this but me. And my security detail which was slightly alarmed, but they’re often slightly alarmed. That stuck with me after the campaign.
(If you're reading this, and you are the person who grabbed Governor Cuomo by his lapels back in November to complain about the L train shutdown and praise the construction and re-naming of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The governor said this encounter prompted him to call the deans of Cornell and Columbia's engineering schools in November, who joined Cuomo in his midnight tour of the L train tunnel on December 12th. According to Cuomo, "the conversations went on for hundreds of hours. And the collaborative came to the conclusion that there was a new design that they could use which has been used before."
So if it's not rocket science, why couldn't the MTA come up with this design on their own?
"What the MTA will say to you is, we hired the best design firms in the United States to design a tunnel, and they are the best firms—nobody will argue with that," Cuomo said. "And this is the design they gave us, and then we hired four other national construction and design firms and they all affirmed this design."
While declining to criticize the MTA's overall credibility, Cuomo called it a "captive industry," beholden to traditions.
"The answer, 'we’ve always done it this way.' is a very convenient, popular answer, as it is in life," Cuomo said. "This is the way we’ve done it for years. This is what we know how to do. That’s what they will tell you and they will be right. And this is what every rail company in the country does. Well, would you be open to importing a design that's used in Europe? That’s quite a hypothetical, and that’s a hypothetical that the MTA has to answer."
The governor could not say how much had already been spent on L train tunnel repairs and preparation, or how much this new plan would cost, other than to suggest it should be less than the $477 million 15-month shutdown. But a day after telling the public in a press release that the "MTA Accepts Recommendations of Expert Panel That L Train Tunnel Can Be Repaired While Service Continues to Operate," the governor then made it seem as if his alternative is still just that: a suggestion that the MTA board could accept or reject (though rejection is not likely).
"I can tell you that their consultants on the project all think this alternative works and makes sense, because they were part of the collaborative," Cuomo said. "But that’s all irrelevant really because it’s all up to the MTA board and its 17 members which are appointed by various political entities and have their own perspectives.
"I am calling on them to have a meeting have a meeting right away—make it a public meeting, hear the plan. Because New Yorkers, God bless them, can be a little skeptical...I can see why they’d be skeptical in this situation."