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Cuomo's L Train Reboot Still Full Of Unknowns: 'Nobody Has Any Idea Except For The Governor'

On November 7, 2012, crews work to repair circuits for pump motor controllers in the L train tunnel that were damaged by seawater during Hurricane Sandy.
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On November 7, 2012, crews work to repair circuits for pump motor controllers in the L train tunnel that were damaged by seawater during Hurricane Sandy. MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

Since Governor Andrew Cuomo and his disruptive band of hand-picked experts dropped their L-ternative shutdown bomb on New Yorkers last week, the MTA has tentatively adopted the new plan as its own. "All indicators are that this looks really promising, and we’re excited about it, and are going to be working really hard over the next several weeks to confirm that this is a good, workable, constructable plan," the MTA's managing director, Veronique Hakim, told Gothamist on Wednesday morning.

But Cuomo's scheme to avert a 15-month total shutdown and make the necessary repairs to the Canarsie tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan on nights and weekends over the course of 15 to 20 months, while keeping some trains running, is still just an outline of a plan. And once a real plan exists—which includes actual engineering design work, a renegotiated work contract, and silica dust mitigation efforts—it still has to be approved by the federal government (which is providing nearly a half billion dollars in funding), and the MTA board.

"None of this has been presented up until now to the MTA board, so the MTA board has not been able to consider it," said one MTA board member, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. "So nobody has any idea, except for the governor."

Hakim said that the MTA board members would start getting briefed on the plan next week, before the full board meeting in two weeks, and that MTA officials met with Federal Transportation Administration representatives about the new plan for the first time on Tuesday.

"They have already awarded nearly $400 million in Sandy resiliency grant money to support the program, and obviously we want to do everything we can to give them the information they need during this review process," Hakim said. In addition to the construction plan itself, the federal government also has to review the agency's mitigation efforts to get passengers where they need to go while service is hindered.

"They are also going be looking at what our alternate service plans are," Hakim said. "With the overnight and weekend service plan as currently configured, with what we think will be 20 minute headways along the L—do we need to provide any supplemental service with that?"

Hakim couldn't say how long the federal review might take. The federal government's review of the environmental impacts of the initial shutdown plan concluded in August of 2016, nearly a year after the plan was officially adopted, according to federal DOT documents.

"The FTA is not among the most nimble fed agencies under the best of circumstances, and it is now a victim of our national government's inability to keep itself open, so when the FTA approves this, is hard to know," the MTA board member said.

A spokesperson for the FTA did not respond to a request for comment.

The MTA board meeting on January 24th gives members an opportunity to ask many pressing questions: Were these new innovations from Cuomo's engineering experts—taking the cables out of the concrete benchwall and racking them on the tunnel, the special polymer to encase and protect the benchwall, the fiber optic sensors to monitor the wall and prevent service outages—proposed years ago? If so, why weren't they adopted? Will these repairs last many decades, as Cuomo's experts have suggested they will?

"I don't think people would be very happy if we went through 15 or 20 months of a partial shutdown only to find out two years from now that we had to do a full shutdown anyway," the board member said.

Even if the board determines that Cuomo's approach is the correct one, they have to
decide whether the old contract can be amended, or if the new work requires a new contract and thus a new bid.

"If the MTA board decides [the contract] can be modified and the existing contractor can go ahead and do this, does that open the MTA up for a lawsuit?" the board member wondered.

Hakim expects that Judlau, the contractor that got the initial $477 million contract to perform the work, will move forward with the new plan. She pointed out that work outside of the tunnel began months ago. (Judlau did not respond to a request for comment.)

"What is changing in this new process is the use of the benchwall, and how to deal with the benchwall within the tunnel, from vent shaft to vent shaft," Hakim said. "Everything else still gets done. The new substations get built, accessibility gets built, entrances get built, new station work gets done."

Other questions about Cuomo's plan concern its execution, not its technique.

Michael Horodniceanu, the former head of the MTA's capital projects, said that keeping the trains in operation while the work is happening is "a complicated thing, because you have to operate, stop, operate, stop, operate. That's not simple, and it will require a very careful dance to make sure that things are happening properly."

Horodniceanu also noted that this configuration may drive up the cost of the plan.

"Once you start operating at night and as well as weekends, the labor costs increase," Horodniceanu said. "That's something that has to be worked out between the contractor and the MTA."

The MTA has maintained that the project will be completed under the same cost envelope, though the governor has suggested it would be cheaper. Current NYCTA President Andy Byford told East Village residents on Tuesday night that he is convening his own independent group of engineering experts to review all the available information before moving forward, and that operating the trains safely while the work is being done is one of his "key issues."

"If we advance this plan it’s because we’ve vetted it and feel very confident on the safety element of it," Hakim said.

Despite all of these hurdles, the MTA is still aiming to begin the tunnel work around April 27th. Whether that goal is achievable may rest on how the MTA board receives Cuomo's plan on January 24th; in the past the board has been accused of acting as a "rubber stamp."

"Of course the MTA board should be asking tougher questions," the member said. "The board has a legal, fiduciary responsibility, and that includes an oversight function to maintain a degree of quality control to make sure what management is doing makes sense and is appropriate and can be evaluated and embraced after tough questioning."

Wednesday was also the first day of the new legislative session in Albany, where Democrats now control both the Assembly and the Senate. For years, state lawmakers have failed to use their oversight powers to reveal how decisions are made within the MTA, but that is going to change, according to State Senator Timothy Kennedy, the new chair of the transportation committee.

"In very short order there will be hearings within the committee process regarding the MTA," Kennedy said.

"Quite frankly, it's been too long since the state legislature has put the proper focus on the MTA and the millions of people that utilize it every day to not only propel our statewide economy, but our national economy."

Asked about the MTA's abrupt change of heart on the L-train shutdown, Senator Kennedy replied, "I think what the governor did was he put forward a plan that the MTA ultimately has to approve or disapprove. The decision lies with the MTA."

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