On Thursday night, two weeks after Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his surprise proposal to avert the long-planned L train shutdown, the MTA officially announced that it will be adopting the plan going forward—despite not having the support of several board members or a detailed, final engineering plan to present to them.
"The total shutdown of both tunnels and all service scheduled for April 27 will not be necessary," the release read. "We do anticipate a shutdown of one tube on nights and weekends, however service both ways (between Manhattan and Brooklyn) would be scheduled 24/7."
Implicit in the announcement is the revelation that, contrary to the governor's initial statements, the plan will not come before the MTA board for approval. An MTA official confirmed this to Gothamist on Friday, arguing that the plan can bypass the board because it is expected to cost less than the full shutdown, which was pegged at $477 million. Acting MTA Chairman Freddy Ferrer, a Cuomo appointee, has "extraordinary procurement authority," said the official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly.
"The one procedure that we have in place as a board—procurement—is essentially being taken away from us, effectively neutering us as an agency," MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool told Gothamist on Friday. "I’m surprised that this is being railroaded when everyone is just trying to work toward a very positive outcome—that’s safety and reliability."
Good government groups have taken issue with the MTA's plan to sidestep the board as well.
We think L Train closure is a "major action" @MTA board must "approve" per bylaws. @NYGovCuomo may want to change MTA governance --- but until rules changed, board has say in major decisions. (See page 4 of pdf #2B.) @RidersNY @Straphangers @TransitCenter https://t.co/AuoTc9JJqt
— Reinvent Albany (@ReinventAlbany) January 18, 2019
The news comes two days after a contentious "emergency board meeting," in which Ferrer seemed to dance around the question of a board vote. "The purpose for this meeting was to share information. Once there is a change, a plan, it comes before the board again," Ferrer told DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. But asked directly whether the new plan would be subject to board approval, the chairman cut his mic, then moved on to the next question.
The MTA executive's maneuvering has irked MTA board members, who say that there are several outstanding concerns—including safety issues related to hazardous silica dust expected to be kicked up by the work—that the authority has not yet addressed. Under the new plan, the damaged tunnel would be repaired one tube at a time during nights and weekends, with headways of about 20 minutes. Among other questions, it's unclear whether the new plan represents a longterm solution for the tunnel or a short-term fix that could come undone in a matter of decades.
"Whose name is on this should, God forbid, something bad happen?" wondered board member Andrew Albert. "We were told that we could select a consultant, that we could get a third set of eyes to see if this was a safe, sensible way to proceed. Then we get this press release."
Asked about who would bear ultimate responsibility for the project, the MTA official would not answer, other than to say that contractors would still face penalties for exceeding a to-be-determined deadline. The design firm WSP, which previously warned of dangers posed by a plan very similar to the one proposed by the governor, now says they support the new approach.
The plan to seek out a third party review of the proposal, which NYC Transit President Andy Byford had previously cited as precondition for his support, seems to have been tweaked by MTA management as well. While the press release notes that an independent consultant will "oversee safety operations," it appears that oversight will happen once the new project is already underway.
"The third party independent consultant was supposed to give the recommendation about whether this is a good deal for the rider," said Albert. "Is this a 20-year fix? A 30-year fix? How long do you need with the cleaning process to get the line ready for the next morning's rush hour?"
"I guess we wasted four hours at that emergency meeting," he added. "Either there's a board that makes governing decisions or there isn't."
UPDATE: Asked on Friday whether the plan should come before the MTA board, the governor claimed ignorance. “You’d have to ask the MTA,” he said. “I believe the status is the MTA has accepted the new design plan which will not require a closure. But I don’t know how the board works to that level.”
When he initially unveiled the plan, Cuomo told reporters it would be up to the board to decide whether his plan would be adopted or not. “What’s next is, the MTA Board has to vote on whether they want to pursue the plan,” he said on January 4th. “If they pursue the plan, there’s a secondary question, they’d have to renegotiate the contract with the contractors because the scope of work is different, et cetera.”