In the nearly three years since the MTA confirmed that it would be shutting down L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan for an extended period of time to make crucial, Hurricane Sandy-related repairs, Brooklynites have lived through a waking nightmare of service changes to prepare other lines for the shutdown, searched to find alternate means of getting to work, and scrambled to find affordable rents in other neighborhoods while businesses have scrambled to figure out how to fight through 15 months in a transit desert.
And then came January 3rd, when, out of the clear blue sky, we found out that all these preparations may have been for nothing, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo's new plan to avert a shutdown via "innovative" redesign of the tunnel work. Here are our best answers to what the hell is going on.
What does this mean for L train service?
Despite years of assurances and reams of studies saying otherwise, the MTA now says that it can keep both tunnels open and fully functional during weekdays. The necessary work will happen one tube at a time at night and on weekends, at which point the authority says a single train will run back and forth to Manhattan through the remaining tube, arriving every 15 to 20 minutes. That's about equal to the standard overnight headways, notes acting MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer.
The MTA, which previously rejected a proposal for a shutdown of one tube at a time that would last as long as three years, said in a press release that the new "guidance and recommendations we have received today will ease the strain on customers and help us ensure we are providing a consistently reliable service."
How long will this take?
Cuomo said the Columbia and Cornell University engineers he consulted projected that the new repairs could be finished in between 15 and 20 months, though the governor refused to promise that it wouldn't take longer. "It's a silly question," he said, noting that no one knows how much of the tunnel's damaged "bench wall" must be removed instead of shored up. But the governor added that he was confident this would be the "shortest, best route to repairing the tunnel."
Listen to Christopher Robbins discuss the change in L train shutdown plans on All Things Considered
Wait. Why don't we need to shut down the L train anymore?
As Cuomo giddily explained on Thursday, the solution proposed by the academic engineering teams comes down to a "highly innovative" approach to how power and communication cables are stored inside the L train tunnel. Those crucial electrical components are currently embedded behind the bench wall, a walkway that runs along the base of either side of the tunnel. After salt water from Sandy badly corroded the wiring, the MTA initially determined there was no choice but to tear down all 32,000 feet of bench wall in both tubes and rebuild it with new cables inside.
But after venturing into the tunnel last month, Cuomo and his panel of experts no longer believe that's the case. Instead, they say that new cable can be hung on racks along the sides of the tunnel, above the damaged bench wall. The old electrical components would be left where they are, with fiber reinforced plastics applied to fortify any parts of the wall that are structurally compromised. A system of "smart" sensors would be deployed to ensure that parts of the deteriorating wall don't crumble into the tracks—a scenario that led to a major derailment on the G line just four years ago.
As for the "racking" method, the governor repeatedly noted such a design is currently in place in cities whose tunnels lack bench walls, including London and Hong Kong. But the design has never been attempted in the United States, and it's never been applied to a tunnel rehabilitation project.
For Cuomo at least, the lack of precedent seemed to be part of the appeal.
"This could be a national model, because it is a totally different way to reconstruct a tunnel," he said. "It's faster. It's cheaper. It's better than the way we've been doing it now. And New York should be the first. We're trying to be the first."
Governor Cuomo announcing the new plan for the L train shutdown alongside Dean Mary Boyce of Columbia University and Dean Lance Collins of Cornell University (Governor's Office)
WHY WASN'T THIS OPTION PRESENTED UNTIL LESS THAN FOUR MONTHS BEFORE THE SHUTDOWN?
No one has put forward a remotely satisfying explanation for why this solution is only being presented now, or how a handful of college deans managed to strike down the collective wisdom of the MTA's engineering team in a matter of weeks.
"The answer is that the integration of these approaches, and there are several, and the technology have never been previously applied in the context of a rehabilitation project," offered Ferrer.
Asked about the timing, Cuomo added, "Sometimes you have to be willing to think outside the box or break the box."
The sudden about face has some transit advocates suspicious. "The governor's plan may or may not work, but you'll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input," said John Raskin of Riders Alliance. "Actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt that will ultimately leave riders in the lurch."
The revamped L train project may seem like a miracle cure on the surface, but what about underground, & why months out? Riders get it: the tunnels need to be fixed for the next 100 yrs, not the next 100 months.
— PCAC (@PCACriders) January 3, 2019
How much will it cost? And who will be making the repairs?
Ferrer said that the $477 million contract the agency has with Judlau Contracting for the original L train work will be renegotiated. He declined to say if Judlau would still be doing the new work going forward.
Asked how much the new repairs will cost, Ferrer balked: "I don't know the answer to that question, I don't know if anyone does." However, he did promise it would be within the same "cost envelope," so, no more than $477 million, though the governor suggested it could be less.
"Less time, less work, equals less money," Cuomo said. (The governor added in a conference call with reporters this morning that he doesn't know how much Judlau has already spent on preparing for the now-defunct L train plan.)
Other costs left untallied: years of DOT and MTA planning and procurement, public meetings, uncertainty for small businesses, fluctuations in the real estate market, and irreversible life choices made in preparation for not being able to commute into Manhattan on the L for more than a year.
How involved was the MTA in this new plan?
The governor has vacillated on this point, telling reporters that he "never told the MTA about the plan," but also that the transit authority's leadership had reviewed the recommendations and deemed them "feasible." Members of the MTA's board—a body effectively controlled by the governor, which has approval power over contract changes—say they only learned of the the new plan yesterday.
Still, Ferrer seemed to confirm the board's acquiescence in a memo released moments before the governor's announcement. "MTA has reviewed and is accepting the recommendations of the expert team from Columbia and Cornell engineering schools," he wrote.
"We learned just when you learned — and as a board member, I find this disconcerting." CSS's David Jones, MTA board member, on the governor's plan for the L train shutdown
— Laura Nahmias (@nahmias) January 4, 2019
Meanwhile, a source in Albany tells Gothamist that New York City Transit President Andy Byford, who'd up until now spearheaded the shutdown's mitigation efforts, was largely shut out of the last minute intervention.
Stopped in the lobby following the presser, the leaders of the expert panel—Mary Boyce, the dean of Columbia's engineering school, and Lance Collins, the dean of Cornell's engineering school—said they'd never met (or even heard of) Byford. "I'm sure they must be updating him behind the scenes," Boyce said. "I'm sorry we didn't get to interact with him, but maybe when we see the final results we'll all be in there together."
What's this about Elon Musk?
The governor says that as part of his "out-of-the-box" strategy, he "called up Tesla and said, here's the question: We're trying to move subway cars, get them closer together. Do you have any ideas? You're talking about flying cars, we're just talking about moving trains." The Tesla CEO, who recently built a tunnel for cars, does not have any plans to make a flying vehicle.
What about all those promised mitigation strategies that the MTA and Department of Transportation spent months working out with impacted residents? Like turning 14th Street into a bus corridor? Or limiting vehicle traffic on the Williamsburg bridge? Or running more ferries? Or CitiBike's e-bike injection?
As of now, it's unclear whether the city will follow through on any of its own contingency measures, which included an expanded bus network, traffic restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge, and new protected bike lanes. During a brief gaggle following the press conference, Byford assured reporters that proposed accessibility upgrades along the L would move forward, and said he was hopeful about plans to lengthen the G train and improve service for M and 7 trains. Some additional buses would still likely be necessary, he added, given the nights and weekend work.
Mayor Bill de Blasio wouldn't go into additional detail during an unrelated briefing on Thursday. "If it turns out that this really is a sea change, then we're going to evaluate what it means and if we're going to look at these things in another light," he said. A spokesperson for the DOT said that they were still reviewing the plan that had been presented to them earlier in the day.
Already, some elected officials are calling on the city to ensure that the long-planned investments in alternative transportation aren't left by the wayside. "Things like expanding the network of bus and bike lanes and extending CitiBike further into Brooklyn are good proposals and still necessary so the City should push ahead with them," said Brooklyn Council Member Rafael Espinal.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer echoed the call for the city to stick with its mitigation plan, promising a "battery of questions" for MTA officials during public hearings that are expected to take place over the coming weeks.
What does Mayor de Blasio think?
During his usual Friday morning appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio was cautiously optimistic. "We should not, in my opinion, turn off all the efforts that had been underway to prepare for the shut down until we are 100 percent certain what’s going on," he told Lehrer. "Look, the MTA itself has kind of a checkered history around these huge capital projects—we all know about East Side Access, we all know about huge delays and costs overruns and other problems. I have sort of to trust but verify here that we are 100 percent certain that it’s not being more like the original shutdown plan. We’re going to keep all the measures that the city had prepared waiting in reserve."
He added, "If it proves to be 100% do-able that this new approach can save all this time and hassle, of course, it’s a good thing."
When Lehrer asked how this sudden plan makes the MTA look, the mayor replied, "Obviously, the MTA has some real explaining to do here. In principle, this information was available. Look, I’m the first to say that sometimes in government you literally do find a new strategy, a new approach, a new technology. That’s not impossible that that stuff can emerge at a certain point that you wouldn’t have known a year or two earlier. This is a little strange to me and this has gotten so much attention, so much energy, so much expense already, years and year of effort. I want to know more. I want to know for sure that this will work. But why on earth wasn’t it considered previously?
"I'm really hoping this is good news that comes to pass but we’re going to be in a careful stance until that we’re 100% certain," de Blasio said.
What does this mean for "The New L"?
The luxury shuttle bus company, created to chauffeur displaced L train riders into Manhattan, will keep its waitlist open in the coming weeks as it gauges demand among the New Yorkers who've already signed up for the $155/month service. "The service was built to fill a void and address the awful MTA mitigation plan that had been proposed for the full shutdown," Jamie Getto, the company's president, told Gothamist. "If the city is able to provide suitable public alternatives, we will cease operations."
For now, it's all wait and see.
Additional reporting by Christopher Robbins and Claire Lampen.