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L Train Emergency Meeting Liveblog: MTA Chairman Won't Say Whether Plan Is A Done Deal

The Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tube.
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The Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tube. MTA / Flickr

Less than two weeks ago, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his plan to cancel the L train shutdown, he helpfully suggested that the MTA board should probably have an emergency meeting about the dramatic change. "I am calling on them to have a meeting, have a meeting right away—make it a public meeting, hear the plan," the governor said. Despite New York City Transit Authority head Andy Byford's response that there was "no point” in having a meeting before the regularly scheduled meeting on the 24th, the MTA rushed out an announcement this past Sunday that yes, there would be an emergency meeting on Tuesday at noon, and here we are.

According to the release, the board will be briefed by the engineering consultants WSP "on the alternative L Train design modifications to the original tunnel restoration plan, also designed by WSP...WSP will be recommending to the Board that it pursue the modified plan as a better alternative, as it does not require a total shutdown of L train service."

There will be no vote today, which is necessary for the plan to move forward, but you can bet on an interesting discussion involving safety issues and how exactly this new plan will work.

Watch the hearing below, and refresh this page for updates from the meeting.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer began the meeting by urging the MTA board to answer the safety questions around the new plan. "We're very concerned because of what we read in the New York Times today," Brewer said.

As for the confusion following Cuomo's announcement, Brewer noted, "This is better than Law & Order, which we all watch, in terms of intrigue."

William Vega said he was speaking on behalf of his neighbors and business owners in Williamsburg. "A lot of them had to make the decisions to leave their neighborhood, my neighbors had babies, children, elderly to take care of, and they're wondering, was that decision made too early?"

Vega urged the board to do the proper amount of due diligence before approving the new plan. "We're relying on this fine committee to give us accurate information," Vega said. "When that confidence is lost that makes personal decisions and business decisions much more difficult."

[UPDATE: 12:50 p.m.] Acting MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer kicked off the non-public portion of the meeting by calling for a review of the MTA's contracting process, adding that he wanted to see the design-build process used systemwide. “If we’re going to undertake a major project and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, let’s build something better,” he said. In this case, WSP, Jacobs, and Judlau—the original design and construction team—will continue to handle the same aspects of the alternate L train plan.

Ferrer also vowed that a third-party consultant would review any safety and environmental considerations and report back to the MTA board. Lastly, Ferrer announced that the new plan would fall under the purview of the MTA’s Capital Construction division, rather than NYC Transit. MTA managing Director Veronique Hakim will be "directly responsible for supervision" of the plan.

[UPDATE: 1:04 p.m.] Jerry Janetti, the senior vice president of WSP, the main engineering consulting firm that helped come up with the original shutdown plan, and worked with Cuomo's academics on the new plan, recommended moving forward with Cuomo's plan.

"What we're doing is something different than was looked at before," Janetti said, referencing the Times' report on Tuesday morning that showed that other plans similar to Cuomo's that would rack the cables along the tunnel had been deemed too dangerous.

Jenetti said the new plan required 60 percent fewer bolts drilled into the tunnel wall to support the cable racks, and that 60 percent of the bench wall is in good enough shape to leave alone, based on "a nondestructive testing team" review that took place two weeks ago. Forty percent of the wall will either be reinforced with fiber reinforced polymer, or steel, or demolished altogether.

As for the toxic silica dust that the drilling and and demolition would create, Janetti pointed out that other construction projects, such as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the Queens Midtown Tunnel, had silica mitigation plans "designed to address silica mitigation prior to being open to the public, so it's opened in a safe way before the public enters a project site." Janetti said that these kinds of mitigation efforts are "going on in many subway stations around the city," but did not say which ones.

Janetti asserted that the new plan would last "decades."

"This is a generational investment, not a Band-Aid."

[UPDATE: 1:24 p.m.] Asked whether the last minute change could hurt the MTA’s ability to get bids in the future, Ferrer responded, “I don’t think so.”

“As an institution we have to be open to new ways of doing things,” he added. “This is put our money where our mouths are time.”

Susan Metzger, another board member, noted, “You don’t know yet how much silica you are going to be dealing with. As a consequence, we don’t yet have a specific mitigation plan.”

[UPDATE: 1:41 p.m.] Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who also serves as an MTA board member, questioned whether the authority would be able to complete the necessary work during nights and weekends. The general understanding, she said, is that workers only get “three or four hours of actual wrench time, because the set up and the take down takes awhile.”

Ferrer directed that question to NYC Transit President Byford, who’d shared a stage with Trottenberg to explain the necessity of the full shutdown during numerous public meetings.

“We now typically get started at 10 p.m., so getting at least 5 hours of wrench time, which is a good amount of time.”

“I mean I guess we can decide whether five hours is good or not, but okay,” responded Trottenberg.

The DOT Commissioner also wondered why WSP didn't think of the cable-racking revelation before.

"I got bookshelves in my house so it's not like the concept of a rack is an exotic one, did no one look at it then?" Trottenberg asked. "Is some other document gonna emerge that shows it was looked at? I'm just curious."

"There was no other racking system that was evaluated at that time that I'm aware of," Janetti admitted.

"Even though at that time there were other systems that had them?" Trottenberg added.

"I think that some of the examples that I gave in London, Riyadh, those were all under design, racking systems were used at the time," Janetti said.

[UPDATE 1:51 p.m.] Andrew Saul, one of two MTA board members who are missing today’s briefing for back surgery, has called into the meeting to lament the MTA’s handling of the “very radical change.”

“From what I see, we have the same people who made the initial decision, with three years of work, and now we’re getting an evaluation of a complete change of plans by the same parties that originally advised the board,” Saul said, adding that this appeared to be “another MTA disaster.”

In response, the MTA President Patrick Foye reiterated that a new third-party consultant would be reporting directly to the MTA board.

[UPDATE: 2:18 p.m.] Real estate developer Scott Rechler, who was appointed by Cuomo in 2017, bemoaned the "adversarial" relationship between consultants and the MTA. "They're afraid to share these ideas, they're just moving forward," he said. "When we get through this, this should also cost a lot less than closing down the tunnel during the major reconstruction."

"To me the biggest factor going forward in terms of this working or not working, is the silica factor," Rechler added.

Board member Carl Weisbrod, who is appointed by the mayor, wondered why the MTA was now trusting the same consultants who had given the MTA bad advice five years ago.

“For the life of me I do not understand how we can have a set of contractors and advisors and experts who gave us potentially the wrong advice in 2015," Weisbrod said. "At least one option is we made the wrong decision in 2015, and yet we have that exact same team with a very few other experts now evaluating that very same decision...It seems to me to have the same team being our validators now, is a direct conflict of interest."

Weisbrod said he thought the people conducting the independent review of the new plan should be appointed by the board and wholly separate from the MTA's management, and that the board should have an "in camera" review of both plans, without management being present.

MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim did not agree to allow the board to select the independent monitor. “I’m a little concerned about hitting the ground running pretty fast,” she said.

[UPDATE: 2:45 p.m.] Board member Andrew Zuckerman wondered why the MTA is removing L train repair signage (and information from the MTA's website), and telling the public that the shutdown has been averted, given that there has been no formal board vote yet.

"Can you explain why we've stated 'averted' in the past tense, given that...I'm not sure we have decided this path yet?" Zuckerman asked.

"I think that was the term that was used in the original announcement, and I think we just mimicked it," Hakim answered.

"What is our decision making process? Have we decided to do this path? I'm confused." Zuckerman continued.

"I have stated a number of times already in this meeting that a third partrty team will be engaged to report to the board and me, all of us, on what the best path forward is," Ferrer said. "We have to do that relatively quickly," Ferrer added, "but that's for the board to consider at the appropriate moment when we have those people on board."

UPDATE 2:53 p.m. In a remarkable moment just now, Trottenberg tried to get acting MTA chairman Freddy Ferrer to clarify if the decision to avoid the L train had actually been made, and whether the board would get a vote. He would not deliver a straight answer. You can read the full exchange below:

TROTTENBERG: As the MTA has gone off and put up signs that said L train shutdown averted, the board has had no vote on changing the contract or any of the terms here. Is the decision made? Do we have any actual role here? I’m not hearing that we do?

FERRER: I can address that commissioner. See there isn’t a change in a contract before us because there is no actual change to a contract at this point. Once there is, I am happy to have that brought before the board if I am still acting chairman. That’s my job, that’s my responsibility to consider it. If we have to consider an amendment to a contract or any other action, at the appropriate moment that will be brought before us and we’ll vote yes or no and abstain.

TROTTENBERG: So you’re saying we could vote no. What would that mean? The L train shutdown isn’t averted.

FERRER: You vote whichever way you like. I’ve never suggested how you should vote.

TROTTENBERG: You think in the end it will be the board’s decision?

FERRER: That’s what I’m saying.

TROTTENBERG: Maybe it’s premature to announce it before the board has made a decision, isn’t it?

FERRER: Decision on what? You’re asking about a contract. Stop, stop. Let’s not conflate these things. You’re asking about board action relating to a change in a contract. If there is any other service change than we will deal with that at the appropriate moment.

TROTTENBERG: But will those service changes be subject to the review of the board?

FERRER: [Frustrated sigh]

VERONIQUE HAKIM: Contracts come to the board based on our procurement guidelines. Change orders at certain levels come to the board. Service changes I think the term in the board approved service guidelines is “major service changes” also comes to the board.

TROTTENBERG: This seems like this is a major service changes. If we’re making major changes to the contact in terms of scope, in terms of price tag, in terms of liability, those are things that come to the board. I’m not saying we wouldn’t be in favor of all of this, I’m just confused: Does this plan need approval by the board or not? I am confused about it.

FERRER: The purpose for this meeting was to share information. Once there is a change, a plan, it becomes before the board again. We’re not going away.

TROTTEBERG: So if the signs says shutdown averted, it should have a footnote that says “subject to board approval?"

FERRER: [His mic appears to be cut here, and his comments are inaudible. He then he moves on to a different board member].

After Pat Foye, the MTA president, touts the "huge" benefits Cuomo's plans would have for L train commuters, Ferrer jumps in again.

"Let me say the final thing I'm gonna say on this subject hopefully. Look, if you're for inconveniencing 275,000 people, say so! if you're not, then, then that's OK too."

[UPDATE 3:10 p.m.] Three hours after it began, the meeting adjourns with Ferrer promising to solicit recommendations for the independent panel from the board members in an "expedited" fashion.

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