Given that the MTA Board governs the MTA, you’d have hoped that Tuesday’s emergency board meeting to discuss Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to avert a 15-month shut down of L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan would have revealed crucial details that have remained a mystery since the new plan was first announced 13 days ago. Instead, the three-hour hearing raised more questions than it answered, as the MTA and its consultants struggled to provide facts and context for a proposal that is intended to replace one that took three years for engineers and transit planners to devise.
Jerry Jannetti, a vice president at WSP, the engineering consultant that worked with the MTA on the first L train shutdown plan and is now part of creating Cuomo’s plan, told the board that by demolishing significantly less concrete than originally anticipated, and racking power and communication cables on the tunnel wall, the MTA could repair the Canarsie tunnel and keep the trains running on nights and weekends.
But it's becoming ever clearer that a firm plan to avert an L train shutdown does not exist yet. Here are some of the most pressing questions that are still outstanding.
Is the L train shutdown actually going to happen or not? And who ultimately decides if the shutdown will happen, or if Cuomo’s plan will prevail?
Initially, Governor Cuomo said it would be up to the MTA 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,” the governor told reporters 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.”
But the MTA has all but pretended these procedural hurdles don’t exist: One agency press release from January 3rd stated baldly, “MTA Announces L Train Shutdown Averted.” The authority has scrubbed its website of planning documents for the shutdown, and removed signage notifying riders about the pending repairs.
While MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer told board members on Tuesday that they will retain their oversight power over contractual changes (more on that later) and major service changes, he was very careful not to say whether this would include requiring board approval of the reversal of the L train shutdown and the adoption of Cuomo’s new plan.
“Does this plan need approval by the board or not? I am confused about it,” an exasperated Polly Trottenberg, the NYC DOT commissioner who serves on the MTA board, asked Ferrer during yesterday’s meeting.
“The purpose for this meeting was to share information. Once there is a change, a plan, it comes before the board again,” Ferrer replied.
“So if the sign says ‘shutdown averted,’ it should have a footnote that says ‘subject to board approval’?" Trottenberg added.
Ferrer cut his mic, said something to Trottenberg, and moved on to the next question.
Shams Tarek, a spokesperson for the MTA, declined to comment to Gothamist on whether the MTA Board will need to approve Cuomo’s plan to move forward, referring us to Ferrer’s comments.
“We are moving forward with the new plan and will be regularly briefing the Board, public officials, and our customers,” Tarek said. “The Board will be retaining an independent consultant to advise it on the project and review safety and environmental considerations."
Listen to WNYC's Stephen Nessen discuss the latest with change in L train shutdown plans:
Is the governor’s plan to only partially demolish the “bench wall” safe? And how much time will it really save?
The crux of the governor’s no-shutdown plan rests on switching from rebuilding the concrete bench wall that contains the tunnel’s signals and cables to hanging the cables from open shelving, while leaving most of the bench wall intact. Jannetti presented a slideshow during yesterday’s meeting reiterating what WSP had previously indicated: 60 percent of the bench wall would be preserved, with the other 40 percent either left untouched, shored up with a plastic coating, or torn out.
A slide from WSP's presentation at the emergency MTA Board meeting.
Jannetti would not speculate on the tunnel’s lifespan following the repairs, but stressed that this was “a generational investment, not a Band-Aid.” He admitted, however, that “longevity is hard to say in these harsh environments.”
Later in the meeting, though, when asked by Putnam County MTA Board representative Neal Zuckerman if there were any downsides to the new plan, WSP technical director for structures Mike Abrahams replied, “It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them. There are certainly surface-life advantages to doing that.” (The Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas instantly tweeted that this would be the “death-knell quote” for Cuomo’s L train plan.)
Neither Abrahams, Janetti, nor MTA officials provided details on how much service life of the fix would be reduced by leaving a patched bench wall in place; John Busel, a vice president of the American Composite Manufacturers Association, notes that fiber-reinforced polymer has only been in wide use since the 1990s, so its long-term lifespan is yet to be determined.
And, it turns out, even that 60 percent figure for how much of the wall is in good shape is preliminary at best. Asked by WNYC’s Stephen Nessen following the meeting about how the MTA determined that figure, Ferrer replied, “The MTA didn’t decide that. Gonna be very careful about the language we use here. We did a preliminary investigation and testing of the bench wall. There has to be followup testing on this, to make sure what stays, what goes. If the determination is in the neighborhood of 60 percent can remain, that’s fine.”
So, either the bench wall is mostly fine and leaving it intact is no problem, or maybe it’s not mostly fine and this could cause long-term problems. Definitely one of those.
What about all the silica dust that will be kicked up by partly demolishing the bench wall?
After spending several years warning of the threat of potentially carcinogenic silica dust, the MTA’s engineers now say they can safely mitigate the substance even while reopening the tunnel to service every few hours. The silica will be handled solely on weekends, rather than weekdays, and workers will be able to “clean as they go,” Warren Goodman, safety director at Judlau Contracting, told the MTA Board. A third-party air quality monitor will ensure that stray dust isn’t floating around when rush hour arrives on Monday morning.
But some board members remain unconvinced. According to Trottenberg, the past projects that the MTA cited as precedent for this sort of job—Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and Queens-Midtown Tunnel—were used only by vehicular traffic while the silica cleanup was underway, meaning there was no threat of directly exposing subway riders on platforms to the dust. “It’s apples and oranges in that regard,” she said during the board meeting.
Evaluating for air quality can also be a challenge, Trottenberg noted, because silica levels are not evenly distributed throughout the tunnel. “Even if you’ve cleaned up, hosed down, vacuumed, done all the mitigation treatments, it can be a little bedeviling to get the dust levels down to where they need to be,” she added.
How will the MTA ensure that evening and weekend work doesn’t spill over into the next morning’s commutes?
A 2014 report by WSP leaked to the Times that considered doing the L train repair work on weekends noted the “high risks of not being able to restore train services on time after weekend [work]” as a reason why that plan was rejected.
Two years later, when the MTA made a video to explain why they needed to shut down the Canarsie tunnel for 15 months, the agency said that "even if we did shut down the tunnel for the weekend, we couldn't bring back normal service until the following Tuesday or Wednesday because of the time we'd need for the cleanup and silica testing.”
This concern was again brought up by DOT Commissioner Trottenberg yesterday, who said that under the new plan, she would have to “worry about, well, is the tunnel open for service every single morning for rush hour for however many years this project is gonna take? What if one morning the silica dust still isn’t where it needs to be?”
Judlau safety director Goodman replied that he “really can’t speculate about that.”
“What we do is, I think we’ll develop a plan, now that everything is somewhat different, I anticipate a plan where the workers clean as they go...and then set aside some time to do some additional cleaning and continue to use means and methods to capture silica where they work,” Goodman said.
Pat Foye, the MTA’s new president, said that the concrete demolition would only occur on weekends, which means that in theory, only Monday morning rush hour would be jeopardized.
Trottenberg then pointed out that on weeknights, workers only get three or four hours of “wrench time” to perform the actual work, and that the rest of the time is spent shutting down the tunnels, setting up, and then breaking down the work stations to prepare the areas for service.
New York City Transit Administration President Andy Byford said that workers “now typically get started around 10 p.m., where previously we started at midnight, and get at least five hours of wrench time, which is a good amount of time to do the work.”
“I guess we can decide whether five hours is good or not,” Trottenberg replied.
Carmen Bianco, the former NYCTA president who wrote an op-ed in the Times last week criticizing Cuomo’s new plan, told Gothamist that he couldn’t recall a project under his tenure that included demolition that created this level of silica dust where the tunnels were regularly reopened for service.
“I do know that when they did the Montague tube, they came up against this challenge, but that was out of service for nine months,” Bianco said. (It was actually closed for a little over a year.)
Bianco added that it takes time to test the air for silica and get the results back. “I don’t know too many labs that turn it around immediately,” he said.
At 11:10 p.m. last night, the MTA released this statement from Judlau: "Following those weekend periods when removal of a portion of benchwall will occur, we are confident we can safely remove any silica dust in accordance with the new plan and resume train service on a timely basis as we have done in the past."
So in other words, Judlau is confident it can come up with a plan to mitigate the silica dust and clean up the tunnels in time before rush hour while doing the actual work on time, once their engineers figure out how much concrete needs to be demolished and how much silica dust needs to be cleaned out of the air.
Another slide from WSP's presentation at the emergency MTA Board meeting.
How long will the repair work take? When will it begin?
When the intervention was first announced, both Ferrer and Cuomo told reporters that the new repairs, which they hoped to begin in April, would take between 15 and 20 months to complete. But that timeline was called into question on Tuesday by MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim, who noted that a “review of the schedule” is still underway. “The original comment when the new approach was first discussed with the academic team was 15 to 20 months, but we obviously have to validate that,” Hakim noted.
Whereas the previous contract with Judlau included hefty fines for any delays over 15 months, there have been no similar penalties discussed in this iteration of the project. A spokesperson for the MTA did not respond to a request for comment about whether the updated contract—which is still being renegotiated—will impose any punishment for a missed deadline.
Likewise, the emergency meeting didn’t shed much light on when the MTA will be able to begin this work. Despite the initial estimation that the project would start on April 27th, the MTA’s permanent citizen advisory commission has predicted that it could take between six months and a year before the new plan can clear the necessary reviews (more on that below).
For their part, the MTA’s management team said they were still aiming to start the work in April, even if the independent review must be conducted “expeditiously.” But if the work does need to be delayed, there could be increased costs to the public in other ways.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Trottenberg revealed that city officials were informed by the MTA months ago that delaying the shutdown to ensure that bus lanes were properly painted was not an option, due to cost considerations. “The MTA told us that would be impossible,” Trottenberg recalled. “There would be enormous penalties in the contract if we delayed it that would have a knock-on effect on a bunch of other outages and projects that are going to flow from this.”
Does the law require the MTA to let other companies bid on this new work? Or can the MTA amend the original L train contract?
According to experts in the State Comptroller's Office who have reviewed MTA contracts in the past (though they have not seen the current L train contract with Judlau), typically if more than 50 percent of the work in a contract changes, it would need to be bid out again. The existing contract could also be renegotiated, but the MTA would have a difficult time explaining that the new price is indeed the lowest price for the project without bidding it out again.
The MTA does have guidelines that stipulate that changes to contracts must be approved by the Board. But they also allow an “authorized officer” to make changes if there is “the existence of an emergency” or “a risk of a substantial increase in cost or delay if prompt action is not taken,” which could be applied to the unprecedented situation the MTA is currently in.
MTA Board member Andrew Saul said he hopes the contract is bid out again.
“This is now a totally different set of work, there may be other people out there that are capable of bidding on this at a lower price and I certainly hope we open this up for bidding,” Saul said.
MTA President Foye said the MTA is in closed doors meetings with the contractors hired for the project. “We’re not going to negotiate that in public but I can assure you we have a goal of reducing costs, which we believe is appropriate,” he said.
Also, if you'll recall, the governor declared a state of emergency for the MTA last year, which is still in effect, the governor's office confirms, and which allows the MTA to speed up the usual procurement process. An MTA veteran in the authority’s procurement office told Gothamist that while the emergency order does allow the office to move fast, once the emergency is over, it's still responsible in the event of an audit, for explaining why any purchase was cost efficient and not arbitrary.
“A good procurement process reduces unknowns. In this highly technical matter, the MTA's professionals and lengthy project review were sidelined and overruled by a politician, the Governor,” Rachael Fauss, with the good government group Reinvent Albany said. “The Governor's team maybe by right. The problem is that the Governor's rushed and secretive process has vastly increased the amount of technical unknowns and thus increased the risk of delays, cost overruns and disruptions.”
From left, MTA acting chair Fernando Ferrer, Governor Cuomo, Columbia University engineering school dean Mary Boyce, and Cornell University engineering school dean Lance Collins, at the announcement of Cuomo's alternative L train plan on January 3 (Governor's Office)
What is the current status of the project’s $500 million in Federal Transportation Administration funds? Is that money guaranteed even if the MTA moves forward with Cuomo’s plan? And how long will it take to be approved?
The federal government was set to contribute roughly half of the $1 billion price tag for the Canarsie tunnel repairs, through Sandy relief money and state of good repair grants. The FTA had to sign off on the plan itself, on mitigation measures to get commuters around, and on the plan’s environmental impacts.
MTA Managing Director Hakim has said that Cuomo’s revised plan will also require FTA approval. According to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has oversight on federal disaster relief and transportation infrastructure, the MTA is arguing that because Cuomo’s plan would be even less intrusive than a full shutdown, it should fall under the same exclusion from environmental review that the FTA granted to the earlier plan (though an environmental assessment was done). The committee also noted that the MTA is still counting on the money, which will probably be approved since it is still set to be used on Sandy-related repairs.
How long the federal government’s stamp of approval will take is unknown, but Hakim told the board on Tuesday that the government shutdown is making that process more difficult.
What happens next?
Following the board meeting, the MTA released a statement saying it was “moving forward with the new plan,” and would be retaining an independent consultant to review safety and environmental considerations. That third-party overseer will not be selected by the board, as some members had requested, but by the MTA’s own upper management. The review will take the place of the independent assessment that NYC Transit President Andy Byford had vowed to personally approve as part of his “commitment to the public.”
By all indications, the transit chief, who will be celebrating his one year anniversary at the MTA on Wednesday, has been effectively sidelined by the new L train plans. During Tuesday’s meeting, Ferrer announced that the MTA’s Capital Construction division, headed by Janno Lieber, would be taking over the project from NYC Transit, which Byford leads. MTA managing Director Veronique Hakim will now be "directly responsible for supervision" of the plan.
At some point, the MTA will presumably release an actual engineering plan outlining the specifics of what the new shutdown alternative will entail. They’ll eventually have to figure out just how much of the bench wall is unstable, and will likely need to get a renegotiated contract past the more skeptical members of the MTA’s board. But for now, not having those details in place doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone from plowing ahead. “We want to move this project along,” Ferrer said. “We want to do it safely, we want to do it well, but we want to do it expeditiously, too.”
The next MTA board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, January 24th. Hopefully, we’ll know more by then.
Additional reporting from WNYC's Stephen Nessen.