Just a few weeks ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo upended three years of transportation planning and shocked the city by announcing that L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan would no longer need to be shut down for 15 months for repairs.

"Long story short, with this design it would not be necessary to close the L train tunnel at all, which would be a phenomenal benefit to the people of New York City," Cuomo said at the press conference, flanked by his engineering experts that came up with an alternative plan. "There would need to be some night and weekend closures of only one tube, so service would still work."

But under Cuomo’s new plan, any of the benefits of keeping the L train running during weekends would be offset by massive delays and “on board crowding greater than anything ever experienced on the NYC subway system on a sustained basis,” according to an internal MTA planning document obtained by Gothamist.

The draft document, created by the agency’s operations planning department dated January 22, 2019, makes the case that the planned 20-minute headways will result in “record on-board crowding” with actual wait times to board trains of “40 minutes or more.”

“In practice,” the document warns, “by drawing customers to L stations, only for them to find that for all practical purposes the L will not be available to them, net travel time impacts could be worse with one-track closure than with two-track closure.”

The new plan would result in a best case scenario of running L trains in both directions with 20 minute headways, up from the current four-minute headways on weekends. This, the planning document notes, would put enormous strain on a line with very high weekend ridership.

The MTA has said it is moving forward with Cuomo’s plan, which they say will take 15 to 20 months. A source familiar with the shutdown planning told Gothamist that if anything, the memo “understates the impact to riders.”

“Morale among staff at the MTA, especially in groups that are involved in planning for the L train tunnel work, is disastrously low,” the source added. “The Governor is stepping over sound transportation planning to make a political statement.”

In a statement, MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek, told Gothamist, “This draft document describes the ridership scenario if there were no alternative service being taken advantage of—which is exactly why we are planning for alternative service. While the new plan allows us to keep the L train running, from day one we have consistently said there would be additional transportation options so that all ridership needs are met."

Tarek adds, "The misleading, click-bait suggestion that the memo describes a scenario customers will experience is irresponsible and we will work to make sure New Yorkers have accurate information as we move forward with a plan that will keep the L train running 24/7 and every single customer accommodated.”

John Kaehny, the executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany, said the memo raises more questions about who to trust: the governor and his experts or MTA planning staff.

"Are Governor Cuomo—and his MTA Chair/CEO Freddie Ferrer—being completely honest and transparent about the true pluses and minuses of the two plans? Are two years or more of a partial closure with terrible service on weekends and nights better than 15 months of no service? Will the governor allow a truly open and public debate on this question or have professional staff within the MTA been intimidated into silence by the governor and his appointees?”

Kaehny added, “The governor has run amok here. The public just wants to hear real facts from people they can trust."

The governor's office declined to comment.

Governor Andrew Cuomo with Columbia University engineering school dean Mary Boyce and Cornell engineering school dean Lance Collins, as they announce their new plan to avert a total L train shutdown earlier this month (Governor's Office)

Currently, the L has up to 8,000 riders during peak weekend hours and consistently high ridership throughout the weekend. Twenty minute headways, even with perfect operational efficiency—a difficulty in its own right when doing one-tunnel operation, a complicated maneuver even under ideal conditions—could accommodate a maximum of 4,800 riders per hour, or only 60 percent of actual peak ridership. As a result, the document concludes one-tunnel operation “cannot handle current weekend demand.”

“Practically,” the report states, “many [L riders] will be forced to wait at least another 20 minutes,” meaning after letting a completely full train they cannot board pass them by, “if not 40 minutes or more.” Because of “lower capacity and longer waits” due to these conditions, the planners concluded that 70 percent of the theoretical travel time benefits of keeping one tunnel open will be negated.

Because of the extreme crowding, MTA planners say the 1st and 3rd Ave stations “need to be made exit-only, as there will be no room on Brooklyn-bound trains most of the day,” a necessity first reported by Streetsblog. Further, the Bedford Avenue and Union Square stations would have to be metered by agency staff, restricting access to the platforms “for large parts of the day” to prevent dangerous crowding on the platforms and mezzanines.

The document specifically warns about the lack of street space to hold waiting L riders at Bedford Avenue, where there are small sidewalks and significant construction underway to install new elevators. The time and space constraints may be too severe to let Canarsie-bound passengers off at Bedford Avenue and then bring Manhattan-bound passengers down to platform level in time for the train to depart and still accomplish 20-minute headways.

This would result in the paradoxical situation where keeping the L running to benefit East Village and North Williamsburg riders would in fact make them virtually unable to board the L on weekends.

The dire report calls into question the agency’s apparent hesitance to provide substantive mitigation measures. A separate preliminary planning document, first obtained by Streetsblog and also reviewed by Gothamist, proposes a number of marginal efforts such as increasing M weekend service from 10 minute headways to eight minutes and running it up to 96th St via the 6th Avenue line, plus increasing G service by the same frequency. It also recommends a slight boost in planned M14 bus service, although does away completely with the 14th Street “busway” and Select Bus Service originally part of the full shutdown plan.

Transit advocates warn that the concerns expressed in the planning document underscore the need for more robust mitigation efforts regardless of whether one or two tubes are closed on weekends.

“Even in the best case, L train riders and surrounding neighborhoods from Bushwick to Chelsea are going to need a Plan B during a severe, yearslong ‘slowdown’ in service,” said Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance. “Even though the construction plan has changed, the mitigation plan must be robust enough to handle thousands of transit riders at a moment's notice and without clogging the most crowded areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan with cars.”

Jon Orcutt of TransitCenter says these warnings should perhaps start a discussion about shutting down both tubes on weekends “rather than baiting potential L riders into an abysmal situation with ‘station metering’ and so forth.” This would hardly be an unprecedented scenario for L riders. The MTA shut down the L east of Lorimer Street seven times in recent months to prepare for the shutdown that’s no longer happening.

But both Pearlstein and Orcutt stressed the most important thing should be making sure people can get where they need to go whether it’s weekdays, weeknights, or weekends, regardless of the construction plan. Both praised the original mitigation plan in place for the full shutdown and advocated for the bulk of it to be reinstated rather than tossed out. “The original plan was impeccably vetted,” Pearlstein said, “and would provide the kind of assurance that riders and neighbors could really use right now.”

UPDATE 1/25/19: In response to questions about the issues raised in the memo, NYC Transit Authority President Andy Byford said, "We are still in the very early stages of designing a customer and operational plan to serve the revised L Line project.

"As the person charged with safe operation of the subway, I own the risk, so I will do whatever is needed to maintain customer service and to provide adequate, reliable operations. As such, I am ruling nothing in or out on the exact nature of that plan—it will be what is required to maintain safe and viable operations—period."

You can read the text of the memo below.

Customer Impacts of 20-Minute Weekend L Service Through Tunnel

Record On-Board Crowding

  • 20-Minute service on the L (theoretical capacity of 4,800 customers per hour) cannot handle current weekend demand (up to 8,000 customers in peak hour).
  • Saturday on board crowding greater than current L weekday rush hour levels:
  • From 9:00 AM to 11:00 PM in at least one direction
  • From 12:00 PM to 9:00 PM in both directions.
  • Saturday on board crowding greater than anything ever experienced on the NYC subway system on a sustained basis
  • From 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM in at least one direction
  • From 1:00 PM to 8:00 PM in both directions.

Stations Require Metering — or Must Be Shut Off Completely to Entering Passengers

  • 1 Av and 3 Av will need to be made exit-only as there will be no room on Brooklyn-bound trains for most of the day.
  • Bedford Avenue and Union Square would have to be “metered” — staff would restrict access to the platforms for large parts of the day.
  • Both stations would require a tightly controlled sequence to prevent dangerous conditions on platforms:
  • Hold passengers off the platform in the mezzanines or street
  • Allow trains from other side of river to arrive and wait for those passengers to exit constrained platforms
  • Allow boarding passengers onto platform to wait for train in other direction
  • But limited space in street and mezzanine to hold passengers due to construction
  • At Bedford Avenue there may not be enough time to allow passengers from Canarsie-bound trains to leave the platform and then bring Manhattan-bound passengers down into the station to load Manhattan-bound trains before they have to depart.
  • At Union Sq transferring passengers from 456NQR cannot be prevented from getting off those trains and flooding the mezzanines serving the L. Conditions in the mezzanine could quickly deteriorate.
  • Spillover effects likely at Lorimer St and 6 Av. 6 Av construction also presents challenge to safely control flow of passengers to platform.
Limited (or Negative) Travel Time Benefits
  • Limited practical capacity means only about half of current customers gain any benefits of running through service.
  • Riders at Union Sq, 1 Av, 3 Av and Bedford Av generally most affected by a tunnel shutdown, so in theory would most benefit from through service.
  • But these are the same riders that would be unable to board the first train that arrives.
  • With perfect knowledge, most choose other subway routes rather, but practically many will be forced to wait at least another 20 minutes, if not 40 minutes or more.
  • Even assuming customers have “perfect knowledge”, lower capacity and longer waits effectively negates about 70% of the theoretical net travel time benefits of running through service.
  • In practice, by drawing customers to L stations, only for them to find that for all practical purposes the L is not available to them, net travel time impacts could be worse with one-track closure than with two-track closure.