By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Governor Andrew Cuomo effectively canceled the 24/7 L train shutdown in favor of a plan that will supposedly fix the Canarsie tube through work on nights and weekends, the governor’s office announced in a press conference on Thursday.
The announcement came only a month after the governor conducted a last-minute inspection of the tunnel, despite the fact that the MTA and respective city agencies have been planning the shutdown for the last three years and the closure was scheduled to start in less than four months.
According to the New York Times, Cuomo is proposing to implement a plan that would use technology from Europe to fix the tunnel, which would allow the L to have full train service during the weekdays and would close one of the tubes on nights and weekends for the repairs.
The MTA’s acting chairman Fernando Ferrer, who was appointed by Cuomo, told the New York Times that the agency “welcomed” the plan and would be adopting it, with the project expected to take 15 to 20 months, compared to 15 months for the fulltime shutdown.
In the plan Cuomo proposed on Thursday afternoon, engineers would mount cables on the tunnel’s wall and wrap them in a protective material, using what they called a “racking system.” A critical component of the new plan eliminates the need to replace parts of the tunnel’s bench wall, which runs along the side of the tunnel and houses the old cables. With the new mounted cables, the old cables housed in the bench wall would no longer be necessary.
The previous plan in which the tunnel would have to be closed for the entire 15 months would require the agency to completely rebuild the tube under the East River.
According to Gothamist, the deans of both Columbia and Cornell’s engineering schools, Mary Boyce and Lance Collins respectively, walked through the technical aspects of the plan during a press conference hosted at Cuomo’s office on Thursday afternoon. Boyce and Collins explained that “smart technology” and LIDAR, a surveying method that measures distance by lighting a target with a laser and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor, will allow for constant monitoring of tunnel conditions to identify areas of deterioration before they become problem sites.
Officials told the New York Times that the plan also includes improvements to make the tunnel more resilient in the event of future similar storms, such as sealing the openings that allow water to enter the tracks at the First Avenue station and the Bedford Avenue station in Brooklyn.
Ferrer told Gothamist that Judlau, the company that won the $477 million contract to fix the tunnel, would still be working on the project and the MTA will be renegotiating the scope of the work, but there is no information yet on how much the project will cost with the changes. There is also no information yet on how much of the mitigation efforts, including a busway on 14th Street, planned bike lanes and shuttle bus routes, will be in use with the alternative plan.
Local elected officials responded to the sudden changes to the plan with skepticism but a willingness to be openminded since the 15-month shutdown, while previously deemed the best option by transit officials, would still be monumentally disruptive to New Yorkers who live and work around the L.
“Any plan that reduces the inconvenience for commuters and improves the quality of life for my constituents is a welcome upgrade,” Councilmember Keith Powers said. “However, the previous plan came after careful planning and extensive community outreach, in addition to months of disruption to my constituents. The new recommendations are a swift and sudden change to the L train plan, which now need to be fully evaluated.”
Powers added that he hopes the city will still provide some of the alternative transit measures that have been proposed for the shutdown, including Select Bus Service for the M14, an expansion of subway service and Williamsburg-Stuyvesant Cove ferry service, while the repairs are being made.
Councilmember Carlina Rivera said that in discussions with MTA officials on Thursday afternoon, she learned that there would potentially be less noise and construction on 14th Street between First Avenue and Avenue B, but a number of questions remain unanswered.
“Residents in my district are now in the dark about how they will be impacted by this new plan, and I am worried that many New Yorkers unnecessarily moved from affected areas and local small businesses suffered preparing for the expected shutdown,” Rivera said, adding that she is encouraging City Council to hold hearings this month so State and agency officials can fully answer any questions the public and elected officials have on the updated plan.
Rivera also encouraged the Department of Transportation to move forward with the alternative service plan that includes new bike lanes and bus routes, at least until more information is available about the new plan.
“Regardless of how the L train tunnel repair goes, our state and city agencies must deeply evaluate how the mishandling of these announcements continues to erode public trust in our most important institutions and work to redouble their efforts with our communities,” Rivera said.
Borough President Gale Brewer also questioned how the process for the shutdown plan got so far along before this proposal was announced but said that if the “engineering is sound,” it makes sense to avoid a full shutdown.
“In a meeting with area elected officials (on Thursday), the MTA committed to answer a battery of questions from us over the next two weeks, and to conduct four public hearings in Manhattan and Brooklyn on the new plan,” Brewer said. “Even if we manage to limit service suspensions to one tube only on nights and weekends, that will still dramatically limit L train capacity in Manhattan at those times. This means MTA’s and city DOT’s joint plans for enhanced bus service and other mitigation measures must still go forward.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman was met with criticism on Twitter after reacting positively to the news because it would mean fewer diesel buses running through neighborhoods in his district, but later clarified his position in a statement.
“As the State Senator who represents the entire stretch of the L train in Manhattan, I welcome any alternative to the L-train tunnel shutdown that repairs the tunnel within the current project timeline and maintains train service, while eliminating the need for hundreds of additional dirty diesel buses in our neighborhoods and traffic on side streets,” Hoylman said. “That said, after three years of planning and community input, my constituents have reason to be circumspect about the details. It’ll be the job of the new Senate Democratic majority along with our Assembly colleagues to provide sufficient oversight of the MTA and this plan.”