MTA board meets on new L train plan, with mixed reviews
By Sabina Mollot
On Tuesday, as Governor Cuomo gave his state of the state address, which mentioned his eleventh hour L train shutdown alternative, the Metropolitan Transit Authority did as the governor’s been demanding, holding an emergency board meeting on the state of the L train.
At this meeting, which drew a crowd of over 100 people, a mix of members of the public and media professionals as well as at least a couple of elected officials, over a dozen MTA board members took turns asking questions about Cuomo’s alternative to the shutdown. There was no vote on whether to approve it or not.
Meanwhile, a few board members, including Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, were confused about what they were there for since the alternative repair plan to the Canarsie tubes has already been spoken about as if it’s a done deal.
“Is the decision made?” asked Trottenberg. “Do we have any actual role here? I’m not hearing that we do.”
She referred to shutdown-related signage being taken down at L stations and an announcement made by the MTA and news stories that the shutdown has been, in fact, averted.
Acting MTA board chair Freddy Ferrer’s response was that if a change in contract is made, “I’ll be happy to bring that to the board.”
“So you’re saying we can vote no to the L train aversion?” Trottenberg asked. “You’re saying it will be a board decision?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Ferrer said, later adding, “We’re not going away.”
Board members, meanwhile, were mixed on what to believe.
Board member Neal Zuckerman simply asked, “What are the cons to this approach? You make it sound like Jesus, Moses and Mohammed rolled into one.”
At one point, a board member who was recovering from back surgery, Andrew Saul, called in to slam the change in plans as a “disaster.”
“We are making a very radical change after three years of intense planning,” he said. “It may be the right thing to do, it may not, but it seems to me that we need a completely independent, new set of eyes to look at this. God knows how much money has been spent. This to me is another complete MTA disaster. I certainly hope we can get some honest accounting.” He added that he also hoped bidding would begin anew so the project could be done “at a lower price.”
MTA President Patrick Foye responded to say that the actual negotiation wouldn’t be done in public, but, “We have a goal of reducing costs.”
Another board member, Norman Brown, suggested he didn’t believe the decision was a matter of life and death.
“It’s just different ways of doing the same thing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean one plan is incompetent and the other is suicidal. There are certainly people on the board who are offended at being called incompetent and I’m proud of them for being offended. The workers, including the contractors, have been entirely professional.”
Board member Charles G. Moerdler seemed to have a similar view of the abilities of those involved. “We are not empty suits,” he said. “We know what we are doing.”
Another member, developer Scott Rechler, commented that in the private sector, such major decisions are often subject to a “peer review.” But, he argued, it’s hard to get useful feedback within the MTA because of an “adversarial” relationship with contractors.
“We don’t get the benefit of contractors’ insight,” Rechler said. “They’re afraid to share their insight. We have to address the layers and layers bureaucracy and the inability to think beyond what we’ve done before.”
Another member calling in, Carl Weisbrod, said he was concerned having the same people on the alternative plan as the old one could present a conflict of interest and also called for an independent review.
Foye said he thought there was value in saving commuters’ time.
“I don’t think we put a high enough value on it,” he said. If you’re for inconveniencing 275,000 people, say so. If not, that’s okay, too.”
NYC Transit President Andy Byford responded that he was “absolutely not in favor of unnecessary impact on 275,000 people a day.” He added that he thought the MTA ought to get more credit considering work that was done restoring other tunnels after Sandy and 9/11.
“We’ve got to be careful about how we handle crowding at stations, but we will rise to the challenge,” he said. “Now let’s make this plan happen, but let’s make it happen safely.”
One thing the board members all agreed on, however, was that this time, the MTA would have to do its due diligence to make sure the path taken is the right one before the project starts and that advisors helping the agency decide one way or the other would need to be completely independent.
Following the meeting, Ferrer issued a formal statement to say he was asking MTA management to engage an independent consultant to report to the board and validate the safety and longevity of “the new approach.”
But during the meeting, Brown suggested this could make the board “gun shy” about making far-reaching decisions in the future.
“You’ll need an independent analysis of where you hang your keys in the restroom,” he said.
A few board members also brought up the topic of silica dust, wondering how this would be managed in order to ensure public safety if the trains are to continue running during the work.
Jerry Janetti, senior vice president of the project’s design firm, WSP, acknowledged that the amount of silica dredged up in construction was a concern and “that needs attention.”
But, he stated, “Safety cannot be compromised. It’s not only federal rules and regulations. It’s also in (MTA) contract documents. The contractor will not be around much longer if they’re not doing those things.”
Warren Goodman, safety director at Judlau, the construction team, was also asked about silica, answering, “I anticipate a plan where workers will clean as they go” and “capture silica as they work” while environmental monitoring is done.
Trottenberg pointed out that when the original idea was pitched, silica had been a reason given for the need for a shutdown. Remarking first that she had “a lot of questions,” on the silica issue, she added, “You need a third party evaluator who doesn’t feel pressure to open up the tunnels if the levels are not what they need to be.”
According to Jannetti, the silica would actually be exposed at lower levels with the revised project. “It’s a lot less concrete that’s being removed,” he said. “Less demolition, less silica exposure.”
Goodman mentioned the silica would be absorbs in high efficiency particulate vacuums.
Trottenberg also noted her concern that in each shift, workers only get three to four hours of “wrench time” because of time setting up and takedown and this issue would have been avoided if it was to be a 24/7 project.
In response, Byford said that it was actually more like five hours of wrench time “which is,” he said, “a good amount of time.”
“I can we can decide if five hours is good or not,” was Trottenberg’s response.
She then asked Jannetti if the new plan, which involves a racking system to hold cables in place, had been evaluated as an option previously (“It’s not like the concept of a racking system is a new one”) and he said it wasn’t that he was aware of. “This racking system is not a standard,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to innovate.”
He admitted, when asked, that he couldn’t say for sure how long the revised system would last. “As long as if they’re maintained, certainly they can last for 50 years,” Jannetti said. But, he added, “Really it’s hard to say. Will there be another storm? Will it be neglected?”
Another board member said that it would be more advantageous to completely replace the benchwall.
At one point Ferrer admitted, “I’m still enormously upset that we didn’t hear about this (plan) before. We need to get everybody in a place where we’re hearing a similar set of facts, which would be nice. Which,” he added, “would come not out of this meeting, but a series of meetings.”