Bill de Blasio’s L Train Shutdown

The loss of the L train for 15 months is an emergency the mayor can't ignore. He doesn't seem to realize it.

Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

Yesterday’s L train shutdown town hall in Williamsburg was a relatively staid affair compared to last week’s in the West Village. Most people testified about the need for good 24/7 bus service over the Williamsburg Bridge and safe biking infrastructure during the subway outage. No one expressed outright opposition to DOT’s plans for transitways and bike lanes.

The bombshell came from MTA Chief of Operations and Planning Peter Cafiero, who said that the J/M/Z will max out at 24 trains per hour in the peak direction over the Williamsburg Bridge. That’s only three trains per hour more than current peak service, and, as Aaron Gordon reported in the Village Voice, it highlights a serious gap between the number of displaced L train riders and the subway system’s capacity to absorb them.

If it wasn’t already clear that surface streets will have to do serious heavy lifting during the L shutdown, there’s no longer any doubt.

And yet, the person who can exercise the most control over the streets, Mayor de Blasio, remains stuck in a state of feckless apathy regarding the impending cataclysm.

The problem isn’t that the city lacks a plan. NYC DOT has mapped out transitways on Grand Street, Delancey Street, and 14th Street, as well as good bikeways on similar routes. The Williamsburg Bridge will be reserved for vehicles with three or more occupants, and one lane in each direction will be exclusively for buses and trucks (some of the time).

The problem is that the plan doesn’t match the scale of the disruption. And that’s where leadership from de Blasio is sorely lacking.

Instead of placing HOV restrictions on all four East River crossings, the city is only planning for them on the Williamsburg Bridge. Instead of bus lanes and HOV rules in effect 24/7, the city says they will only be in place during “peak hours” which have yet to be defined. Instead of a car-free busway on 14th Street extending east to Avenue A, which advocates say will be necessary to maintain fast, reliable service, the city’s busway plan doesn’t go past Third Avenue.

De Blasio appears to view this all with a sense of clueless detachment, not as a calamity for hundreds of thousands of people that he has to avert.

Earlier this month, de Blasio said his goal on 14th Street is to “minimize the disruption… to the maximum extent possible.” In that context, “minimizing disruption” means appeasing the West Village residents who are selfishly trying to stop DOT’s transit and bike improvements on and around 14th Street. He characterized the call for a 24/7 busway as transit advocates “fighting for their position.”

“We think there’s obviously a difference between rush hour and the other times a day,” the mayor told reporters.

That’s been the pattern all along for de Blasio, who’s spent the two-and-half years since news of the shutdown leaked twiddling his thumbs.

Back in 2016, the mayor’s initial response was to criticize the MTA and speculate that the shutdown was not actually necessary. He argued that running buses effectively was the sole responsibility of the MTA, and he promoted citywide ferry service as a solution, even though it can carry only a small sliver of L train riders.

De Blasio’s political instinct is to dodge all accountability for transit problems. And on most subway matters, he’s right — it’s Governor Cuomo’s MTA.

But the L train shutdown will create transportation problems that won’t be confined to the subways, and it’s the mayor who decides how to apportion space on NYC’s streets. De Blasio can’t dodge this transit problem. If the city isn’t prepared to keep people moving without the L train, New Yorkers will be right to blame him for it.

  • Flavanation

    Beyond the 14th street busway, which absolutely should run 24/7 river to river, they should dust off the plans for the 34th street busway, and run that straight into an exclusive bus lane in the Queens Midtown tunnel into Long Island City. East River capacity is going to be severely constrained during the L train shutdown, and exclusive bus lanes are the best way to add capacity short of building a whole new tunnel. LIC is already a shitshow with everyone transferring to packed E M and 7 trains at Court Square, it’s only going to get worse from all folks taking the G train from North Brooklyn to get into the city. Robust bus alternatives up and down the East River are necessary to mitigate the effects of this shutdown.

  • bkbusrider

    I don’t know that midtown needs a busway here (at least not just for this purpose), but MTA isn’t exactly throwing there all at solving this problem through surface transit. I attended a workshop and later an open house. Both times I asked MTA staff why not run more cross river buses through the Midtown Tunnel and both times I got a canned, rehearsed response about not enough buses.


    It’s not like MTA hasn’t seen this problem looming since 2012. They’ve had ample opportunity to prepare here, but I feel like they’re just putting out a minimum effort so Cuomo can further blame DeBlasio when all of our commutes suck.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That is a bombshell. The could run far more trains than they do now off peak, and should. If people change their travel times, that would help.

    They’ll probably jack up A/C service, even run some of those trains up 6th Avenue via the Rutgers Tunnel if they have to, really ramp up G service.

    For those who didn’t think us F riders would be affected, think again. If bulk of the riders are going to be displaced to the G/A/C, then the entire IND — the system with the oldest signal system — is going to be impacted.

  • Larry Littlefield

    BDB should be thinking about bike parking.

    There is a way they could do this that would be better for riders — one side at a time, spread out over spring-fall-summer, so all those additional people on bicycles would not have to ride in the darkest dead of winter.

    That would also make it possible to run shuttle service in Manhattan, since there would always be one track available to get trains out to the yard for servicing.

    The problem with that is construction of buildings and road work also peaks in summer, and construction sector employment is at a high with no slack, so the MTA saves money by doing work in winter when workers are available.

  • Flavanation

    Or at the very least, RENT more buses during the shutdown, since after all, it is only temporary.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The MTA would just need to keep old buses going a little longer, not retiring them as new ones are bought until after the shutdown.

  • Vooch

    East River bridges have 1/3 the throughput since private cars were prioritized. Study this diagram carefully

  • JarekFA

    Why did the crossing decrease from 1989 through 2012?

  • AMH

    I really don’t understand why there isn’t bus service through those tunnels already (Brooklyn-Battery too). It’s such a no-brainer. It would require some strategic bus lanes to keep them from getting stuck in auto traffic though, especially on the Midtown side.

  • Vooch
  • Andrew

    Which part is the bombshell? That J/M/Z capacity is limited to 24 tph? No, we knew that several years ago, when this table was published on New York YIMBY. That there’s no room on existing trains for any more riders, which Aaron Gordon assumes to derive his doom-and-gloom conclusions? That’s simply false.

  • Andrew

    …plus space and facilities to store and maintain those buses when they’re not in use and when they break down.

    For a 15-month project.

  • StanChaz

    My question is: what happens after all the tunnel repairs are done and we are visited by another Sandy, or worse. We need to prepare for that eventuality as well. as best we can. Are we doing that to any meaningful degree?