Cuomo’s L-Train Bombshell: All (OK, Not ALL) Your Questions Answered!

Governor Cuomo raised lots of questions with his torpedoing of the L-train shutdown plan. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office
Governor Cuomo raised lots of questions with his torpedoing of the L-train shutdown plan. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office

No need for a long, windy intro. We all know that Gov. Cuomo torpedoed the MTA’s longstanding plans to completely shut the L-train tunnel between Manhattan and Williamsburg in favor of a less-intensive proposal that raises a million questions. So here goes…

Wait, so what’s the plan?

Even though the MTA has been working on fixing the Hurricane Sandy-damaged tunnel for three years, Cuomo has jettisoned the full 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week shutdown in favor of a partial plan that would close only one of the two tunnels on nights and weekends and merely patch damaged portions of the tunnel, and mount new cables on the walls rather than painstakingly replace them inside the walls.

For years, the MTA said it needed to replace 302,000 feet of cable, 14,000 feet of rail, plus 15,000 feet of third rail, reconstruct 30,000 feet of concrete ducts, install new tunnel lights, replace pumping equipment, build a substation, replace circuit breakers, repair a fire-protection system, and repair 7,100 feet of concrete that lines the tunnel [PDF]. It is unclear what, if any, of that work will be done.

Cuomo’s engineering consultant, Mary Boyce, dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, told reporters that an easier plan is possible here because it had been tried in London and Riyadh.

Forgive us if we don’t think much of the Riyadh subway system, which hasn’t even opened yet.

Why did he do it?

There’s lots of speculation, including some that Cuomo wanted to impress 2020 or 2024 presidential voters (which is complete hogwash, given that no Democratic primary voter in Iowa or New Hampshire would ever have said the words, “I was leaning towards Cuomo until I heard that some commuters in Canarsie had been inconvenienced by his decision to repair vital infrastructure”).

Obviously, this is all about Cuomo, as the Times far-from-subtly pointed out: “Mr. Cuomo appeared pleased to have stepped in to save the day,” reporter Emma Fitzsimmons wrote.

Indeed, Cuomo said he believes that straphangers favor a partial shutdown rather than a full one, though polls indicate just the opposite, as the Post mentioned in its editorial.

And Cuomo will definitely see an “L train bump,” judging by the Post’s gushing front page.

Who is credible — Cuomo or the MTA?

Cuomo says the Canarsie Tunnel does not need to be shut because all that’s needed is fiber-reinforced polymer to patch it. (Hmm, patching it doesn’t sound very comprehensive.) This decision comes just a few days after Cuomo toured the tunnel with a hand-picked engineering team — and three years after the MTA said the repairs were absolutely essential. Indeed, the agency issued this dire statement two months ago:

The L tunnel – also known as the Canarsie Tunnel – was one of nine underwater tunnels that flooded during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. … The tunnel was flooded with enough water to fill 11 Olympic-sized swimming pools and suffered extensive damage to tracks, signals, switches, power cables, signal cables, communication cables, lighting, cable ducts and bench walls throughout a 7,100-foot-long flooded section of both tubes. Bench walls throughout those sections must be rehabilitated to protect the structural integrity of the tubes.

Gee, the MTA and city DOT said the L train tunnel looks really bad. But Gov. Cuomo doesn't think so. Photo: MTA/DOT
The MTA and city DOT said the L train tunnel looks really bad. But Gov. Cuomo doesn’t think so. Photo: MTA/DOT

Protect the structural integrity — sounds important, right?

And the MTA’s plan was very detailed because, it said, the repairs were so urgent (see one page of the agency’s handout left).

Independent analysts seemed to side with the MTA. “The repairs are necessary because saltwater inundation in 2012 caused by hurricane Sandy accelerated deterioration within the tunnel,” Crain’s reported. “Temporary work allowed the tunnel to reopen soon after the storm, but conditions continued to worsen.” (Continued to worsen sounds bad, right?)

Meanwhile, Dan Rivoli of the Daily News pointed out that the very part of the tunnel that Cuomo will patch rather than replace caused a subway derailment when it collapsed one time.

And MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool was stunned to find out about Cuomo’s announcement shortly before it was made, given the supposedly dire condition of the tunnel.

“What are the long-term implications of this decision? Are we just essentially putting a Band-Aid on a problem that has been well documented?” she said, according to amNY.

Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin pointed out that the emperor is the one with no clothes in this debate.

“At the end of the day, what riders care about is whether the L train is repaired for the long term, and how much disruption it will take to get there,” he said. “The governor’s plan may or may not work, but you’ll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input.”

And interim MTA board chairman Freddy Ferrer didn’t help Cuomo sound very credible when he told reporters, “You might ask, ‘Well why wasn’t this approach considered earlier?’ The answer is that the integration of these approaches — there are several — and the technology had not previously been applied in the context of a rehabilitation project. It’s innovative, creative and we deem it a sound plan.” (A sound plan? Cooked up in a couple of weeks?)

Who does this help?

Cuomo wants us to believe it helps all commuters.

“You would have roughly 250,000 people who would need a different way to get to work,” he said of the shutdown. Closing the tunnels only on nights and weekends will “be a phenomenal benefit to the people of New York City,” he added.

Judging by the coverage — from NY1’s report of blissful residents of 14th Street to New York Times Metro Editor Clifford Levy’s horrendous tweet — NIMBYs along 14th Street are pleased, as are selfish inter-borough subway riders.

But aren’t we forgetting something…

Who does it hurt?

Almost everyone:

  • One of the government’s basic tasks is to maintain infrastructure. If, indeed, the Canarsie Tunnel is damaged as badly as the MTA said, failing to fix it now will bring much more pain (and expense) later.
  • The biggest losers, of course, are the L-train riders who use the train on nights and weekends — which may not sound like a lot of people to daytime commuters, but the L train is one of the busiest lines on nights and weekends. There’s also a class issue, as nighttime riders tend to be working people, as Erwin Figueroa of TransAlt and others pointed out.

  • People who were already using the new protected and on-street bike lanes — and were looking forward to HOV3 lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge — all which may soon be erased because of the “sea change” of Cuomo’s announcement, Mayor de Blasio said. “We’re going to evaluate what [the announcement] means and if we’re going to look at these things in another light.”
  • People who wanted to reclaim our roadways from car commuters, who will likely again be able to drive over the Williamsburg Bridge in their single-occupancy vehicles and Ubers.
  • Most important, the MTA’s credibility has now been completely undermined by Cuomo, which is a problem because…

Wait, doesn’t Cuomo need the MTA to look good right now?

The timing of the announcement is a horrendous public relations disaster for Cuomo, who is about to head back to Albany to push congestion pricing to a less-than-enthusiastic legislature. In many interviews with Assembly and Senate lawmakers, Streetsblog has found intense ambivalence among outer-borough legislators, who wrongly believe that many of their constituents regularly drive into the city (very few do, statistics show) and that congestion pricing would hurt working-class people (car commuters tend to be wealthier overall).

So just as he’s about to counter that hemming and hawing with a bold plan to raise $1 billion per year for the MTA, Cuomo basically undermines the MTA’s credibility as a steward of the transit system. Even the spokesman for Mayor de Blasio — who has also waivered on congestion pricing — pointed that out.

“Like everyone else, the mayor thinks the MTA has some real explaining to do about how it has handled this for the last few years,” spokesman Eric Phillips said in a statement that also questioned the MTA’s abilities.

Aaron Gordon of Signal Problems also raised these questions on Friday morning:

I don’t know how the MTA, as an agency, recovers whatever credibility it had left. What happens the next time the MTA determines a major public works project must be undertaken? Who is going to take them seriously? Who is going to defer to their expertise? What does this mean for Byford’s upcoming appeals to the state legislature to give him some $60 billion? Are elected officials going to say “we believed you about the L shutdown being necessary, why should we believe you now?” I suspect Byford will try to spin it as a sign of the agency’s nimbleness and willing to accept best ideas, but I don’t know how that will play.

Will Mayor de Blasio keep the good parts of the L shutdown?

As noted above, the mayor is skeptical that he needs to keep the good stuff like the sort-of protected bike lanes on 12th and 13th streets — which NIMBY groups oppose because they removed on-street car storage — and dedicated bus lanes. Advocates are demanding that the street safety and transit improvements remain, but NYC Transit President Andy Byford said new ferry service would certainly be eliminated.

“Smart transportation plans have been laid in concert with community and elected leaders that should still go into effect, including the transit way on 14th Street, which would serve as a model for improving bus travel throughout the city; experimentation with HOV restrictions on East River crossings; and accessibility and station circulation upgrades at First Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Union Square, and Bedford Avenue,” the Regional Plan Association said in a statement. “Changes like these would improve the commutes of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to our city and help our city address pressing transportation challenges.”

Should Andy Byford resign in protest?

Of course he should. Byford was informed of Cuomo’s decision shortly before it was announced publicly, putting him in the position of having to answer for a governor who had just bigfooted him worse than a raging Sasquatch. If Cuomo’s plan succeeds, Cuomo gets the credit. If it fails, Byford will have to clean up the mess.

Meanwhile, Byford looks like an ineffective leader just when he’s trying to restore faith in the system he oversees.

He should consider resigning in protest, as Travis Eby, a member of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign pointed out in a tweet.

Oh, and what’s with Clifford Levy’s New York Times Metro section lately?

Before anyone could digest the ramifications of Cuomo announcement, Levy, the editor of the Metro section of the supposedly sober Gray Lady, tweeted, “Brooklynites, rejoice! Cuomo plans to cancel the full shutdown of the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan.”

It was a weird take from an important opinion-maker — and transit advocates let him have it all day.

Worse, Levy’s Twittergate comes just one day after his Metro section published a story questioning why the Port Authority should continue running the PATH train — which serves 82 million rides a year — because it loses money. The implication that Levy allowed into print is that transit and other infrastructure exists to raise money rather than fulfill its actual purpose: to foster the regional economy. Levy’s Metro section also recently reported on the need for adult crossing guards in Tribeca without even mentioning congestion pricing or holding any politician accountable for allowing suburban commuters to terrorize city pedestrians.

  • Joe R.

    Now I’m not hoping there’s a full-on tunnel collapse on Cuomo’s watch but if there is it might be the best thing for the subways. We’ll finally realize what poor shape the system is in, and put serious money towards it.

    Incidentally, Cuomo’s plan at best sounds like a patch job to postpone the needed repairs until some later date. I know all about water intrusion as we’ve had issues with water flooding the basement since we’ve owned our house. I also know patching from the inside, which is essentially what this plan is, is not a long term fix. To fix things right, you have to patch the cracks from the outside. Or in the case of an underwater tunnel where that’s not really possible, you need to just rebuild it. We’re dealing withe something far worse than a leaky basement here. That water entering the tunnel is under at least tens of psi of pressure. Moreover, the tunnel is under sea level. Once it floods, it’s not stopping. When this happens, it’ll likely be more cost effective to just build a brand new tunnel.

  • Rider

    The conspiracy theories are missing the point.

    The MTA and the city’s DOT did not have a feasible plan for the 15-month shutdown. I was dreading this and I don’t even live anywhere near the L train, because I was thinking it would be impossible to get a Citi Bike and the displaced riders would make my trains, already packed to the gills, unrideable.

    If the MTA and De Blasio’s DOT had proposed a real busway plan that would have actually replaced subway service for a significant number of riders, this last-minute reengineering would not have been necessary.

    But DOT’s lack of imagination and de Blasio’s unwillingness to restrict private car use created an opening for the governor to propose a less disruptive stopgap plan. And he’s taken it. I find it difficult to be upset at this news.

  • Larry Littlefield

    OK, here is what I what I believe, and have posted elsewhere. “People” have told Cuomo that the shutdown would be a disaster for them. What NYC people get to talk to the Governor? The public union leaders. The contractor organizations and their unions. And the real estate and financial industries. I vote for number three.

    https://therealdeal.com/issues_articles/brooklyns-inventory-balloon/

    “As developers have rushed into Brooklyn at an accelerated rate in the last five years — putting shovels in the ground in neighborhoods ranging the maturity spectrum — they have created a big batch of condos and rentals. And over the next three years another large wave of residential projects is slated to come online.”

    “In 2019 alone, the borough is expected to get hit with 1,917 condo units and a massive 14,127 rentals, according to data compiled by the Marketing Directors. In total, the borough is slated to add roughly 35,400 units by 2021.”

    Prices are starting to drop. And developers overpaid for development sites, and many not be able to make it if housing becomes affordable. That might mean losses for their lenders.

    “Not all neighborhoods are created equal. Williamsburg and Bushwick, for example, are not only bracing for an influx of inventory, they are also about to get hit with the shutdown of the L train.”

    “In October, Williamsburg had the second-highest level of condo inventory — at 346 units — in the borough, after Bedford-Stuyvesant. According to StreetEasy, it also had 3,244 rentals. And in the next three years, Williamsburg is slated to see the biggest influx of rental units in the borough, according to the Marketing Directors’ data.”

    “The Rabsky Group, for example, has its 1,146-unit 200 Harrison Avenue in the works. And Eliot Spitzer launched leasing about six months ago on his massive 857-unit rental complex at 420 Kent. In addition, Two Trees is developing more than 2,800 units at its Domino site.”

    “But the company said its 522-unit rental project at 325 Kent Avenue, the first building at the Domino site, leased ahead of expectations. It’s fully occupied less than a year after opening.”

    “However, in Bushwick, interest from developers has already started to drop off, according to Marcus & Millichap’s Shaun Riney, who works on the firm’s New York multifamily team.”

    “It has suffered with the L train, and there’s a big worry, if the train is not back on in 18 months, that neighborhood could really slide,” he said. “Those tenants were never really rooted to that neighborhood to begin with.”

    Some of these people might be better off getting the whole thing over with if they looked long term. But they never do. They have to fill those buildings in the next 15 months. Then they can sell them as “stabilized” rentals to pension funds, or something. If tunnel deterioration causes increasing cost and disruption over three decades, starting five years after the “creative solution,” who cares as far as they are concerned. Their whole generation will be retired to low-tax Florida by then.

    So instead of a bathroom rebuild, they opt for this.

    https://oneday.bathfitter.com/index.php

    What did they tell the Governor? That having been screwed over for so long, the young workers concentrated along the L train just might option to leave New York altogether if faced with a 15 month shutdown. Followed by their employers.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/the-millennials-treated-like-serfs-may-have-started-to-flee-new-york-city/

    Then who will pay for the fact that his generation has left New York City close to the place with the most sold out future in the country?

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2018/12/20/sold-out-futures-by-state-the-sold-out-future-ranking-for-2016/

  • Sounds spot on to me..

  • Joe R.

    In other words, those in charge of public institutions are starting to think just like CEOs. They don’t care if they kill the long-term viability of a company by gutting R&D, causing key people to leave, or having key departments understaffed. All that matters is increasing profits on their watch, and to hell with whomever comes after. Public leaders shouldn’t be thinking this way. Indeed, even private leaders shouldn’t be thinking like this. A governor or mayor or President should be criminally accountable if a key decision made on their watch turns out to cause long-term problems. As for CEOs in private industry, most of their pay should be given after their watch, with the proviso that they get nothing if the company is no longer viable due to decisions they made.

    People need to start thinking long-term again. It’s not just about what happens on your watch. It’s also important what happens a decade later, two decades later, even a century or two later. If prior leaders were this short-sighted, the subway never would have gotten built.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Same people who gave us “Senator” DeBlasio’s ferries and streetcar proposal, while the subways and buses rotted.

    What are you going to do for us, “President” Cuomo? Or is it Vice President now. Endorse a 76-year old to be the voice of a new generation, and in four years who knows!

  • Larry Littlefield

    “In other words, those in charge of public institutions are starting to think just like CEOs.”

    They always said the government should be run like a business. Well it has been run like a business. Unfortunately, the business it has been run like is GE.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Should Andy Byford resign in protest?”

    Hmmm, where did Joe Lhota go? Why hasn’t he been replaced. Why hasn’t there even been any speculation about his replacement?

    And does anyone believe this great jobs report, issued by Trump’s federal government today while all the federal workers are furloughed? Temporarily halting a stock market correction, so the cronies can continue to sell out to younger savers at high prices?

  • carl jacobs

    Just out of curiosity, have these academic experts actually ever built anything? Have they ever managed complex Engineering projects in the real world? Because there is a HUGE difference between the academic world of engineering theory and the real world of engineering practice.

  • Sasha

    Why would you trust the MTA more with *anything*, considering how incompetent they’ve proven themselves to be in everything they touch and build? I would take the academic experts you deride over the MTA in a heartbeat. In fact, Gersh Kuntzman’s cry over MTA’s “damaged credibility” rings hollow, because there’s been none left way before this debacle. Rebuilding the 100-year old bench wall in order to replace the cables in it, versus sealing it for good and hanging new cables on the tunnel wall? Sounds exactly like the kind of solution MTA would prefer, over the one it would miss, due to its demonstrated inability to move on with the time, technology and seeing outside its box.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    What will the Rudy minions have to kvetch about in April instead of a complete subway closure ? No massive overcrowding on adjacent lines to moan about.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    No one mentioned the need to rebuild the whole tunnel. Concrete doesn’t crumble from exposure to salt water. The issue was the cabling, which will be replaced up on racks. The tracks still get replaced, just on weekends. Shed your salty tears, Rudy Fans !

  • Joe R.

    The damage is from the tunnel’s age. The lining probably needs to be removed and replaced just to see if there’s any damage underneath. If they have another way to inspect it I’m all ears but regardless it needs to be inspected.

    Until I know more I really have mixed feelings here. Why didn’t the MTA come up with this idea? Or did their plan have to be vetted not just by engineers, but by labor unions, contractors, and others who wouldn’t approve it unless they got their share of the pie? That might explain why they wanted the new cables in a new bench wall. Much more labor intensive to both build and maintain. Are all MTA projects subject to this sort of vetting where good ideas which use little labor are routinely rejected? It would certainly explain why major capital projects here routinely cost 5 to 10 times what they do elsewhere, often for inferior results. If Cuomo is doing this to end such sordid practices, my hat’s off to him but I think he has ulterior motives. And what of Byford? I think he’s the best thing to happen to the MTA in decades. It would be a shame if he resigns in disgust.

    A lot of questions, damned few answers. This could be Cuomo’s finest hour, or it could be his biggest disaster. Only time will tell.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Given a choice between what’s good for everyone ten years from now, and what’s good for some influential people now, the federal, state and local government have always chosen the latter during the Generation Greed era.

    We’re now down to avoiding what’s good for everyone 18 months from now.

  • Vooch

    Joe,

    Is the tunnel dug in bedrock or just mud ?

  • Joe R.

    This graphic makes it look like it’s in bedrock:

    http://web.mta.info/sandy/images/CanarsieTube.png

    If so, at least the worries about flooding if any repairs fail are mitigated. Unless the bedrock above the tunnel fails massively you’re only going to get whatever water percolates through the bedrock.

  • Sam Dixon

    As Quoted From The Article:

    “In many interviews with Assembly and Senate lawmakers, Streetsblog has found intense ambivalence among outer-borough legislators, who wrongly believe that many of their constituents regularly drive into the city (very few do, statistics show) and that congestion pricing would hurt working-class people (car commuters tend to be wealthier overall).”

    Considering that the congestion pricing debate concerns the downtown/midtown portion of Manhattan, and the access methods to that area – it appears that the author of this article believes that the people who reside in the “outer boroughs” somehow do not live or drive within New York City.

    It is as if those “outer boroughs” exist in some place that is not New York City. (Maybe Mars?) Last that I looked, New York City consisted of five boroughs, not just Manhattan.

    My point is not about the wisdom of congestion pricing or its implementation in New York City. It is to fight against a Manhattan centric viewpoint devalues – “outer-borough . . . constituents.”

  • Vooch

    If in bedrock, then fiberglassing the interior isn’t completely stupid. Might just work

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