Are we ready for the impending L-pocalypse?
Last night the L Train Coalition, a growing group of community stakeholders, met to confront the specter of a year-long L train shutdown and figure out how to reduce the suck for those who live, work, and play in North Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Their mission: to prevent the MTA from, well, acting like the MTA and screwing it all up.
First, the good news: “The MTA wants a back-and-forth with the community,” Felice Kirby told the crowd at the creaky Swinging Sixties Senior Center. Kirby, the newish owner of Teddy’s, seems to have assumed a position of de facto leadership (aka the most pissed-off person) of the coalition. She and her fellow business owners, residents, and elected officials are demanding transparency and collaboration from the MTA as the agency determines the best way to make post-Sandy repairs to the portion of the Canarsie tube that connects Brooklyn and Manhattan. Options on the table, as first reported by Gothamist, include a complete shutdown of the L train for over of a year, or nights-and-weekends shutdowns over the course of about three years.
As unfathomable as those scenarios sound, it might actually be worse. Mina Elias, chief of staff for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, attended a closed-door meeting between the MTA and elected officials earlier this month; last night she said that the nights-and-weekends option could take “as long as seven years.”
Yeah. Ha ha, we’re all screwed.
The diversity of concerned people who showed up last night made it clear just how wide-reaching the consequences of such a shutdown would be. Kirby, in confiding that a majority of Teddy’s patrons come from outside North Brooklyn, conveyed the fears shared by many local business owners, that an L train shut down could sap their customers.
Tommy Torres, the assistant principal at nearby Grand St. Campus High School, worried about how an abundance of students from Brownsville, Canarsie, and Bushwick would get to school. (The general consensus was that service between Bedford Avenue and Canarsie will not be as disrupted by the project.)
Trina Rose, a resident, wondered whether the MTA would increase B39 bus service over the Williamsburg Bridge, which she said was “the only way for my friends in wheelchairs to get to Manhattan.” As is, the last B39 runs around 9 pm.
When it came to questions of how long, when, and why not something else, “we don’t know” was definitely the mantra of everyone from Kirby to the slew of reps mouthpiecing for elected officials (Assembly Member Joseph R. Lentol, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, among others). That’s in part because there was no MTA representative present at last night’s meeting. Maybe that was for the best: at the very first coalition meeting, held at Brooklyn Bowl at the end of January, the MTA’s rep, Andrew Inglesby, faced “furor” from the audience, according to DNAinfo. He was “booted” from the meeting after refusing to “elaborate on what was wrong with the tunnel itself, or offer a date for when the MTA would have more information.”
“The daytime meeting was a disaster,” Elias admitted last night.
In early February, the MTA held a subsequent closed-door meeting with elected officials, the L Train Coalition found. As detailed in a letter the coalition drafted to MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, the agency “disclosed pertinent information that we believe is vital for public understanding of the situation.”
Last night, Kirby called for the “civic leadership” to commit to delivering regular “public debriefings” and status reports, and for the MTA to “accept oversight from a third party.” Ideally, this would all be in place by the end of March, a deadline of sorts that the coalition has set for the MTA to schedule a (real) meeting with the community. “We want an open engagement, early,” Kirby explained.
“[We want] the MTA not to bring a finished plan, but to listen to the community’s concerns,” Elias added.
Elias tried to clear up some of the opaqueness surrounding exactly why the L train needs repairs. The current state of the L train can be attributed to an already aged infrastructure that has had to meet higher and higher demands from the influx of new residents to North Brooklyn (ridership saw a 98 percent increase in the last two decades), and to the beating inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. Elias said the L train tunnels traversing the East River are “100-year-old tubes” made from “100-year-old concrete”; they were seriously damaged during Sandy when “11 million gallons of water flooded the tubes.”
At the start of January, the MTA finally won the promises of federal and state funding that it so sorely needed, however this money would have to be allocated to repairing damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. As many of you readers are probably asking, “Why me? Why now?” Well, the tunnels are in such bad shape that safety is becoming a concern. “They’re afraid of derailment,” Elias explained. “And signal failure– they’re having trouble with the cables.” But it’s likely the MTA is also concerned about losing these Sandy funds if they don’t move quickly.
Several audience members suggested the possibility of building a third tunnel, and then repairing the remaining two somewhere down the line. “That would be the least impactful [option],” Elias admitted, explaining the projected cost for such a proposal would ring in at a hefty $4.5 billion, funding that would be an “extremely heavy lift” to procure. “But the concern is that before they complete the project, and before they can get the money to complete the project” safety issues in the other two tunnels could come into play.
On top of that, many area residents and business owners are concerned about the MTA’s chronic lateness when it comes to completing projects on time. Paul, a resident who estimated that his family had lived in Williamsburg for 100 years, shared his experience as both a native New Yorker and former MTA construction worker. “The MTA tells you it’s going to take six months, they take six years,” he growled.
But a slower repair project and a reduction in service could lead to “dangerous overcrowding,” as Elias suggested. (On weekdays, the L train counts more than 300,000 riders.) “There are options on the table, none of them are good,” she added, naming off the usual fixes for subway line shutdowns: shuttle buses, ferries.
“We want to see that resource added to the mix, big time,” Kirby said, emphasizing that the ferries have done well in recent years. “But they need to bring the fares down, they’ll probably need another dock, and the ferries need to run more.”
An audience member, Steve Bauman, who introduced himself as an engineer, laid out some “daunting statistics” that he’d come up with. To meet the current demand met by one hour of L train service during rush hour, from 8 am to 9 am, the city would have to rally 400 buses for those commuters. To keep up the pace, “they’d have to load nine buses at a time,” he said. “They don’t have 400 extra buses.” “And that’s only for the first hour” of the morning rush, he reminded the audience.
And as much as shutdowns on nights and weekends might seem like an OK compromise for 9-to-5’ers commuting from North Brooklyn to Manhattan, that’s not the case for everyone. Elias pointed to the club owners, bouncers, bartenders, and others working in the Meatpacking Business Improvement District, as an example. “They do their business on nights and weekends, so they are very concerned.”
All these variables make for an awfully complex web to unweave, which sort of makes you appreciate the delicate balance of keeping public transportation going in New York City. Still, Elias was optimistic about the end game. “To some extent, this is an opportunity,” she said, ticking off some minor improvements for accessibility including the MTA’s plans to add an elevator and additional stairways to the oft-clogged Bedford Avenue stop. Still, the L train repair project, no matter how needed, will be a “major disruption,” something we’ve only had a taste of during several instances of the L-pocalypse in recent years. Get ready for the downpour y’all.
For updates from the L Train Coalition, join their mailing list by writing firstname.lastname@example.org.