The MTA held its second public meeting to discuss the impending L train closure, and last night’s hearing at the 14th Street Salvation Army Theater couldn’t have been more different from the one hosted in Brooklyn last week. For one, the attendance was dominated by the same crowd you’d see at a City Council Committee meetings– aging hippies, your Dave Stuben types, the occasional transport dork, press, press, and more press; and the few regular people left in the immediate area around Union Square and Chelsea who also happen to have extra time on their hands.
That might be because the greatest impact of the Sandy repair project will be felt by both Brooklyn business owners whose customers get there on the L and people who depend on the L to travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan (225,000 riders a day). On the other hand, the low attendance was pretty surprising, considering that under one scenario, Manhattan will lose L train service altogether.
Under the 1.5-year option, there would be no L train service at all in Manhattan, and no link between the borough and Brooklyn. (In vampire killing terms, it would be the equivalent of plunging the wooden stake into the heart of the monster.)
When asked why Manhattan L-train service could not continue between Union Square and 8th Avenue– a stretch that is not part of the repair project– MTA President Veronique Hakim explained that it would be a “safety issue” to keep trains running. “We’d effectively island train sets,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to inspect them, we wouldn’t be able to service them.”
Once again, the issue of safety was one that the MTA chiefs returned to repeatedly. “The issue of making sure the delivery service is safe and reliable is something we hold near and dear to our hearts. As much as we know it’s ‘outrageous’ in terms of impacts, it must be done,” he said.
There would, however, be “near normal” service between Lorimer and Canarsie. As of now, the L train runs every three minutes during rush hour, and every eight minutes during off-peak hours. According to Peter Cafiero, the MTA’s chief of operations and planning, that “close to” eight minutes is the best the MTA can do– it won’t be an option, for example, to run trains every five minutes to ameliorate the situation. “We would only have one track to turn those trains around on, and because of the additional M trains that would be operating, at this time we believe that eight minutes is what we would be able to sustain.”
Under both options, there will be a number of improvements upon completion, including two more trains per hour (that’s a 10 percent increase), and some perks for Manhattan specifically, including a makeover at the 1st Avenue station.
The second option is a sputtering, protracted repair process that would take three years. (We’ll liken it to stringing garlic around a vampire’s coffin and then dragging the box out into the sunlight, which brings about slow, aggravated death for the demon creature.) The only upside would be that the link between Manhattan and Brooklyn would remain intact, however there would be no guarantees about much of anything when it comes to traversing the East River. As the MTA’s video explains, “service through the tunnel won’t be frequent or reliable” and just one in five people who want to make their way from Bedford Avenue to any of the Manhattan stops will be able to do so “because of extreme crowding and long waits.”
We’ve heard that 1 in 5 figure before, and it’s actually kind of hard to wrap your head around. MTA Chairman Prendergast grew sort of grave as he tried relay the seriousness of the situation. “The thing that was an ‘aha’ moment for me– and I’ve been in this business my entire career– is the fact that in under 36 months we will only be able to carry one fifth of the customers. It’s hard to communicate that, because a lot of times people think, ‘I’ll be one of those five,’ but if you get down there and you’re waiting for seven, eight trains to go, and then you have to abandon that plan and go somewhere else, it’s very disruptive. That’s why we need to communicate clearly the pros and cons of each option.”
The reason the L train repair project is so complex will be obvious to anyone who rides the L regularly. “To be required to repair the system while it’s still operating is a very foreboding task, and to do it while ridership is increasing, it adds a level of complexity that I’ve never seen in my career,” Prendergast said. “We’re carrying over 6 million people a day in the subway. Canarsie, the 7, cross-town, is where tremendous growth in terms of residential and commercial development is occurring, and so we feel the impact, we know. Millennials use the system more not just for work-to-home trips, they’re using it for social reasons, and we’re glad about that. But the challenges for us are pretty foreboding.”
The difficulty also lies in the fact that the L train is always busy, day and night, which reflects the diversity of riders who use it. “In the next year or two we’ll continue to study the ridership market, 24 hours a day and 7 hours a week,” Peter Cafiero said.
Last night, Prendergast made it a point to say that the MTA was not trying to win favor for one repair option over the other. “In terms of the two options, people say, ‘You’re probably leaning toward one,'” he said. “No, we’re having a dialogue.” Still, he admitted that “there would be a cost savings” for the shorter, one-and-a-half year option. “While that’s a factor, it’s not the deciding factor,” he said. “The deciding factor is what is best in terms of getting the work done and trying to minimize the impact, and that’s the way the staff is going to put the information together.”
The options for alleviating Manhattan-specific problems resulting from the L-train shutdown include increasing train service along the M and J lines, multiplying bus service, and adding new ferry routes. “In terms of alternate service, everything’s on the table at this point,” Hakim said.
After one commentator voiced concern about overcrowding at stations like Marcy Avenue M, which has a super narrow elevated platform, Peter Cafiero explained that, under both options, the MTA plans to add a “significant amount of additional bus service” along 14th street. “The M14 is one of our busiest bus services, it carries 35,000 riders a day, the subway below it carries 50,000 riders a day just within Manhattan,” he explained. While not everyone will use the bus as an alternative if the MTA moves to completely shut down the L train in Manhattan under option 1, many of them presumably will, which could potentially double the number of riders on an already crazy-busy bus route.
Even under option two, Cafiero pointed out, there will be added stress on the M14 bus. “Under option two, while there is rail service it will be much less frequent than it is now– it will be crowded and we anticipate a lot of riders will shift to the bus.” Increased M14 bus service would be in effect on both week days and weekends. “But we’re still trying to define exactly what that looks like,” he cautioned.
The MTA’s ferry plans sounded somewhat promising, at first. Hakim was presented with a question regarding how many passengers the ferry system as a whole can accommodate and how it compares to the overall L train ridership, her answer was somewhat disappointing. “A brand new ferry service that would run from the North 7th Street docks [in Brooklyn] over to the yet-to-be-constructed dock on 20th Street,” she said. “I don’t know the percentage of people we could carry on boats, but boats have some flexibility– some of them are big, some of them are little.” (The current capacity of the Staten Island Ferry, a big ol beast of a boat, is 6,000 people.)
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (of the 27th district, which includes Chelsea and parts of the East Village) made a radical suggestion that won enthusiastic clapping from the audience. “I represent 14th street from the East River to the Hudson River,” he said. “I ask that you consider closing 14th Street to traffic, and let’s see about getting those select bus services in order, and maybe after this is built we’ll consider keeping 14th Street closed to traffic.”
“Nice fantasy!” one woman laughed.
In the end, Hoylman praised the MTA for embarking on a “legacy project” that will bring major improvements to his district, including a brand new access point to the 1st Avenue stop (at Avenue A) and increased service that will reduce crowding. (Prendergast explained that two additional trains per hour will mean that the L will move “roughly 3,000 to 4,000” more riders per hour.)
Another local resident wondered if shuttle service along the Manhattan L-train route would be free. “We need to look at what we’re actually providing, if it’s an additional service because we have to do that to mitigate the impacts, it’s more likely that would be free,” Prendergast conceded. “If it’s part of their normal trip, they would pay a fare anyway. to say [it would be] blanket-free from their point of destination, that’s a pretty big leap.
Prendergast estimated that the total cost of the project will be “in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” and according to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who spoke at the Brooklyn L train meeting but was absent for yesterday’s public summit, the MTA was allocated a whopping $5.4 billion by the federal government, $700 million of which has been designated as L-train repair bucks. According to Prendergast, the Sandy repair project as a whole is “the largest capital program ever.” (It’s also important to keep in mind that, until recently, the MTA was perpetually underfunded by the State and federal government.)
That’s a certified butt-ton of money. But the MTA isn’t exactly known for its promptness and efficiency– that goes for both daily subway service and major construction efforts including the “East Side Access” project (which started in the 1950s and is $800 million over-budget according to Newsday) and the 2nd Avenue subway, which has literally left a century-long trail of countless broken promises. Of course, there’s always the risk of fare hikes, something that the Chairman refused to rule out when prompted, but maybe what’s scarier in this case is that the project could be drawn out.
“There’s always the chance the work could go beyond that,” Prendergast said. “What we’re trying to do and the reason why we’re fitting the 18-month and 36-month [is that] we had dialogue with contractors and we’ve got a very high confidence level that those time frames can be met. But there’s room to decrease them with incentives, and we’re going to do that.”
There were moments, however, when the MTA’s responses were glaringly inadequate, and it became clear why there was strict adherence to the comment card system, in which audience members were asked to fill out the cards, which were then collected, and then read aloud by Donna Evans, the MTA’s Chief of Staff. Several audience members yelled out, “You didn’t answer the question!” After a while, anyone who spoke up and interrupted the proceedings was promptly approached by an MTA employee and escorted out of the auditorium. Most returned, but one woman, who had interrupted Evans in an attempt to clarify her question, was escorted out and never came back.
In fact, a number of cracks started to show in the MTA’s sparkly new outreach facade, part of a transparency tip they’ve been on for a while now, but have only very recently started to live up to. Just a few months ago, the L Train Coalition met in Williamsburg and repeatedly had to answer concerns and questions with, “We don’t know.” It took a while for the agency after they first screwed up (big time) at the January town hall to meet with the public in any real way, and it’s clear they were honing their PR campaign first in order to approach the L-train “Fix & Fortify” project with a strategy that the Times editorial board described as “well-planned information management.” Instead of sending out reps, at least for now, the MTA’s top officials are the ones appearing in press conferences, they’re the ones propagating the messages and welcoming comments from the public. This can’t last forever, Prendergast ain’t got time for this. Like, actually.
What’s more troubling though is that the “public,” in this case, is a tenuous descriptor. Last night, there were some clear indication that people are still being left out of the conversation, which makes it seem like resources to mitigate the impact of the L train shutdown might be distributed unevenly amongst the communities who will be most impacted by the reconstruction.
The Vice President of the South Canarsie Civic Association contributed a comment to the Q+A discussion. “The L train is our Canarsie line, it’s our line to the city,” he wrote. “Thus far, we have been totally ignored and suffered from constant interruptions of our train service, especially on weekends nights and middays for many years.”
Another Canarsie resident had similar feelings about his neighborhood having been neglected and troubled by an MTA program that has never quite worked, SBTC. “Over the past 15 years, residents at the end of the line between Broadway Junction and Canarsie have had to endure constant service disruptions, shuttle trains on weekends and shuttle trains on weekdays,” the resident wrote. “I feel that it is unfair for residents of Brooklyn at the end of the line to have to endure another 3-year service disruption that will lengthen their commute by another 20 to 30 minutes. The 3-year plan benefits Williamsburg residents and leaves the rest of Brooklyn behind.”
The MTA made no attempts to hide Williamsburg’s advantageous position when it comes to the L train repair project. Earlier in the evening, Peter Cafiero explained, “There’s an amazing amount of development that’s gone on along the waterfront in Brooklyn, especially near Bedford Avenue– the ferry will serve particularly that market, it’s that three-avenue blocks walk, and bus-wise you can’t really get a bus down in there, the streets are very narrow and dead-end.” Later, Cafiero acknowledged that the Canarsie residents had a point. “Riders from Lorimer out to Canarsie, the impacts are relatively the same under either plan,” he said. “The questioner is correct, that the primary difference is at the Western-end of the market around Williamsburg and the different options there.”
Donna Evans, the MTA’s Chief of Staff, reassured the crowd, “We will be out in Canarsie within weeks.”
If you have a question or comment for the MTA about the L train shutdown, you can reach them here. The MTA promised a full record of both meetings will be posted online soon.