Last night, the big players in the L train shutdown finally met with North Brooklyn community leaders and residents for a public forum and, for the first time, discussed candidly the extensive damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy and the two proposals for the reconstruction project. While the MTA hasn’t yet come to a decision, it seems to be favoring a full shutdown that would mean 18 months without any service between 8th Avenue and Bedford Avenue. MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast acknowledged it would be the “most impactful” event ever for New York City’s public transit system.
This gathering was wholly different from the informal L Train Coalition meetings, from which the MTA was notably absent. The agency pulled out all the stops for this one– screening an informational video, offering up two transportation experts as well as a slew of staff members to help answer questions, and designating a section solely to visual aids all of which was to say, basically: we have to fix this, and we can do it the hard and fast way (closing both tracks for a year and a half), or the slow and suffering way (closing one track at a time for three years). Both options, however, are pretty, pretty dismal.
The agency’s eagerness to please was so intense last night that it even brought along rusted circuit breakers and crumbling track resistors, complete with their own The Price is Right girl (aka a guy in a suit and lanyard running his hands along the busted equipment like we were at an electronic power component trade show in Vegas or something).
Granted, this was all part of a concerted effort to prove their point that L train repairs were “absolute,” as MTA President Veronique Hakim put it, and basically non-negotiable. And the information was very much needed, even if it did take some time for the MTA to divulge it. Public trust in the agency has dipped below already dismal levels after some serious transparency blunders, including that disastrous town hall meeting back in January.
As Prendergast explained during a press conference, one of the major goals of the meeting was “trying to make people understand why we have to do this work.” Because, as Hakim pointed out, the “worst case scenario” for the L train would be an “unplanned shutdown,” or a major failure that leads to an emergency closure.
Thankfully, no one tried to deny that, regardless of the repair strategy, the shutdown is going to be disastrous for some businesses and residents. The two sets of options the MTA is laying on the table for construction, however, do have their own sets of advantages and drawbacks. The first option, what Hakim called the “get-in, get-done, get-out approach” is to close both tubes at the same time, which would take about a year and a half. The second option would take about three years but would prevent a full shutdown. It probably, definitely comes as a relief that, under both options, service between Lorimer and Rockaway Parkway would be “near normal.”
Last night it seemed like the MTA favored the rip-off-the-band-aid option. Under that approach, there would be no service between 8th Avenue and Bedford Avenue for 1.5 years, and “80 percent of the riders are less impacted, because they have the same level of disruption under both scenarios, but for half the time,” Hakim explained. She was also confident that “construction will move faster” under this approach due to better incentives for the contractor, who will have “total control over the work zone.” There would be “near-normal” service between Rockaway Parkway and Bedford Avenue.
Under the second option, which would take three years to complete, trains would run every 12 to 15 minutes between 8th Avenue and Bedford Avenue and between Lorimer and Rockaway (no trains between Lorimer and Bedford, though). That doesn’t sound so bad until you consider that “service through the tunnel won’t be frequent or reliable,” as the informational video explained. “Only one in five passengers who want to use that connection will be able to because of the extreme crowding and long waits.” Furthermore, “single-track service is inherently fragile because we can’t reroute trains when problems occur, so unplanned shutdowns could still happen.” Yikes. Obviously, both scenarios present a sucky outcome, we just have to decide which kind of suck we prefer.
One actually reassuring point made by Prendergast is that, having completed repairs on some of the other nine tunnels that were damaged during Sandy, the MTA is confident they can achieve the same results with the Canarsie tunnel. “The [Montague tunnel] was closed for 13 months, and we had a very aggressive schedule,” he explained. “The number of customers who will be effected pales in comparison to Canarsie, but we were able to complete Montague ahead of schedule, and we want to do the same thing here, as best we can.”
The MTA also went to great lengths to elaborate on the details of the repairs. The damage sustained by the nearly 100-year-old tunnel impacted two tubes that between 225,000 to more than 400,000 people pass through every day. Salt-water flooding during Sandy severely messed up essential pieces of power supply infrastructure including circuit breaks and signal cables, but it’s something called the duct banks that are in need of the most intensive repairs. “It’s not just the demolition of that material, but the removal of it, and coming back in and replacing it,” Prendergast told the crowd. If you can imagine, about seven miles of concrete duct bank will need to undergo demolition and reconstruction, and likewise 51 miles of cable will need to be removed and replaced.
Unfortunately for us, the MTA is adamant that the project is so intensive, it can’t possibly be completed on nights and weekends. Silica dust, a potentially harmful byproduct of tunnel demolition like this, will be churned up during the process and presents all kinds of obstacles to speedy cleanup and rider safety. “There’s no way that we can undertake the work overnight or on weekends and be back in-service on time for the morning rush hour,” Hakim explained. “Another group has said, ‘Just build another tunnel parallel to this,’ but again, it would take years and funds that just aren’t available for us to even consider something like that.”
The good news is that, “We’re not gonna have to come back hopefully for another 100 years,” he said. Hakim also emphasized that this repair project is “one of those generational opportunities to do something and do it right.” And throughout the meeting, the MTA insisted that the Canarsie tunnel, while in need of repair in anticipation of the rapid deterioration of the duct banks due to salt-water flooding, remains safe for now.
By completion, two more trains will be added each hour and there will be a number of improvements to the 1st Avenue and Bedford Avenue stations, which will both get new stairwells and elevators, expanded mezzanines, and be upgraded inline with ADA certification. The 1st Avenue station will also get a new entrance on Avenue A.
Major repairs and “longterm 24/7 closures” won’t start until 2019, but the MTA still has to act quickly for several reasons. The agency will make its final decision regarding the L train repairs and start awarding contracts in the next “two to three months,” Prendergast estimated. The video informed the crowd that “some full shutdowns on nights and weekends” will start sometime prior to the big one.
Moving fast on this one also has to do with holding onto the federal aid the notoriously underfunded MTA has been allocated after decades of neglect. “We’ve received federal money that’s going to fund large parts of this project. We don’t want to risk losing that money,” Hakim told the crowd. “Our delegation worked hard to get that money, so we need to commit that money before the end of the year to ensure that we have the benefit of those federal dollars.”
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney also emphasized how big of a deal that money really is. “We went to work and got $5.4 billion committed to helping repair the subway system,” she said. “Out of that $5.4 billion, roughly $700 million is committed to the L train. I can’t tell you how hard it is to get federal money.”
Getting things moving also allows the MTA to start testing out alternatives and coordinating with the DOT. So far, the alternatives include increasing G, J, and M service, creating additional ferry service and enhancing bus service along 14th Street, as well as upping the number of B39 buses that cross the Williamsburg Bridge. The MTA also hinted that they’re looking at expanding “bike sharing and ride sharing” too, but they didn’t elaborate. We hope that means free Uber rides for everyone. New York State Assembly Rep Joseph Lentol suggested that a bus specially designated for tourists be created to take people “twice a day” between Times Square and Williamsburg. “Because Williamsburg is happening!” he declared to audible cringing.
However the agency first needs to clean up all the other Sandy wounds. “We’re dealing with all the other tunnels first,” Prendergast explained. “We want to get all that work done first, and then assess the damage at Canarsie and figure out what’s the best way forward.” That includes fixing the M train, which will function as an important replacement when the L is down. According to Newsday, the MTA has yet to go public with their plans to work with Bushwick residents and businesses near Myrtle-Broadway who will be asked to leave their homes and commercial spaces for six months while the elevated M track is repaired.
There are other issues to keep in mind as well. Several elected officials spoke last night and took advantage of the opportunity to scold the MTA for their approach to the L train up until this point, and to bring up other concerns as well.
“In order to do this right, the community’s that are impacted must be at the table,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. “It is important that we do it in a transparent way, that the community is informed, and the community provides the kind of input that will make this process a democratic process.” She expressed concerns specifically about the economic impact on small businesses; including the communities of Ridgewood, Bushwick, and East New York in the decision-making process; and how the MTA will provide special assurances to people with disabilities. Velázquez also highlighted the importance of granting contracts for the construction work to small businesses within the “impacted communities.”
We’ve got a long way to go until 2019, but actually only a short time until the MTA decides on the best repair strategy to pursue. As of now, the agency says they’re open to suggestions and have even set up a virtual comment box and an L train informational hub, where L train riders can contribute their thoughts and concerns and look for updates. “We promise to answer your questions throughout the planning and execution of this essential work,” said MTA Chief of Staff Donna Evans.
But it remains to be seen what kind of impact, if any, all of this outreach and community engagement will have on the actual construction process and if the MTA can keep its promises about transparency and expediency. “New Yorkers are pretty resilient people,” Prendergast said. “They’ll do just about anything if you tell them what’s going on and give them choices, and that’s part of this process.”
The MTA’s second public meeting on the L train reconstruction project will be held Thursday, May 12 at 5:30 pm at the Salvation Army Theatre at 120 West 14th Street in Manhattan.