The MTA board of directors held a nearly three-hour-long “emergency meeting” today to discuss impending L train tunnel repairs and a sudden change in plans that has left New Yorkers—and even members of the board itself—reeling in confusion.
As you know, Governor Cuomo announced earlier this month that instead of a 15-long total shutdown of the Canarsie Tube to repair damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy, the MTA will close just one tunnel at a time during nights and weekends.
Many are celebrating the decision, made after a Cuomo-appointed team of engineering academics concluded, among other things, that the tunnel’s benchwall, which houses cables damaged by salt water during Superstorm Sandy, wouldn’t have to be replaced entirely; instead, cables could be suspended from the wall with a racking system.
But during the public hearing portion of today’s meeting, Lisa Dagnan of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA said the new plan has resulted in “many more questions than answers.” In fact there’s so much mystery surrounding the current state of affairs that Manhattan Borough President said that the situation was “better than Law & Order, which we all watch on a daily basis, in terms of intrigue.”
Among the issues discussed was today’s New York Times report that five years ago, the MTA considered a plan similar to its current one and rejected it due to safety concerns about, among other things, cancer-causing silica dust.
Here are some of the questions that were raised during today’s board meeting, and the answers given by board members and project engineers. (If you’re a masochist, you can watch a recording of the whole shebang directly below.)
Is the L-train shutdown definitely off? Is the new plan definitely happening?
Some board members, including DOT commissioner Polly Tottenberg, wondered if the MTA was premature in announcing that the L train shutdown had been “averted,” as they put it in a press release. Acting MTA chair Fernando Ferrer would only say that “a third-party team will be engaged to report to the board and me— all of us—on what the best path forward is. We have to do that relatively quickly.”
Trottenberg asked, “So if the [MTA] sign says ‘shutdown averted,’ it should have a footnote that says ‘Subject to board approval?’” Ferrer’s answer was inaudible, since he had turned off his microphone. It seems that even members of the MTA board are still confused about whether or not they have veto power over the new plan being pushed by Cuomo.
Will someone other than the MTA and Cuomo’s team of academics weigh in on the plan?
Benjamin Solotaire— a member of the L Train Coalition representing businesses and residents of Williamsburg, Bushwick and beyond— said the coalition wants to see “an independent engineering firm weigh in on the plan and evaluate the safety for the public.” Ferrer announced that, indeed, “a new third party consultant will be engaged to report to the MTA board, coordinate the construction with the ongoing train operations and make sure the transition from construction to operation is seamless.” The independent consultant, to be chosen by the board, will also make sure safety and environmental standards are observed.
What will happen with the current mitigation plan calling for more trains, ferries and the like?
Solotaire also said the L Train Coalition wants to see “serious consideration of all the proposed transit changes that were part of the original [15-month shutdown] plan including new bike lanes, Citi Bike expansion, new ferry service, the expanded and improved subway service, and Select Bus Service”— a view shared by City Council member Antonio Reynoso, whose district includes parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick.
MTA managing director Veronique Hakim, who will be overseeing the new plan’s implementation, said plans for additional transportation are still in flux: “We will absolutely have to do our ridership information, look at that, work with city DOT on what becomes a revision to an alternate service plan, see what’s needed,” she said. “And that’s the idea, is to put service where we need it.”
In the 2014 report obtained by the Times, engineers at Parsons Brinckerhoff (now, WSP, the firm overseeing the new plan) said that mounting cables to the tunnel wall instead of burying them inside of it would spread potentially cancer-causing silica dust. Is this no longer the case?
Jerry Janetti, senior vice president at WSP, said that the new plan is “not similar to plans that were done earlier or reviewed.” He said that whereas the plan reviewed in 2014 called for cables to be fixed to the tunnel with 50,000 individual bolts, the new one called for “40% or less” that number of bolts.
Whereas a previous proposal would have removed the entire bench wall that houses damaged cables, Janetti said that, under the new plan, at least 60 percent of the bench wall has been deemed good enough to remain as is. The remaining 40 percent will either have to be removed, or strengthened with FRP (Fibre-reinforced plastic, which was used in the 7-line extension to Hudson Yards), cementitious materials, or steel bars. The damaged walls are currently being evaluated so that a specific plan of attack can be put into place.
The 2014 report worried that “excessive anchor bolt penetrations for installing critical cables may damage the concrete lining and induce leakages.” Is that no longer the case?
Janetti said that a fiber-optic sensor system to be installed along the tunnel’s bench wall will detect any dangerous cracks or shifts. He also said the bolts that will be used aren’t long enough to cause damage. “The bolts that we’re talking about are in the 3.5- to 4-inch range,” he said. “The thickness of the [tunnel wall’s] concrete liner is in the 10-inch range, which gives us fair distance between the end of the bolt and the edge of the cast-iron lining [that holds the tunnel together].”
Is the Times correct that both the current and previously rejected plan “call for mounting heavy cables”?
Abrahams, of WSP, said the that “the concept that we’re supporting a very heavy load on the tunnel wall is rather misleading”; he said the heaviest cables (the power cables) constituted a “very low load” and other cables were “very, very lightweight.”
With power and communications cables exposed rather than buried in the tunnel wall, will terrorists or vandals have easy access to them?
Ferrer said no, the new fiber-optic sensor system would “give us an ability to see if someone unauthorized is in the area” and essentially serve as an intruder alert.
Will the silica dust be cleared from the tunnel in time for the morning rush hour? How?
MTA president Patrick Foye noted that the silica-producing bench wall removal will be conducted over the weekends, not during weekday nights. Warren Goodman, Director of Health Safety and Environment at Judlah Contracting, which is executing the project with WSP, said they’ll develop a plan where workers dressed in protective gear, and perhaps armed with HEPA vacuums, will “clean as they go and then set aside some time at the end of the shift to do additional cleaning.”
Board member Susan G. Metzger noted that “you don’t know how much silica you’re going to be dealing with,” since it’s still unknown exactly how much of the bench wall will need to be removed or repaired. DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg also cautioned against being overly optimistic, noting that “when you start pulling away concrete, boy, you start finding things underneath.”
Had the racking system been previously considered?
At one point Trottenberg quipped, “I have bookshelves in my house, so it’s not like the concept of a rack is an exotic one. Did no one look at it [in 2014]?” Janetti responded, “There was no racking system that was evaluated at that time that I’m aware of.”
The MTA has been touting the pros of the new plan. What are the cons?
Mike Abrahams of WSP admitted that “it certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks [that concrete liners that house the damaged cables] and completely replace them… Not completely replacing the duct banks and only removing certain portions of it, reinforcing certain portions, and leaving certain portions in place, that is not as advantageous as a complete replacement.”
How long will the repairs take?
This is still up in the air. MTA managing director Veronique Hakim said that the agency is currently conducting a “review of schedule.” She said “the original comments when the new approach was first discussed with the academic team was something between 15 and 20 months, but we obviously have to validate that.”
How long will the repairs last?
Cuomo’s team of experts have said they could last 40 to 50 years. Ferrer and others echoed that number but stressed that it depended on proper maintenance and whether or not another catastrophic event such as Sandy occurs.
Why didn’t the MTA get these options sooner? Why were they only suggested by a team of academics appointed by Governor Cuomo?
Ferrer didn’t explain this, but voiced frustration over it. “We should have been hearing this from people we pay, whether they are engineering consultants, engineers, or whatever,” he said, adding that he was “still enormously upset that we didn’t hear about a lot of this before.”