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L train shutdown: Transit advocates weigh in on plan to halt shutdown

Elected officials, transit advocates and experts were left grasping for answers in the dark, as if in some sort of tunnel, as they began to process Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sudden announcement that the Canarsie Tunnel repairs set to begin this April would not actually shutdown the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“The questions it raises in terms of process are, if this was possible, did the MTA think about this years ago when this problem became apparent?” says Jon Orcutt of the TransitCenter. “If so, why did they reject it? If not, why weren’t they looking around the world at new ways of doing things? If the governor wants to bring in independent engineers to review big things they’re doing, why can’t you do it much earlier in the process?”

Process aside, Orcutt is happy with the new plan, which will circumvent a total shutdown. “It’s good news for riders and everyone else dealing with the transportation system in Brooklyn and Queens,” says Orcutt. “I don’t think people got how unbelievable it was going to be to stuff L train riders into other people’s trains, how bad that would be if you had problems on any other lines.”

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who’s currently running for public advocate (on the Fix the MTA line, no less), is more skeptical; she released a statement that began “Um, what?” and criticized the process that led to this point.

“Of course everyone wants the subway fixed quickly and running smoothly, but the MTA and the Governor owe New Yorkers the truth about why this new plan came so late in the game,” Mark-Viverito wrote. “Families moved neighborhoods, businesses suffered, and suddenly the Governor says—just kidding? Subway riders are sick of being lied to and jerked around. After two years of being told one story, New Yorkers deserve to know what systematic failures led to a shutdown being deemed necessary before all options were explored.”

The new plan, relying on a process that hasn’t been used to fix a tunnel in the United States before, will involve hanging power cables on racks on the side of the tunnel and wrapping them in fiberglass polymer instead of embedding them in the tunnel walls. The technology, and the plan itself, was questioned by MTA board member David Jones, who told Errol Louis last night that the board found out about the new plan at the same time as the general public, a fact that he called “disconcerting.”

Jaqi Cohen of the Straphangers Campaign also used the “d” word—disconcerting—to describe the way in which Cuomo’s big announcement was made.

“It’s disconcerting to pull the plug months before the [shutdown] plan was supposed to go into place,” says Cohen. “Our biggest concern is that there’s very little public accountability in the plan as presented. There was no real sense of what the specific timeline was for this, the start date, how much it will cost, how exactly it will impact service.”

During the afternoon press conference, acting MTA chair Freddy Ferrer said weekend work would mean 15 to 20 minute headways on the L, and that the project would take 15 to 20 months to complete. Cuomo later told reporters it would be “silly” to promise a specific timeline for a construction project.

For Cohen, huge questions remain. “What will the real impact be on riders? Very little information was provided about that specific detail, and that’s what I think riders really care about,” she explains. “They want to know the work will be done on time and without costing an exorbitant amount of money, but also ‘What is the day to day impact this will have on my life?’”

John Raskin, the executive director of the Riders Alliance, was more skeptical. In a statemnt, he wrote that “we need a full public release of the details of Governor Cuomo’s idea, as well as the mitigation plans that will allow hundreds of thousands of L train riders to get around during the inevitable shutdowns and slowdowns in service.”

The statement continues, “actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt that will ultimately leave riders in the lurch.”

And while the plan theoretically brings innovation to the tunnel itself, many were also left wondering what would happen to above-ground changes promised as part of the shutdown. “I think what this looks like is an opportunity to squander some really good ideas, because the 15-month plan shutdown had started to bear some fruit on some good transportation policy,” says Joe Cutrufo of Transportation Alternatives, pointing to the busway expansion of pedestrian space on 14th Street, the city’s embrace of e-bikes, and the 12th and 13th Street bike lanes.

“The MTA and DOT need to figure out that these things need to be preserved, and even though the L train isn’t shutting down 24/7, there still need to be alternatives to the subway,” says Cutrufo. On the idea that those nights and weekend riders would now be the only ones with an affected commute, Cutrufo said that it seemed like “a political calculation, to shift the burden from ‘everyone takes a hit’ to ‘night and weekend riders taking a hit.’”

Calling the plan “promising,” Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign nevertheless agreed that the mitigation plans should remain in place. “Whether New Yorkers can expect to see a full or a partial shutdown on the L train, the MTA and the city DOT must move forward with their current mitigation plans,” Sifuentes wrote in a statement. “With 400,000 daily riders, the L train is already at capacity, and any reduction in service will mean riders will struggle to find ways to get around. Every bus, every ferry, every HOV lane will still be needed to meet the demand.”

Politically, an unofficial City Council caucus of members who represent L-adjacent districts has emerged to back those mitigation efforts. Calling for hearings on the new reality facing the city, council member Carlina Rivera wrote in a statement that “the city Department of Transportation must stay the course with that the current L Train Alternative Service Plan, including new bike lanes, bus routes, and protected bus corridors, until the public and advocates are able to process and comment on this new plan.”

Rafael Espinal questioned what the new plan would mean for service workers and others who rely on the trains on late nights and weekends. A spokesperson for the Council Member elaborated for Curbed: “Even assuming the 15-20 minute headway figure is true, that still makes it more difficult to get from A to B efficiently. Especially for someone with an inflexible work schedule, that could pose major problems.”

Espinal later tweeted that bus and bike lanes and Citi Bike expansions planned for the shutdown should stick around.

Council member Antonio Reynoso, who represents the district next door to Espinal, tweeted that he was currently on vacation, but did take the time to compare the L train situation to that of the Brooklyn Nets, whose former GM Billy King insisted on chasing flashy upgrades that got him praise from tabloids instead of taking a more measured approach, eventually leaving the team in a seemingly impossible-to-escape hole.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation tells Curbed that the agency is reviewing the new plan, but did confirm that the north Brooklyn Citi Bike infills would still be moving forward as planned.

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