Gov. Cuomo scraps 15-month full L train shutdown plan

At Thursday’s announcement that the L train won’t undergo a full shutdown, from left, Governor Andrew Cuomo; Mary Boyce, the dean of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University; and Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert dean of Engineering at Cornell University. Photo by Julianne Cuba

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA

“L-pocalypse” no more!

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is scrapping its L train shutdown plan.

Instead, the M.T.A. will close a single tube at a time over nights and weekends. The work is still expected to begin around the end of April.

The new scheme could only take up to 20 months — five months more than the previous plan, according to M.T.A. Acting Chairperson Fernando Ferrer. Planned improved subway service on the G, M and 7 lines will remain, Ferrer said.

The M.T.A. is “thrilled” with the new plan, Ferrer said. The single-tube closure will allow for trains to run in both directions in the second, open tube. Peak ridership hours will not change, and the existing 15-to-20-minute wait for trains during nights and weekends will remain, according to Ferrer.

“It’s innovative, creative and we deem it a sound plan,” Ferrer said.

The planned additional ferry service between Williamsburg and Stuyvesant Cove at Stuyvesant Town will likely be scuttled, according to Andy Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority. While Byford said he will continue to work with the city’s Department of Transportation on additional details, he anticipates high-occupancy vehicle (HOV-3) lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge will now no longer be necessary.

Other details under the previous full L-shutdown plan regarding added bike lanes, bus routes, M14 Select Bus Service and the 14th St. “busway” remain unclear.

Cuomo’s announcement comes weeks after he toured the tunnels with engineering experts from Cornell and Columbia universities. The new plan for repairing the East River tunnels hinges on what officials say is a better, more innovative design that drastically reduces labor-intensive demolition work.

“This is really a unique design, a unique system,” Cuomo said of the revised plan. “It is a totally different way to reconstruct the tunnel. It’s faster. It’s cheaper. It’s better than the way we have been doing it.”

The key change of the alternative design is how it deals with cables that have been corroded by saltwater from Hurricane Sandy that are currently embedded in “benchwalls,” which are essentially cement walkways used by workers to access the tunnel.

Under the previous plan, all the two tubes’ benchwalls and power and communications cables would have been replaced.

Inspired by other cities — including Hong Kong, London and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — engineering experts recommended to Cuomo and the M.T.A. to adopt a new design that would instead suspend the cables on the sides of the tunnel with a fireproof material. Under this method, the only cement benchwalls that would be removed would be severely weakened ones. Other portions would be reinforced with “fiber-reinforced polymer” or, for structurally stable benchwall, left alone.

“[I]f we do not need to remove the benchwall and reconstruct the benchwall, we’re not going to do it,” said Mary Boyce, the dean of Columbia University’s engineering school who was one of the experts that issued the new recommendations to Cuomo and the M.T.A. “That’s an incredibly time-intensive, labor-intensive element that we removed.”

While City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, on the one hand, he was hopeful about the change of plan, he was also “having a tough time” with the “last-minute” announcement lacking a lot of specifics.

“If this new plan is as good as advertised,” Johnson said, “then obviously it is fantastic news for the hundreds of thousands of L train riders who were dreading the shutdown, as well as for those who were worrying about the shutdown’s spillover effects.

“That said, I’m having a tough time with this,” he said. “For years, the M.T.A. told New Yorkers that a shutdown was unavoidable. Now, at the last minute, we’re presented with a new proposal with no details on cost or a solid time frame. All New Yorkers, including those who uprooted their lives and businesses in anticipation of the shutdown and the workers who rely on the L train during nights and weekends, deserve better.”

In May 2016, then-M.T.A. Chairperson Thomas Prendergast, left, answered questions from straphangers at a forum on the L shutdown plan. The tunnel’s “benchwalls” — containing electrical and communication cables — are shown in blue on the tunnel cross-section. Villager file photo.

Councilmember Keith Powers, who represents parts of Stuyvesant Town and Kips Bay, said the city should keep its plans for the M14 Select Bus Service and the Williamsburg-Stuyvesant Cove ferry service — though Byford said Thursday the ferries would no longer be a part of the L train mitigation plan.

Any plan to reduce inconvenience is welcome, Powers said, but added that the “new recommendations are a swift and sudden change to the L train plan, which now need to be fully evaluated.”

“Today’s announcement comes after individuals have made life-altering decisions about where to live, residents have been impacted by confusing parking changes, and New Yorkers have had taxpayer dollars spent on a design that has become obsolete,” Powers said. “As an everyday L train rider, I am hopeful that this will be an improvement in the lives of New Yorkers and look forward to receiving more information in the coming days.”

Councilmember Carlina Rivera said M.T.A. officials told her the new plan could possibly reduce noise and construction along 14th St. between First Ave. and Avenue B. She said she was “disappointed” the news came without details or warning.

Rivera called on the City Council to hold public hearings this month, and said D.O.T. should continue with its previous plans for additional bike lanes, bus routes and dedicated bus corridors until the public and advocates can fully comment.

“But regardless of how the L train tunnel repair goes,” Rivera added, “our state and city agencies must deeply evaluate how the mishandling of these announcements continues to erode public trust in our most important institutions, and work to redouble their efforts with our communities.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, whose district includes all of Manhattan’s L train stretch, welcomed an alternative without, as he put it, “hundreds of additional dirty diesel buses” that would have resulted from four additional bus routes between Brooklyn and Manhattan under the previous mitigation plan.

“It’ll be the job of the new Senate Democratic majority along with our Assembly colleagues to provide sufficient oversight of the M.T.A. and this plan,” Hoylman added. “In addition, we must continue to push for more reliable train and bus service, planned upgrades to our [subway] station and bike infrastructure, and work toward the ultimate goal of reducing car traffic through congestion pricing.”

Meanwhile, some transportation advocates kept the focus on reducing congestion, regardless of how the L train is repaired.

“However this L train work plays out, we expect Mayor de Blasio and the D.O.T. to preserve the new bus and bike infrastructure that has been put forth,” said Joe Cutrufo, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives. “Even without a full 15-month L train shutdown, it’s pretty clear that New York City has a serious congestion problem.”

Cutrufo hopes the HOV-3 plan for the Williamsburg Bridge, the new 12th and 13th Sts. protected crosstown bike lanes, a better bus system across the 14th St. corridor, and especially congestion pricing are still prioritized — full L shutdown or not.

“Congestion isn’t going away without both congestion pricing and new innovative ways to get people around New York City,” Cutrufo said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio would not comment on the details since he had only gotten initial briefings from Cuomo early Thursday, but said, “Anything that avoids disruption, I favor, obviously. And a lot of people in Brooklyn, a lot of people in Manhattan have been really worried about the L train shutdown.”

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