The L-train Un-Shutdown

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer (center) with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney and other elected officials in Brooklyn on Sunday, Jan. 6 to call for greater transparency in new L train plans. Photo courtesy of Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer
The Manhattan Borough President calls for an independent review of “a Pandora’s box of outstanding questions”
by Gale A. Brewer

The L-train un-shutdown has been a particularly gripping early story of 2019, one that’s brought more intrigue than an episode of “Law and Order.”

(If you haven’t heard, Gov. Cuomo called in academic engineering experts late last year and settled on an alternate rehabilitation plan for the L train Canarsie tunnels, one that won’t necessitate a full shutdown of those tunnels — which had been deemed essential by the MTA and its engineers and consultants for years, and whose effects had been debated and planned for during untold hours of community meetings. Using the new strategy, imposed by the Governor and his experts, rehabilitation will move forward with a partial, 15-20-month nights-and-weekends reconstruction.)

While avoiding a full shutdown — that would inconvenience 275,000 daily commuters — is welcome news, there is still a Pandora’s box of outstanding questions:

• Will commuters traveling on Monday mornings after a weekend of work be safe from the hazardous chemicals — most importantly silica — from that work?

• Is the new plan better for the long-term stability of the damaged tunnel than the old one?

• How many years will this new approach last? Are we just kicking the rehab can down the road for a decade?

• What will become of the mitigation transportation options that the city Department of Transportation (DOT) and MTA jointly planned?

With such a fast, 180-degree change of plans, it’s no wonder that the public might be confused about who to trust — even as those who use or otherwise depend on the L train are relieved that an un-shutdown is happening.

That’s why we need an independent evaluation of this new plan before moving forward (along with a review of all previous scenarios that the MTA had considered). It’s all the more necessary now that the MTA has decided the Board does not need to vote on a contract for the new tunnel rehab plan (or debate the specifics) because it’s estimated to cost the same as the old one.

I agree with the Governor when he describes the MTA as operating within a “Transportation Industrial Complex.” There are consultants upon consultants upon consultants — many of whom are former MTA staff — who review plans, and review the reviews of plans. It’s a circular, time-and-money consuming pattern.

But “bigfooting” the old plan doesn’t guarantee success. So an independent review, conducted by a vendor who’s had nothing to do with previous plans and selected by the MTA board, is the best way to inspire trust in the final approach chosen (even though it will take a bit more time and money).

In addition to an independent review, we should go ahead and adopt many of the plans the MTA, DOT and local stakeholders prepared to mitigate the L train closure in Manhattan because they’re smart transit policy anyway and because they’ll be needed during the more limited L train closures.

We should implement Select Bus Service on 14th Street — along with a dedicated bus lane or Busway — to increase crosstown travel speeds beyond that of a pedestrian walking. We should keep protected bike lanes on 12th, 13th and Delancey Streets further enhancing the Manhattan bike network. And we should explore other components of the plan worth keeping such as expanded pedestrian space around Union Square. I’m grateful that NYCT President Andy Byford has promised to move forward with ADA elevators at 1st and Sixth Avenue L stations.

Just like an episode of “Law and Order,” the L train situation has a larger societal villain at work: climate change. Without the once-in-a-generation Superstorm Sandy, we wouldn’t have had this wake-up call and found ourselves in this predicament.

The best way for us to upend this villain is to repair the tunnels in a lasting way — as certified by an independent review — and permanently install climate friendly transportation solutions like better bus service and safer cycling.