By Jaime DeJesus and David Brand
What the “L” is going on?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo surprised New York City straphangers during a press conference on Thursday by announcing that the long-planned 15-month shutdown of the L-train subway service will not happen as originally planned. Construction had been scheduled to begin April 27 to repair the damage sustained by the Canarsie Tunnel in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.
The sudden announcement received a mixed response in Queens, where thousands of residents live in neighborhoods near the L line, including Ridgewood, Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale.
“My wife takes the L everyday because she works in Manhattan and she is very happy,” said taxi driver Marco Ortiz, who lives in Ridgewood. Ortiz said his wife is a housekeeper at a hotel in Midtown and will be affected by the proposed weekend service shutdown.
Low-wage workers are expected to bear the brunt of the new plan, which will shutdown service on weeknights and weekends.
Yet, Ortiz said he thought the L train plan was a positive development for residents who live further from Manhattan in L train in low-income neighborhoods like Canarsie and Brownsville.
For his part, Ortiz said the shutdown will have an impact on his business, “but it’s okay.”
“I was thinking I’d be able to drive more people into Manhattan,” he said, laughing. “I’m happy though. The money I make is still good.”
The new plan is based on innovative tunnel construction technology, which was proposed by Columbia and Cornell Universities' engineering departments and will eliminate the need for a full closure, something Cuomo called “a major breakthrough.”
The method has never been used in the United States and, Cuomo said, it “has never been used in a tunnel restoration project.”
“[The new method] uses many new innovations that are new to the rail industry in this country,” Cuomo explained. “But the MTA has gone through their recommendations and new design and believes it is feasible. It’s highly innovative but feasible.”
Keeping the L train in operation is key, Cuomo said.
“The simple fact is you have roughly 250,000 people who would need another way to get to work [and] a tremendous impact on traffic," Cuomo said during the conference. "Fifteen months sounds like a really short period of time, but it's not if you're doing it one day at a time trying to get to work.
“I can’t tell you how many people have approached me about the L train and the difficulty the L-train closure would trigger,” he said.
The city had spent years preparing for the shutdown by introducing more bike lanes in Brooklyn, expanding bike share service along the L line and proposing more bus service over the Williamsburg Bridge and along 14th Street.
The proposed shutdown had also affected real estate prices and sales in the area, an unwelcome proposition for landlords and homeowners looking to sell, but a form of price control for renters and buyers.
“Buyers are there, but they're looking for steals,” real estate agent Nick Rafter said on Twitter. “I had a sales listing late last year and I'm amazed at how high turnout was at open houses, but all offers were laughingly far below market. The shutdown was their excuse.”
On Greene Avenue in Ridgewood, two adjacent homes have gone unsold for several months, partly owing to speculation about the L train, located about a half mile away at Dekalb Avenue.
“Public transportation is really important,” said real estate agent Tom Blacnco. “The first questions [among renters] is always, ‘I hear they’re shutting down the L. How long is it going to take?’”
The recommendations proposed by Cornell and Columbia include implementing a new power and control system design, implementing “racking” system design for cables and installing smart sensor systems to monitor benchwall integrity and more.
“Long story short, with this design, it would not be necessary to close the L-train tunnel at all, which would be a phenomenal benefit to the people of New York City,” Cuomo said. “There would need to be some night and weekend closures of only one tube, so service would still work because there are two tunnels.”
Cuomo claimed the new method would be the quickest and best way to rebuild the tunnels. The plan would still require work to be done on the lines during nights and weekends. Although many are happy with the news, some local residents are proceeding with trepidation.
North Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President Paul Samulski, who is on the executive committee of the L Train Coalition, said the change of methodology was overall “a good thing.”
“Is everybody jumping for joy?” he went on. “I heard someone on NY1 say, ‘I hear a collective cheer from the West Side Highway of Manhattan all the way to Williamsburg.’ I haven’t personally heard that cheer. I’ve heard people breathe a sigh of relief, but we are moving very cautiously. Again, we think it’s very good news just like everyone else.”
But, he added, “We can’t help but sit back and say, ‘Why did it take so long?’”
Samulski stressed that the months of preparing for a total shutdown had been a burden to businesses and residents that rely on the train, who were expecting the shutdown to commence just a few months from now.
“We know that people have been very thoughtfully thinking through life decisions, whether it has to do with renegotiating a lease, or selling their business or moving it,” he explained. “People have made significant life decisions based on information that has been out there and now, what do we say to them? Do we say we’re sorry?”
Samulski also said that the weekend shutdowns are still a major issue.
“Even if it plays out the way they say, it’s still not going to be great,” he added. “We’ve seen a lot of temporary shutdowns and weekend closures. They do just as much damage, whether it’s short or long term. The recent L train shutdowns that happen on the weekends have been devastating to a lot of businesses.”
Many transportation advocates criticized the sudden announcement, saying they were skeptical of the last-minute change of plans.
“At the end of the day, what riders care about is whether the L train is repaired for the long term, and how much disruption it will take to get there,” said Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin. “The governor's plan may or may not work, but you'll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input.”
Raskin called on Cuomo to share more information about how the state arrived at the new plan.
"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,” Raskin said. “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.”
Transportation Alternatives Senior Organizer Erwin Figueroa said the new adjusted schedule would have a major impact on low-wage workers who work on nights and weekend.
“As always, poor and POC New Yorkers will bear the brunt of this new "plan" for the L train, as shutdowns during nights and weekends will impact them the most,” Figueroa tweeted. “The bike lanes, busways and longer G trains need to remain as planned.”
Additional reporting by Sara Bosworth.