New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans on Thursday to cancel New York City’s L train shutdown, after hundreds of city and state employees spent years preparing for the 15-month closure of a subway tunnel under the East River and thousands of people and businesses relocated around the possibility.
For years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had insisted that the interior of the tunnel that carries more than 225,000 people under the East River every day had to be substantially reconstructed after filling with water during Superstorm Sandy. Now, less than a month after Cuomo shut down late-night service so he could walk the tunnel with engineers from Cornell and Columbia, the MTA has adopted a plan put together by the team of academic engineers at Cuomo’s urging.
The governor has overturned years of public work for a solution so simple it was concocted in three weeks by an unpaid team of university professors. If it works, it’s a scandal that the MTA—whose mismanagement of megaprojects is legendary—never proposed it in the first place. If it doesn’t, it will go down as the ultimate symbol of the governor’s rash micromanagement of public works projects and his desire to seek “innovation” above tried-and-true methods.
It’s impossible to exaggerate how profound an about-face this is. Cuomo waited for years before deciding a better way must be possible with just three months to go before work was scheduled to begin.
And then, apparently, he found one faster than most people buy Christmas presents: Cuomo, Columbia Dean of Engineering Mary Boyce, and Cornell Dean of Engineering Lance Collins presented their plan at a surprise press conference on Thursday. The corroding “bench wall,” which runs alongside the tracks and contains critical power cables, will be encased in fiberglass wrap and only replaced in small sections instead of being rebuilt entirely. New, fireproof cables will be “racked” along the tunnel walls instead of being encased in a new bench wall.
Under the new plan, instead of shutting down service under the river for 15 months, the MTA will suspend L train service on nights and weekends for 15 to 20 months. There will be no disruptions to rush-hour service, and the night-and-weekend disruptions mark a big improvement over the shutdown plan.
“It is a design that has not been used in the United States before, to the best of our knowledge,” Cuomo said. “It has been implemented in Europe. It has never been implemented in a tunnel-restoration project. It uses many new innovations that are new to the rail industry in this country.”
In 2016, the MTA insisted that the bench walls in the tunnel “must be replaced to protect the structural integrity of the two tubes that carry through the tunnel.”
Today, the MTA publicly changed its mind. After envisioning a long-term, labor-intensive reconstruction that would have disrupted hundreds of thousands of commutes, the Authority dropped the plan without any remark. No MTA officials raised any reservations about the new plan at the press conference or explained why it hadn’t been considered in the first place.
The change is a humiliating rebuke to MTA planners, who spent years not considering what a handful of academic engineers quickly decided was the cheapest, fastest, most feasible solution. It’s a relief, at least for now, for New Yorkers who depend on the subway line. And if that bench wall winds up crumbling into the tunnel, well, we’ll still have those plans for a shutdown on file.