New York Won't Shut Down A Major Subway Line Now, But It's Actually Worse This Way

Photo: AP

If you’re not in New York City, the long-planned L train shutdown probably doesn’t have much to do with you. But in this city, it’s a line that 275,000 riders rely on daily, and its looming shutdown for long-term maintenance caused people to move to new neighborhoods, sell their homes, quit their jobs and even buy motorcycles. Today, New Yorkers got a surprise—the shutdown isn’t happening. This sounds like it could be good, but it’s not, and there’s a bigger takeaway here about how America’s cities plan public transportation.

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The L train, which connects Manhattan and Brooklyn, was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. It supposed to be fully shut down for 15 months beginning in April to allow for repairs. Now, Governor Amazon Cuomo, who controls the subway, says that won’t happen.

The details aren’t totally clear but an MTA official estimated that the work would take up to 20 months, or five months longer than the full shutdown. That seems optimistic at best, as a previous alternate plan floated by the agency suggested it would take at least three years.

Via the Times:

Under a new plan unveiled by Mr. Cuomo the work would be done on nights and weekends. [Cuomo] said not fully closing the L train would be a “phenomenal benefit to the people of New York City.”

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So nights and weekends only, instead of a total shutdown.

The MTA and the subway in particular are phenomenally mismanaged, though the plan for the L train shutdown was shaping up to be its best decision in years. That’s because agency had finally acknowledged what it had been unable to do for decades—that one of its pieces was fundamentally broken, and that it needed to fix it. And not with the kind of nights-and-weekends work that is an endless and unpredictable hallmark of the system, but with a proper shutdown, so the agency can fix the electrical components damaged by salt water, at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars.

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New York’s subway system is ostensibly 24 hours, nonstop, everyday of the year, a fact that city and state officials are understandably proud of. But functionally huge parts of it shut down between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., as crews patch the system back together for daytime use. Every night this week, for example, the 7 line will not connect Queens and Manhattan, after crews fix a track problem they discovered while putting the finishing touches on a new signal system that itself took nearly a decade to install.

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The L train was supposed to be different. Yes, we’d be without a train for 15 months, but at the end we’d have something that was at least functional. Something you could trust, like now, with the L train already outfitted with that new signal system and operating as one of the most reliable trains in the city. Instead, people who use it will now have a frustratingly crippled part-time train, for at least three years and probably longer, given the agency’s talent for missing deadlines.

Nights-and-weekends work also sounds nice on paper, but in reality it tends to hurt the least-advantaged New Yorkers the most—the ones working odd hours who don’t have much of a choice when they need the train.

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So again—after all that to-do, why now? The announcement can’t also help but make you wonder about Cuomo’s motives, as developers plowed forward with plans to build residential towers along the L line and rents dropped as a result of the shutdown.

It also makes you wonder just what the hell Cuomo was doing in the past few years, as the MTA—which, again, is an agency he controls—was throwing itself headlong into executing the full shutdown, and after dozens of public meetings about it.

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It also wouldn’t be so concerning if it wasn’t so last-minute, and solely at the direction of Cuomo. Per the Times:

The alternative plan was recommended by a panel of experts convened by Mr. Cuomo, who called the new design a “major breakthrough’’ that had been used in Europe but had not been tried in the United States.

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So Cuomo’s taking the advice of his own cherrypicked experts, using an alternative plan that’s completely untested in the U.S. I can’t imagine what could go wrong.

Also some more details from The Verge:

Cuomo allowed engineering experts from Columbia and Cornell universities to explain how the tunnel repair would commence. Power cables embedded in the tunnel’s bench wall, a ledge that runs along the base of the tunnel that’s used by emergency workers, can instead be hung on racks along the side of the tunnel and wrapped in fiber glass-reinforced polymer. This would allow trains to continue to run while repairs are made. The MTA would also install fiber-optic sensors and LIDAR laser sensors to detect any impending failures in the bench wall, so the agency can send in workers to reinforce those section as needed.

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Oh, also Cuomo reached out to Tesla, for some reason.

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Inspiring stuff. If only there was a government agency that could fix the train for you, and had already been working on a decent plan for some time!

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The larger point here is that we have public servants for a reason, people we pay to keep our infrastructure operating. It’s not perfect, of course, but they’re already on the payroll. They know their jobs pretty well, by virtue of doing them everyday. So when they come up with a plan you can reasonably assume that incorporates troves of institutional knowledge, which would come in handy when it comes to fixing something as vast and complex as New York City’s subway system. Their plans are also vetted in real time by subway riders and others at public meetings, in addition to hundreds of government officials in a process occurring in broad daylight.

Or you could do what Cuomo did, ignore all that and come up with your own untested plan at the last minute. I know what I’d choose.

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About the author

Erik Shilling

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.