Cuomo better hope enormous L train gamble pays off
4th January 2019

Thursday, in announcing that the L train won’t shut down for 15 months between Canarsie and 14th Street starting in April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave 250,000 daily riders a reprieve. But the governor also threw away years of planning by the state-run MTA, which said there was no alternative. If the governor’s right, he’ll save New York aggravation. If he’s wrong, he’s catastrophically wrong — and a big part of his legacy will be his successors having (literally) to pick up the pieces.

Since mid-2016, the MTA has been clear: The tunnel suffered “extensive damage” during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, including to “bench walls” encasing power and communication cables. “Bench walls throughout those sections must be replaced to protect the structural integrity of the two tubes,” it said back then. The MTA, at four town hall meetings and a dozen or so smaller meetings, gave riders a choice: Get it done all it once, over the 15-month closure, or close one tube at a time, disrupting service for 80 percent of passengers anyway, with long waits for one-way travel.

Most riders — 77 percent — favored the full closure. After awarding the $500 million contract for the work nearly two years ago, both the MTA and the city have been planning for the ­L-pocalypse, with more buses, ferries and bikes.

Now, enter Cuomo. On Thursday, surrounded by academic engineers from Columbia and Cornell, he proclaimed a miracle: “a totally different way to reconstruct a tunnel.” His new team devised a way to do this work on nights and weekends: “What these people have designed is the first of its kind in the United States,” he crowed. “This has never been done before.”

How? Say the tunnel was your basement, if you had a basement with concrete walls. Your critical electrical and communications infrastructure is inside those walls — and a flood damaged these wires and cables; plus, the flood corroded the walls themselves, putting them at risk of crumbling. Under the “old” L-train way, the idea was to remove the walls, remove damaged cable and wires, install new wires, and seal it all up in a new wall.

Under Cuomo’s “new” way, the MTA’s contractors will simply abandon the damaged walls as an archeological curiosity — leaving the useless cables and wires inside and encasing the outside with fiberglass and polymer. That way, if pieces of the wall do start to crumble, they won’t fall to the tracks, risking derailment or service cuts. The new external layer will contain them. (It’s like when highway maintainers cover a rock face with steel netting, so that when rocks fall, they fall on the steel and not on your car.)

What about the cabling and wiring? The MTA won’t encase it, but will “rack” wiring along the top of the tunnel.

Cuomo says this will be “faster and cheaper” — although, oddly, the MTA isn’t backing away from its original $500 million cost estimate, and the governor wouldn’t promise that the state can do it within the new, longer estimate of up to 20 months.

He also said it will be “better.”

Will it? Cuomo noted that newer transit systems, including in Saudi Arabia, “rack” their wires. Yet those systems have wider tunnels. Patching up an old tunnel makes that tunnel smaller. Will trains — especially when they move fast, and rock — have enough room?

Burying wires in concrete, whatever the drawbacks, insulates them from fire. Cuomo’s new engineers say the new cables will be “jacketed” in “fireproof material.” The term “fireproof” is unwise — nothing is fireproof. The MTA board should ask, and demand evidence: In swapping out one known risk — a long tunnel closure — is the MTA introducing an unknown risk, of catastrophic damage to its new infrastructure?

And will the new sheath really contain the bench wall if parts of it fall? If not, an unexpected fall could cause a derailment. Chronic partial collapses could plague service.

Smaller niggles: On Thursday, acting MTA chief Freddy Ferrer said that the authority won’t revoke the contract it awarded in 2017 and bid out a new contract. This doesn’t make sense: Cuomo has changed this project so much that it is a new project. Yet the MTA will never know if another bidder could do better.

For all that, how convenient will the new plan be? With one tube out of service, nights and weekends will be miserable, with waits of at least 15 minutes. If contractors finish a weekend closure late, they’ll disrupt service for rush-hour riders, anyway. With the full shutdown, all attention was on how the state and city would help stranded commuters; now, for the waiter getting home at 1 a.m. on a Friday night or the art gallerist whose potential visitors are too frustrated to make the trip, nobody will care.

Cuomo is taking an enormous gamble. The governor is not an engineer and made an intuitive decision: A handful of academic engineers are right, and the whole MTA was wrong. We’d better hope he chose correctly.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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