The L Won’t Shut Down After All. Time to Panic?

Photo: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Office

If your doctor calls to say you can throw out two years’ worth of lab tests and scans, because it turns out you don’t need surgery after all, do you: (a) cry with relief; (b) tell the doctor she doesn’t know what she’s talking about; or (c) say, Now you tell me? New Yorkers had all three reactions when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the long-dreaded L-train shutdown would not, after all, happen. For years, the MTA has insisted that Hurricane Sandy had inflicted such extensive damage that repairing the line meant shoring up tunnels, jackhammering out the disintegrating “bench wall,” and replacing it with all-new concrete.

Suddenly, a few months before the work was set to begin, Cuomo unveiled a less intrusive fix that will involve leaving the bench wall in place and hanging wires from a rack — a job that can be done during nights and weekends, while the trains keep running.

Reactions included:

(a) Yay! My commute will only be slightly more infernal than it is now, and the pain will last only a little longer than it was supposed to — although at the press conference Cuomo said it was “silly” to ask him to promise that the MTA would stick to the 15-20 month timeline he had just announced.

(b) What does Cuomo know? Immediately after announcing the plan, he reminded journalists that he doesn’t run the agency he had just cooked it up for. “I’m not in charge of the MTA,” he declared, which means, I’ll take credit if it works, but it’ll be their fault if it doesn’t. “It’s a last-minute switcheroo, which hasn’t undergone the same rigorous public process that the shutdown plan did,” says Ben Kabak, who writes the transportation blog Second Ave. Sagas. Cuomo convened the deans of Columbia and Cornell’s engineering schools, who took only a few weeks to come up with a plan that relies on an untested combination of engineering approaches that have never been used to repair a damaged subway tunnel. More worrisomely, the people in charge of deploying this new technology are the MTA, an agency that has had trouble installing countdown clocks that actually tell passengers when the next train will come. “They’re saying they’re going to cross their fingers and hope it works,” Kabak says.

(c) Wait, now do we have to scrap all the beautiful contingency plans we made? Why did I move to Astoria/start giving new renters a break/buy a bike and thermal underwear if L-train service has been un-canceled? Transportation advocates are particularly worried that years of planning for bus-, bike-, and ferry-based alternatives will all have been in vain. “The L train lit a fire under the Department of Transportation to make better use of our street space,” says Joe Cutrufo, a spokesman for the advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives. “Even without the shutdown, we’re still going to need better bike and bus infrastructure because we’re in the middle of a transportation crisis. We can’t just go back to business as usual.” Cutrufo acknowledges it might sound as if he craved the emergency that would vindicate all the preparation, but he does have a point: sometimes it looks like you’re dodging disaster when really you’re just making it last.

The L Won’t Shut Down After All. Time to Panic?