In a surprising and unexpected move, Governor Andrew Cuomo pulled the breaks on the L train shutdown on Wednesday, after a panel of engineering experts determined that a complete closure of the L train tunnel is unnecessary.
Initially, the shutdown seemed unavoidable to repair corroded power cables and bench walls in the 100-year-old Canarsie Tunnel that were damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
But in December, Cuomo tasked a team of experts from Cornell University's College of Engineering and Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science to do a final review of the L tunnel project. The team was charged with examining the then-current plan and recommending new designs, systems or technology that would improve and expedite the project — or confirm the initial plan as the best way forward.
"They have proposed a new design," Cuomo declared. "It is a design that has not been used in the United States before. It has been implemented in Europe, but never in a tunnel restoration project. They came up with that design suggestion which uses many innovations that are new to the rail industry in this country. But the MTA has gone through their recommendations and believes that it is feasible. With this design, it would not be necessary to close the L train tunnel at all."
Over the last three weeks, the team spent hundreds of hours working pro bono on the project and touring the L train tunnel, as well as the Hudson River tunnel along with Amtrak leadership, to further inform their analysis. The team also considered rail tunnels in cities around the world, including Hong Kong, London and Riyadh, and found that other modern tunnel designs under construction do not use bench walls to protect cables.
In their final report, approved by the MTA, the group recommended to abandon the old electrical cables now embedded in a cement bench wall that runs along the base of the tunnel, construct a new racking system on the sides of the tunnel for new cables wrapped in fireproof material, and to fortify the bench wall with fiberglass polymer.
The experts concluded that the repairs could be undertaken on nights and weekends, with a single tube providing continued service in both directions during work periods. The project could be completed in 15 to 20 months, officials said; the previously planned shutdown was expected to take 15 months.
Senator Roxanne Persaud, who represents the 19th State Senate District including East New York and Brownsville, welcomed the announcement, but also expressed hopes that the newfound ingenuity could be applied to other necessary MTA upgrades.
"I am delighted that there is an alternative way to reconstruct the L train and Canarsie Tunnel that will limit the negative impact on ridership," Persaud said. "I look forward to the completion of the project and hope that other much-needed upgrades to the subway system can be done in the same manner."
While the new plan eliminates the need for a complete shutdown of the tunnel, components of the initial L train project are still on the table, MTA officials said. The previously planned improvements include constructing new power substations, storm and flooding resiliency measures and station improvements, such as providing ADA accessibility and other capacity upgrades at the Bedford Avenue Station in Brooklyn and the 1st and 6th Avenue Stations in Manhattan.
However, if the previously planned mitigation measures, including lane closures on 14th Street and added MTA services will be implemented, remains to be seen. Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal, who represents the 37th District including Bushwick and East New York, stated on Twitter that these plans should still move forward.
"FYI, @NYC_DOT should still move forward with the expansion of bus and bike lanes and Citibike into Bushwick. It will ease congestion and a packed L train, making North Brooklyn more livable," Espinal tweeted. "And because there'll probably be a need for fewer buses, how about making them all electric?"
Meanwhile, other elected city officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have yet to weigh in.