A newsletter about what the hell is going on with the subway.

Dumb?! No! Diabolical?! Very!

At one point during Tuesday’s “emergency” board meeting about the L shutdown, interim MTA chairman Freddy Ferrer, somewhat exacerbated by a perfectly reasonable line of questioning from board member Polly Trottenberg, said, “Look, if you're for inconveniencing 275,000 people, say so! If you're not, then, then that's OK too."

Normally, such bluster might be shrugged off, but it was one of the more revealing moments from Tuesday’s meeting, in which the brute logic of the plan’s boosters was laid bare for the first time.

Unfortunately, it’s not particularly sound logic. Gothamist did a helpful roundup of where things stand and what we still don’t know. There are a number of important questions that we simply don’t have any answers for. But, to recap, we still don’t know how much this new plan will cost. Absolutely no estimates have been put out there other than “We do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase,” as a late Thursday press release assured, which the MTA is using as justification for circumventing the board. We still don’t know how much bench wall needs to be removed. It might be 40 percent, or maybe 60 percent; they still need to do an actual survey to figure it out. We still don’t know how the toxic chemicals this will release will be dealt with. “We are confident,” consultants said on Tuesday, that they will figure something out. Nobody knows what the Federal Transportation Administration which is paying for the project will have to say about the new plan or whether the work has to legally be bid out again due to the changing scope of the project.

In short, when asked by board members, the press, or both, consultants and senior MTA officials tended to answer any and all concerns with we don’t know yet but we’re confident it’ll be fine.

As much as I appreciate that the MTA is suddenly very concerned about inconveniencing New Yorkers, this “for or against inconveniencing 275,000 people” contrast completely misses that avoiding inconvenience is not the MTA’s sole or even primary consideration for this project. This became obvious in one key moment from Tuesday’s meeting. Board member Neal Zuckerman (appointed by the Putnam County executive) asked the consultants a very basic question: “What are the cons of this approach?” Fifteen seconds of silence ensued. Finally, WSP’s Mike Abrahams, who has made a career working on bridges, answered the question:

“It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them. There are certainly service life advantages to doing that. By not completely replacing the duct bank and only removing certain portions of it, reinforcing certain portions of it, and leaving certain portions of it in place, that is not as advantageous as a complete replacement. That is true.”

Hey, what? Why was this the first time we heard of this trade-off, hours deep into a special board meeting weeks after the announcement that the new plan had been accepted by the MTA with absolutely no public review or oversight? Why do we not have a complete cost-benefit analysis on what those “long-term service life” advantages would be versus the new approach? Why wasn’t this fact in the PowerPoint presentation to the board? Why is all of this so vague? And why did this appear to concern absolutely nobody except a few board members?

It’s becoming increasingly clear these are two different plans for accomplishing two different outcomes. The shutdown prioritized ensuring the integrity and service life of the tunnel for up to a century even if it meant inconveniencing 275,000 people for more than a year because the tunnel is important. By contrast, the new plan started from an order of “don’t shut the tunnel down” and worked backwards, leaving us with a plan that could last up to 50 years if the tunnel is properly maintained.

About that: POLITICO’s Dana Rubenstein asked if the MTA can be trusted to maintain the tunnel given the MTA’s spotty record of maintaining things, to which Ferrer replied, “That's a fair and honest question,” before going on about how important the tunnel is, how important it will be to maintain, and how the board—which has thus far not been allowed to make one decision regarding the new L plan and, based on a press release issued Thursday evening, probably never will be—has a responsibility to see to it that it’s maintained.

I, for one, see this as yet another con: why give the MTA one more extremely important thing it has to regularly maintain when it can’t even properly maintain all the other extremely important things? How is this not burdening the authority with a major cost over the coming decades when, thanks to climate change, it’s almost assured it will be facing profound resiliency challenges far in excess of its current ones? How is this the responsible course of action for the L riders of 2039 and 2049, who are just as important as L commuters in 2019? How is this not patently short-sighted?

On top of that, I asked what exactly maintaining the tunnel will consist of and how onerous that will be on riders over the coming decades. MTA managing director Ronnie Hakim replied, “Part of that is going to require the final design that's being worked on right now.”

The bigger picture here is that, completely overnight, the MTA went from being conservative, safety-obsessed, and over-engineered to a fault to happily embracing a plan that is the complete opposite of all of those things without any pretense of checks or balances. Every person or entity that has tried to push for a full, independent review of this decision has been steamrolled or circumvented (after Andy Byford spent a week assuring the public he would conduct a full, independent review of the project with outside experts he selected, the L tunnel project was swiftly removed from his purview and his review elevated to the board; when the board refused to let MTA management choose the independent reviewers and demanded they choose them instead, the MTA announced the board would no longer be voting on anything). The plan’s boosters say this is just what the MTA needs to break through the bureaucratic morass. I see it more as having replaced one broken corporate culture with another.

Those in favor of the plan, including Cuomo himself, hail it as innovative, as if this word alone can assuage all doubts. But innovation is not a magic wand that can be use to cast away uncertainty. It is not a puff of smoke into which doubts disappear. It is just a word, a particularly vapid one at that, frequently deployed by those who wish it was all of those things. In the infamous “L shutdown averted” press release, the MTA used the word “innovative” four times.

But there is something innovative about this whole mess. This plan three years in the making got reversed on a dime. Nobody could stop it. Nobody could challenge it. And the person who made it happen, the only person whose opinion truly matters, says he doesn’t even control the MTA. To exercise complete control over something you don’t actually control? That must have taken some serious innovation.


Thanks to everyone who sent in questions for the mailbag edition! It will go out this weekend to paid subscribers, who will find out whether reviving the F express makes any sense, what to do about TWU labor costs without advocating for union-busting, what city control of Transit might look like, and what I would do to fix the MTA (gulp!).

If you become a paid subscriber, you’ll not only get answers to those questions (and more), but you’ll help keep Signal Problems going and receive 50 percent more editions per year.

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As the MTA board was holding its L shutdown meeting, Cuomo was giving his State of the State speech and releasing his preliminary budget. Here is a real screengrab from said speech:

What we still don't know about the L probably-not-shutdown

It really didn't have to be this confusing!

Before we get to the news of the week, I want to take a moment and say that this week marks the one year anniversary of Signal Problems. One whole year! I can’t decide if it feels like I’ve been doing this forever or I just started yesterday. Either way, it’s been amazing to watch S/P grow and evolve into something far more than I ever thought possible. Thank you again to everyone who has been reading and supporting along the way.

I’m hoping to do something a little special to celebrate the anniversary: a mailbag edition. I’d like to steer clear of parochial “why is this specific thing at my specific stop like this” type questions, but other than that, pretty much anything is fair game. Send your questions to signalproblems@substack.com or reply to this email.

Second, I’ve still got a few Signal Problems tote bags lying around that I’ll give away to some paid subscribers as a small one year anniversary present. Sign up now if you haven’t already and if you reeeeaaally want an S/P tote let me know.

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It’s been a busy week learning about bench walls, silica dust, polymers, and cable racking systems, words I definitely didn’t forsee myself writing nine days ago. Lord knows there’s been plenty written about all this L stuff in the last week, so let’s just get right down to it: what are the big unanswered questions right now? Here’s a partial list in no particular order.

  • What’s the plan for dealing with the silica dust during the demolition phase for the 40 percent or so of the bench wall that still has to be replaced? One common way to do so is to deploy a sprinkler system to turn the dust into a non-toxic sludge, wash it down, and scoop it up. How quickly can such a system be deployed, and does it make sense to do so on the 53-hour weekend work schedule? Are there other, more time-sensitive ways to deal with the silica dust given the entire operation will have to be taken down and packed up dozens of times?

  • How will these new approaches hold up in the event of another storm surge? I’ve heard the cable racking system—putting power and signal cables on the side of the wall as opposed to inside the concrete bench wall—is a more resilient solution because they can more easily be repaired and replaced rather than, ya know, having to rip out the whole bench wall again. But how will the polymer used to reinforce the bench wall hold up in the event of another flood? And how resilient is the system used to monitor the structural integrity of the bench wall? How will it hold up in the event of another flood, or simply over time? How much maintenance will the maintenance system need?

  • Given the relative haste under which the plan was put together, how confident should we be in the 15-to-20 month project timeline?

  • How long will it take the Federal Transportation Administration, which is funding $500 million of the L tunnel repairs, to make a decision about whether the funds can be used for the new project, and what will their decision be? Can the project start before that decision is reached? If not, how much, if anything, will the delay cost the MTA?

  • What will the financial impact of this new plan be? MTA President Pat Foye told the WSJ the change in scope should result in cost savings, but nobody seems to know for sure, or at least be able to provide any actual numbers, which makes sense because they’re in the process of re-negotiating the contract with Judlau. It certainly stands to reason that if less work is being done it will cost less, but I have no idea how the breakdown of 12-15 months of full-time work versus 20 months of part-time nights/weekends (read: overtime pay) work for hastily-procured materials shakes out. Related to the timeline uncertainty, is the potential for cost overruns higher than they would have been on the full shutdown plan?

  • Even a nights/weekends rehab project with one tunnel closed will still be a major disruption, especially for those who work non-traditional hours. 20-minute headways is the number getting thrown around during one-tube operation hours, which simply won’t cut it. What alternate service will be provided? What will happen to the M14 SBS, L1-L4 SBS routes, etc?

All of these questions have been acknowledged by MTA officials in some form or fashion, and most of the answers amount to something like “TBD.” Some of the open questions are understandable—the FTA’s review and working through alternate service plans, for example—but others less so.

Either way, the degree to which the narrative has shifted over the past week demonstrates just how badly the original announcement got botched. Here was the press release from last Thursday which had the subject line “MTA Announces L Train Shutdown Averted”:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) today accepted the recommendations of a panel of engineering experts that determined a complete closure of the L Train Tunnel is unnecessary…The plan has been presented to and reviewed by the MTA, and it has been confirmed that the report’s goals are achievable within a 15 to 20-month timeframe.”

And here’s a press release sent out a week later about MTA officials meeting with Amtrak regarding the repair techniques:

The expert team, comprised of the deans and faculty from Columbia University and Cornell University engineering schools, conducted weeks of extensive review and analysis, while working directly with MTA officials, design engineers and contractors. After the MTA’s leadership determined that the new scope of work could be achieved with the proper due diligence to ensure the safety and longevity of the project, Amtrak expressed interest in undertaking a preliminary review of these methods to see if they could be applied to any portions of its own projects including the East River tunnels.

In the first press release, the MTA was presented with a plan by outside experts that they could either accept or (presumably) reject, they chose to accept it, and the L shutdown was off. A week later, the MTA had been “working directly” with the panel to craft the plan all along, they like the plan, but are now going through “proper due diligence to ensure the safety and longevity of the project.”

If you think I’m being nitpicky, consider this question: is the L shutdown off or not? In the end, it’s the only important question, and right now there is no answer. The “L shutdown averted” line we got a week ago wasn’t right because, well, it’s simply not true. No contracts have been changed, no change orders issued, no funding moved. A more, well, accurate announcement would have alleviated a lot of confusion and instilled much greater confidence in the plan to begin with. But then again, it’s also much less dramatic, isn’t it?

This will probably end up being an academic point in the end, one only remembered by close observers and journalists who had to cover this damn mess. But on the off chance the due diligence check finds something to be concerned about, it’ll be worth revisiting why everyone was so confident a week ago they had averted the shutdown. And it will be important to find out, exactly, was making the call. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.


I had a great conversation with the FAQ NYC podcast and my co-guest MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool about the L shutdown mess and larger MTA questions.


Here’s some good news: Mayor De Blasio is finally throwing his support behind a serious bus speed improvement plan! He’s promising to speed up buses by 25 percent in two years by rolling out more bus lanes, dramatically stepping up lane enforcement including NYPD tow truck units, upping their commitment to transit signal priority, and piloting two miles of separated bus lanes.

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