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.
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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: