A Q&A With Andy Byford About the New L Plan

“I regularly read Signal Problems, actually,” Andy Byford said unprompted at the beginning of our chat on Friday. “There's lots of good stuff in there.”

Today, that “good stuff” is the man himself, who I chatted with at the tail end of what had to be one of the more interesting weeks of his NYCT tenure (his one-year anniversary is coming up on January 16). On Thursday, Governor Cuomo and a panel of engineering professors announced the L shutdown was no longer necessary. As they did so, Andy Byford sat in the audience.

Gothamist reported the two panel leads have not spoken to Byford, but that’s not to say the new plan was crafted without NYCT. Byford says they were queried with “hundreds of questions” from the panel, to ensure the theory carried over to “practical application” (The Gothamist report was published while I was on the phone with him; the MTA did not respond to a follow-up about who was responding to their questions if not him).

As might be expected from the typically diplomatic NYCT chief, Byford is rolling with the changes. He pushed back on the idea that much of the L shutdown prep work has gone to waste and hails the new plan as “good news” for everyone. To any MTA employees reading, he promises “I have their back, I'm going to make sure they're looked after.”

Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Signal Problems: What's the sense in the building? How is this complete reversal settling with the people who have worked for years on the L shutdown?

Andy Byford: There's clearly surprise, because things have moved very quickly from what was an absolute solid plan. We were on the glide path to the end of April start date only, what, three weeks ago. So there is surprise at the speed at which things have run, but my people are professionals. The staff are professionals, we already have had a host of meetings where we're looking at what we now need to do to revise the plan.

A lot of [the original plan] remains, Aaron. We'll still be doing the accessibility work, the elevator work, the ADA compliance work [at Bedford, First, and Sixth Avenues on the L]. We'll still be upgrading the power to upgrade the trains on the L line. We'll still be doing some ancillary station work. We'll still be doing track work.

But the guys are professionals, so we're now figuring out what we need to do in terms of messaging, what we need to do in terms of working out the details around the alternative train plans on nights and weekends. There's a separate work stream looking at the contractor and liaising with Judlau from a contractual perspective. [The MTA Board will have to approve amended contracts.] We have a separate work stream looking at what the interface is now with the Department of Transportation, Polly Trottenberg's shop. I've got a workshop set up with Polly next week which we're just arranging in order to go through in fine details what stays, what remains, and what now needs to change.

Here's my view, though. I'm very proud of my team. Extremely proud of my team. I'm proud of the plan we put together, both the original plan for the tunnel rehabilitation and the alternate service plan. It was very comprehensive, it was well-thought through, it was recognized as the best plan with the available prevailing technology when it was conceived. We've done an excellent job and everyone agrees with that in terms of socializing that plan, in terms of being transparent about that plan, in thinking through all of the detail, and a lot of that work hasn't gone to waste.

From my perspective, I don't see, or there shouldn't be, any field of criticism there, but it is good news that a fresh perspective has been applied and a less disruptive plan has been found.

SP: I feel like one of the main questions at this point is whether the work is a decade or two band-aid or as permanent as the initial shutdown work proposed. Do you have a sense yet how long the fixes this new plan proposes are going to work for?

AB: I'm not an engineer, so I listened carefully to what the engineers had to say yesterday, the experts. And I think that question was posed. My understanding was this FRP to be used [Fiber-reinforced polymer, which will be used to support weakened bench wall, where the old power cables are held, rather than replacing the bench wall entirely as the original plan called for] is a solution that will last decades. 40 years is the figure that I've heard.

Certainly, I'm not interested in band-aids. I would have vetoed or objected to any band-aid solution. I needed to be convinced that this was a long-term solution. So we're checking with the team, we've now got sessions set up with WSP [formerly Parsons Brinckerhoff, a multinational engineering firm] who are the consultants who originally, interestingly, worked on the original plan and signed it off and are now involved in this revision. So one of our challenges to them is absolutely assure to us that FRP will last as long as we're told it will, that the bracketing [which will hold the new cables on the tunnel wall] is fit for purpose and won't impact the tunnel rings, that the jackets that will encompass the cabling will provide the fire protection etc. that was promised yesterday.

What's the status on station enhancements for the mitigation effort, like Marcy Ave, Court Square, Broadway Junction? Do you have any ballpark on how much has been spent on those enhancements that now seem a bit, maybe redundant is not the best word, but might not have been done had the full shutdown not been planned?

Sure, so I don't have those figures at hand, but the work that was always going to be— the word I used is legacy, the spinoff, we'll enjoy. The station entrances we've reopened, the station entrances we've enlarged, and the mezzanine work we've done and various other improvements remain in situ. That was always going to be a dividend out of the project, which will again benefit the users of those stations. [MTA press officer on the call mentions elevators.] And the elevators, absolutely. So we're building the drop shafts to do the tunneling on the Brooklyn and Manhattan sides, those shafts then become the elevator shafts. That work is not wasted. That's good news. That's making those stations accessible.

At the end of the day, with any project, if the plan changes there is some sunk cost, but equally there is avoided cost, because the big avoided cost for this revised plan is we're not going to have to break out and replace 60 percent of the bench wall. The maths will all have to be done at some point because some things, in some cases, there probably is some sunk costs, but equally there's avoided costs, and at some point we'll have to do the math and see what the delta is, either positive or negative.

You said earlier it sounds like a lot of the information you're getting is from the engineers themselves on the panel. One of the benefits they said comes from tunnel ideas from Europe. I know you're very attuned to international best practices. Were these things you were aware of when you came in? Did you ever consider modifying the L shutdown with them or is all of this new to you?

One of the first things I did when I first came to Transit, which was almost a year ago, so I couldn't tell you the exact date, but it would be in the spring of 2018, I called my team together and we did have a session where the question I posed was: are we certain there isn't a quicker way of doing this? Because initially I was somewhat perplexed by the duration of 15 months, albeit we still think we could have done it for 12 with the incentives that Judlau had. With a full on closure, an absolute all-out closure, I was posing the question: are we certain there isn't a quicker way of doing this?

So I was given a comprehensive briefing on two things. Number one: a briefing on the reason why the plan took so long, which was because of the complexity of removing the bench wall, doing so very carefully because of the toxicity of the [Byford said a word here I can’t quite make out that sounds like “silicon”, I asked the press office to clarify but didn’t hear back] etc. contained within the concrete, getting rid of it, building a new bench wall, doing all of the various other work. And that was a 24/7 job and that's what drove the time frame.

But then the second main part of that meeting was when I challenged: are we sure this is the right way to do it? The second part of the briefing I got was that there had been extensive discussion with the community and the various options put to the community including the nights and weekends alternatives, albeit with both tunnels impacted, and that the overriding consensus of the community and the elected representatives was to just get the job done. Rip the band aid off, get in, have a full closure, get it done. So having had that session early in my tenure, that convinced me the die was cast and we should proceed and that's why I then focused my attention with [DOT commissioner] Polly Trottenberg, making sure the alternate service plan was comprehensive and robust.

That's not to say I'm not aware of some of the technologies, albeit in a slightly different context. I can't speak for Riyadh [where the racking system used to mount cables is used]. New tunnel does benefit from having different ways of doing things. But if I talk about my experience at the Tube, which is extensive, I worked there for nearly 15 years, I was an operational manager. Because the deep level Tube tunnels are so confined [six Tube lines were built much deeper than the others], where the train only just fits in the aperture of the pipe and there aren't even bench walls in London, the cables are slung on the wall. But that's a much older technology and the reason for that is because of the diameter of the Tube there isn't even a bench wall so to do tunnel evacs you have to take customers out of the front of the train or the rear of the train. You normally use the front so you can use the train as protection behind you. So I was aware of tunnel racking, but certainly not on a rehab, and not on a slightly bigger diameter where you do have the bench wall which usually provides two purposes, one a continuous means of evacuation, an evacuation platform, and two a means of encasing the cabling.

So that's a bit of a long answer, but it's meant to demonstrate we did think about all of these things. What we didn't, what we hadn't been able to, or what became apparent with these professors was a confluence of new technologies: the rings, the fiber glass, the FRP, and the [fireproof] jacketing on the cables.

So I welcome that, I don't see that as a criticism. I said when I started my tenure, I said we will be customer-led and we will be open to new ideas. This is evidence of both of those philosophies in action.

It sounds like you’re on board with this new plan. Is there anything you're looking to do to change the way the agency works so these ideas do come up at earlier stages rather than 113 days before the shutdown like it did in this case?

Yes, Fast Forward, I'll have to check which page, we talk about a renewed approach or innovative approach to projects, so that was already in hand. We're setting up an innovation unit. We're already working with the Transit Innovation Partnership. So we are actively looking at the way we do projects, both the scope of the project, the incorporation of best practice, seeking ideas from outside as evidenced by the Genius Challenge, different delivery models, you know we were already on the case with all of that.

You know, you made the point in your preface that it sounds like I'm on side with the plan. I've considered it and in each case I can see some challenges. For example, I can see challenges in every night, doing the work on nights and weekends, you're risking an overrun on the Monday morning for example. And I'm a fan of full-on closures actually, I talked about that when I first got here as part of Fast Forward. It does mean it's disruptive, but no pain, no gain. It does mean that people know where they stand, know there isn't a service, here's the alternative service, get in, get done, get out. In thinking of some of the downsides when I became aware of this, what always overruled that, Aaron, was the upside, which is that we don't now need to put 225,000 people through a full-on closure. That is the big upside that, to me, trumps everything else.

When did you become aware of this, by the way?

Well, when the Governor announced that he wanted to go into the tunnel, obviously we facilitated that and my COO went down there will him and that started the debate. So three weeks ago we began to actively engage in that process, because that flagged to us that there was a possibility the plan may change. But obviously we needed to wait for the team to come out of the tunnel, to start thinking about what they'd seen, and then it was an iterative process. They had to ask hundreds of questions for clarity. Because theory is one thing, practical application is another, and they did ask lots of questions so we became increasingly involved, as did the consulting engineer.

Have you ever been a part of something like this before, where a plan has been in place for several years for a major project and then it got changed, or significantly altered within a matter of months before the plan was put into place?

Not that I can recall.

It sounded like you disagreed with my assertion that this might impact the debates around the Fast Forward Plan. [Before I started recording, Byford mentioned he didn’t think this plan change had any impact on Fast Forward as I suggested in Friday’s Signal Problems]. I posed this hypothetical that if you go up to Albany and a politician asks this question, that they believed the MTA when it said the L shutdown was necessary and now it isn't, why should they believe all this stuff is necessary. How would you respond to that?

OK, so I can't influence what people think. Some may think that. My position will be that the objectives of Fast Forward remain the same. It's not a matter of debate that the subway needs to be re-signaled. Everyone agrees that it does. There's a debate about the speed perhaps it can be done or maybe even the technology. But we all know that the subway needs to be re-signaled. We all know in order to do that the cars need to be converted [about half the fleet is currently not CBTC-compatible]. We all know the system needs to be made fully accessible, that 75 percent of it currently isn't. We all know the other elements of Fast Forward; it's not all about the subways, it's about the buses. The buses need to be given a fighting chance of getting through very congested streets, so we need more bus lanes, better policed bus lanes, traffic signal priority. We know the other elements of Fast Forward, the less tangible ones, things like processes need to be re-engineered, the prevailing culture needs to change. So that's how I will answer that, Aaron. I think most of it is not at all contentious.

At the end of the day, skeptics will be skeptics, that doesn't take away the need. Everyone knows the subway has suffered from decades of under-investment. We propose with Fast Forward to comprehensively modernize 150 stations in the first five years subject to funding, 150 more in the second five years, subject to funding. This is a comprehensive, modernization reconstruction of a working transit system in less than 4,000 days. So people can scoff away and be as skeptical as they want. That plan is out there, people believe in it. It's the best plan there is because there isn't an alternative.

You talked about buses, I think a lot of people viewed the L shutdown replacement buses as a kind of trial run for this city to roll out SBS's on a bigger scale with better enforced lanes, more policing, fewer stops, getting closer to that internationally recognized BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] model. Obviously these L shutdown replacement buses’ future is up in the air. The board allocated revenue to run these buses for 18 months, what is going to happen to that money now?

OK, so that's one of many questions, Aaron, that we need to work through. So I need to have a discussion with Commissioner Trottenberg about the future of what was going to be the M14 SBS [which was planned to run across 14th St]. I'd still love to run it. The roads are marked up. I think there's a need for it. We do need to go through these kinds of questions in granular detail. There's issues around funding, what that funding was supplied to do, but certainly I'm committed to the bus elements of Fast Forward.

My job is to deliver world-class transit to this city. And I recognize that nothing is set in aspic [I had to look this up; aspic is a jelly used to preserve meats in pre-refrigeration days, ‘preserved in aspic’ appears to be a Britishism akin to ‘set in stone’]. At the end of the day, things change. You've got to be dynamic and you've got to react to circumstances and that's where people's professionalism comes in.

That's where I'd say, my final point, contrary to the impression often given, the people at the MTA are real professionals. There's real quality people here. I have their back, I'm going to make sure they're looked after. There's really good people here and we will rise to this challenge.