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.

Transit planner Jarrett Walker observed that it’s rare for a big city mayor to launch a massive city-wide bus improvement plan. He also noted 25 percent is a very ambitious goal and that fighting through controversy—looking at you, anti-bus-lane business and townhouse owners—will be a bigger obstacle than money and resources.

Skepticism about the Mayor’s commitment to this plan is perfectly justified given his lack of attention to buses to this point, but I agree with TransitCenter’s Jon Orcutt who told AMNY “There’s a lot of measurable targets” which “speaks to the seriousness of what they’re proposing.”


Cuomo to MTA: Drop Dead.

Sorry, couldn’t help myself. He said it’s time to “blow it up” and that “The MTA is so tedious to deal with that it developed a boutique industry of people who just are willing to deal with this thing called the MTA.” Meanwhile, Corey Johnson promises a comprehensive plan for a city takeover of the subways (and what will happen with the rest of the MTA properties) within 60 days.

When Brian Lehrer asked Byford about all this, he replied that he’s a reformer and is in favor of anything that eliminates the bureaucratic morass. “Unshackle me, release me from the various bureaucracies that hold us back. We know what needs to be done, we just need the political and funding support to do it."


Pickpockets are responsible for the 3.8 percent rise in crime on the subway last year, according to the WSJ. At the beginning of the article, NYPD Transit Chief Edward Delatorre said the rise comes from a small number of “international pickpocket teams” that travel to NYC, presumably for the easy pickins of wealthy urbanites holding their phones in plain view, but then later in the article Delatorre is quoted as saying “These are locals that live in the city. They go in, they do it over and over.”


The subway cars Bombardier was two years late delivering also have defects.


Only De Blasio could somehow manage to get roasted at his own press conference about a half-price Metrocard program for low-income New Yorkers.


Only De Blasio could somehow manage to get roasted while doing a puff-piece Q&A about The Simpsons.


Friend of the program and designer of the Signal Problems tote bags Adam Fisher-Cox helped the Port Authority redesign the new Airtrain arrival boards, which is cool. Several months ago, he also did a fantastic mock-up redesign of the new countdown clocks, which are also cool.


If you haven’t taken Corey Johnson’s subway survey, you can do so here.


A lot of you seemed interested in the Crossrail link from last week, so here’s another post on how a lack of transparency contributed to the crisis.


Crain’s reports that Joe Lhota’s daughter was working for the Cuomo campaign while her father served as MTA Chairman and CEO.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

Weekend:

  • 2 – No service between Franklin Av and Flatbush Av

  • 4 – Reduced service between 125 Street and Woodlawn

  • 4 5 – Downtown service is local-only between 125 Street and Grand Central

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • A – No service between Howard Beach and the Rockaways

  • A C – Uptown service runs via F line between Jay St and W 4 Street

  • E – No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

  • E F – All service is local-only between Queens Plaza and Roosevelt Av

  • F – Downtown service runs via E line between Roosevelt Av and Rockefeller Center

  • J – No service between Myrtle Av and Broad St

  • M – No weekend service

Late Nights:

  • 3 – No late night service

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • D – Uptown service runs via A line between W 4 Street and 59 St-Columbus Circle

  • E – No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

  • F – Downtown service runs via E line between Roosevelt Av and Rockefeller Center

  • J – No service between Essex St and Broad St

  • L – No service between Lorimer St and 8 Avenue

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

Kind of a lame/depressing week on the train for me.

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: Beth Parker

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.