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5 key takeaways from the MTA’s emergency L train shutdown meeting

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MTA board members grilled engineers on Cuomo’s surprise anti-shutdown plan at an emergency meeting

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At a hastily-arranged MTA board meeting Tuesday, board members, the public and city officials grilled a panel of engineers overseeing the new bombshell changes announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cancel the dreaded L train shutdown.

Board members used the more than three hour meeting to press experts with WSP for details—the contractor that planned the initial shutdown and is now tasked with overseeing the new approach.

The tense meeting delved into a slew of board member concerns including the quality of the new plan’s work, silica dust mitigation, and calls for a thorough, independent review of the proposal. One board member, Andrew Saul, called the sudden overhaul “just another complete MTA disaster.”

“It must be unbelievable the time and money expended here and now we’re making an abrupt change,” said Saul, who is recovering from back surgery and phoned in to the meeting.

A staggering amount of project details were reviewed during Tuesday’s forum, yet crucial questions on the plan still remain. Here are five key takeaways on what to know from the emergency meeting.

The MTA’s Capital Construction division will take over the project.

The MTA announced during Tuesday’s meeting that the project will be passed to the agency’s Capital Construction division, led by chief development officer Janno Lieber, with managing director Veronique Hakim supervising portions of the project. Capital Construction has helmed projects including the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access—both of which went over the expected timeline and budget.

New York City Transit President Andy Byford—who was mostly mum during the hours-long meeting—was originally heading NYCT’s planning process for the shutdown, and had pledged to bring in an independent panel to review the new proposal. But the MTA board’s own plan to hire an independent consultant to review the project will likely supersede Byford’s plans, said Shams Tarek, a MTA spokesman.

“Andy is responsible for, among other things, running the biggest rail system in North America,” acting MTA chairman Fernando Ferrer said of Byford’s project responsibility. “On the L train, he’s responsible for service, communication with customers and all the other things, alternate service plans, that are involved in the L train renewal.”

How will the new racking system work, and how is it different from previously proposed methods?

Gov. Cuomo’s engineering experts torpedoed the original plan to shutter the Canarsie Tunnel for 15 months by recommending that power cables embedded in the tunnel’s bench wall—a ledge that runs along the base of the tube used by workers—instead be hung on racks along the tunnel and wrapped in fiberglass-reinforced polymer.

Transit officials considered mounting cables to the tunnel walls in 2014, but were advised against the method because of concerns over wall damage and kicking up lung-damaging silica dust, The New York Times reported.

But WSP senior vice president Jerry Jannetti told MTA board members Tuesday that the method they intend to use is “something different” from what was initially looked at and makes racking the cables in the tunnel feasible.

“The major difference is that all the cables were bolted to the walls versus now being on the rack,” Jannetti said. “That’s a big change—that’s very different from what was done in 2014.”

The racking system uses 60 percent fewer bolts than if the cables were individually bolted to the tunnel. Asked about the potential for leaks, Jannetti noted that the bolts being used are 3.5 to 4 inches long and that the tunnel has a 10-inch thick concrete liner—providing a “fair distance” between the bolts and the liner.

WSP engineer Mike Abrahams addressed concerns that heavy wires could strain the tunnel walls, noting the heaviest of the power cables, which will be held up by racks spaced five feet apart, weighs in at seven pounds per foot while the communication cables average at one to two pounds per foot—”relatively a very low load,” Abrahams called it.

How will silica dust be removed during construction?

Mitigating silica dust has emerged as a crucial health concern in the new plan. DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg reiterated the fact that the MTA originally decided to shutter the tunnel for 15 months in part to contain the dust kicked up during work on crumbling bench walls.

“I have to say, when the MTA first came to the city about this project, wanting to close the tunnel down entirely, one of the big reasons they gave was the silica,” Trottenberg told WSP engineers Tuesday. “Even after you’ve cleaned up, vacuumed, hosed down—done all the mitigation agreements—it can be a little bedeviling to get the dust levels down to where they need to be.”

To deal with the dust, work to remove 40 percent of the five-mile span of bench walls will happen on weekends exclusively. This will give work crews time to clean up before the Monday morning rush hour, said Jannetti. Experts also suggested the third-party monitor review air quality.

MTA board member Andrew Albert raised concerns over the feasibility of quickly clearing out the dust, citing concerns that trains could drag remnants into stations. In response, Jannetti said he was “confident” that all the dust would be eliminated by the time trains were rolling through the tunnels.

“The project will comply and meet all environmental standards—including those for silica mitigation,” Jannetti said.

A handful of board members noted their frustration with WSP’s response that it’s “still very early for planning” when the project is slated to begin in less than four months. East Village City Council member Carlina Rivera tweeted her dissatisfaction and said she plans to request a “detailed clean-up schedule & more evidence from past projects” on the current mitigation plan’s effectiveness.

The exact lifespan of the rehabilitation is uncertain.

The new method of carrying out repairs would help the century-old tunnel last some 40 to 50 years, but the original plan was expected to keep the tube operational for a century, at the expense of a massive disruption to L train riders, officials said.

“It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them,” said Abrahams. “There are certainly surface-life advantages to doing that.”

The new plan will lighten the burden on L train commuters, but how long the wall repairs last is dependent on the MTA regularly maintaining the work—a challenge the agency has faced with keeping signals and tracks in good working order.

“I carefully in my [initial] statement did not give a timeline largely because longevity is completely dependent on your maintenance,” Jannetti said after the meeting.

The MTA board could still quash changes to the plan.

In a noteworthy exchange, Trottenberg questioned Ferrer over whether the L shutdown had actually been averted, as the MTA claimed following Cuomo’s initial announcement, since the board had not taken a vote.

“There isn’t a change in a contract before us because there is no actual change to a contract at this point,” Ferrer said. “Once there is, I am happy to have that brought before the board if I am still acting chairman.”

Trottenberg continued to press for clarification, asking if the board voted against contract changes, would that mean the shutdown is no longer averted? Ferrer responded with, “that’s what I’m saying” but then a moment later told Trottenberg “let’s not conflate” board votes on contract changes to services changes.

The puzzling exchange ended with Trottenberg asking, “So if the signs say shutdown averted, it should have a footnote that says subject to board approval?” Ferrer turned his microphone off to respond and his comments were inaudible to the room crammed with reporters and members of the public.

Afterward, he told reporters that the 17-member MTA board has final approval over the new plan; if the board votes against it, it could mean a full shutdown is back on. A new contractor hasn’t been brought to the board for a vote because the agency hasn’t “concluded the negotiations on the scoping and everything else,” Ferrer said. New plans are not expected to come before the board for a vote by next Thursday’s regularly scheduled board meeting.