Amid growing skepticism over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s last-minute plan to avert the dreaded 15-month L train shutdown, New York City Transit president Andy Byford said he will have a team of independent engineers review the new plan developed by the governor’s panel of experts.
Byford dropped in for a surprise visit to the transportation committee meeting of Manhattan Community Board 3—which encompasses the Lower East Side—Tuesday, answering questions from concerned locals and pledging to assemble a new panel, independent from the project, to review a series of bombshell recommendations developed by engineers from Columbia and Cornell Universities over the last month.
“I want to be certain through a safety perspective, I want to be certain from an operational perspective, I want to be certain from a customer perspective that this plan is going to be viable and workable, and that we can provide a decent alternative service to you,” Byford said during the impromptu community board visit, a task typically left to MTA underlings.
Byford aims to hire New York-based engineering and safety experts “independent from any politics of New York” for “genuinely a fresh pair of eyes” that will inform his input on the new recommendations, which rely on a process that is untested in the United States. Instead of replacing the tunnel’s bench walls as originally planned, workers will rack power cables along the side of the tunnel and wrap them in fiberglass polymer.
The method is at the core of a head-spinning turn of events that have halted what would have been one of the largest transportation disruptions in New York City’s history, impacting some 250,000 daily straphangers who rely on the L train. The news elicited a mixed wave of relief, frustration and concern among locals, with North Brooklyn renters who recently signed leases patting themselves on the back for landing sweetheart deals before the cancellation of the L-train apocalypse.
Transit advocates and elected officials were quick to raise questions on why the technology wasn’t thought of before; Byford shot back, saying that transit officials did actually look at some of the suggested technology in insolation, including the method of racking equipment along the tunnel’s walls. The process was initially shot down some three years ago over concerns that the deteriorating shaft walls could not support the racking system, but namely a proposed “alternative methodology of attachment” is what makes the technology feasible moving forward, Byford said.
The sudden overhaul has drawn criticism as a risky, temporary solution to a more systemic infrastructure problem. MTA board member David Jones questioned the new plan, telling Errol Louis that he found it “disconcerting” that the board learned of the new plan at the same time as the general public.
Former head of New York City Transit Carmen Bianco weighed in on the new plan in an op-ed in The New York Times, calling it “premature and uninformed” and noting that he would have found the announcement “completely unacceptable” as president of the transit agency.
But Byford was quick to publicly acknowledge that the baton has passed to him to review the plan with a fine-tooth comb, and deliver on its promises of avoiding a shutdown while delivering a longterm fix for the Canarsie tunnel, which was inundated with corrosive salt water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
It is crucial that an evaluation of the plan is not rushed, Byford said.
“This due diligence exercise that I’m undertaking—and I’ve taken this upon myself—it will take as long as it takes,” Byford said. “I will not be steamrolled into that exercise, I will not be rushed through that exercise, and I will make sure that it is properly executed because at the end of the day I’m now accountable for this alternative service plan.”
Byford tiptoed around how the additional layer of project review could impact the plan’s timeline, originally set to begin on April 27, saying “in theory, yes” work is anticipated to kick off then, but stressing that the review “will take as long as it takes.”
“We’re looking to engage [independent experts] very, very quickly,” Byford told reporters. “I don’t think [the review] will take months but it will certainly take weeks.”
The transit honcho remained unable to give an update on whether alternative transportation infrastructure crafted as part of the shutdown mitigation plan—including new bike lanes, bus routes, and protected bus corridors—will survive the pivot to a new plan. As of Tuesday evening, the city’s Department of Transportation continued to review what will remain and what is on the chopping block.
Elected officials, including Manhattan City Council member Carlina Rivera and Brooklyn City Council members Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal Jr., have come out in favor of preserving subway alternative improvements. Rivera emphasized the need for greater transparency on mitigation plan changes Tuesday.
“We have a number of questions that clearly have no answers. Again, the bike infrastructure is really important—alternative service. If we’re going to have increased bus service what is that going to look like? Nights and weekends service we still have no details on,” Rivera told Curbed.
“I just spoke to someone whose girlfriend works nights and weekends. She’s an emergency nurse at Bellevue Hospital, she needs to know come April what is she going to have to do to get to work and be able to serve the people that come into the hospital. So we need details on service.”