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L train tunnel repairs completed ahead of schedule

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The project was completed nearly $100 million under budget

Trent Reeves/MTA Construction and Development

The MTA’s dreaded repairs to the L train’s East River tunnel were completed ahead of schedule, despite the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Sunday.

Work on the Hurricane Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel was initially scheduled to wrap up in July 2020 at the earliest to the tune of $500 million, but MTA officials said last year that the rehab was going so well that they expected to wrap up work by April. Transit officials say the project is being finished for nearly $100 million less than the original price tag.

“We’re finishing three months ahead of schedule, using innovative technologies and construction methods, and saving the public millions,” said Janno Lieber, Chief Development Officer and President of MTA Construction and Development.

As of Monday, trains are fully up and running, but some service reductions remain in place due to COVID-19 causing a shortage of healthy MTA workers. Subway service through the tube had been reduced to 20-minute intervals on nights and weekends since April 2019 while work was underway.

Over the last year MTA crews have rehabilitated swaths of saltwater-damaged concrete bench walls in the tunnel. Cables that were once within the bench wall are now hanging on metal racks installed along the tube. Workers also installed a new pumping system intended to mitigate damage of future strong storms.

Since its 2016 inception, repairs to the L train tunnel have been at the center of a raucous political drama. MTA officials initially planned a much reviled full shutdown of the L line for 15 months in what would have been one of the largest transportation disruptions in New York City’s history—derailing the commutes of 250,000 riders who rely on the line to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn each day.

But in January 2019, Cuomo abruptly announced a series of changes to the project using new technology from Europe to make the critical repairs without closing the tunnel entirely. The governor tapped the deans of the engineering schools at Columbia and Cornell universities for their expertise in crafting the new plan.

The proposal was fiercely debated and drew ire from transportation advocates and officials who spent months planning alternative transportation options and criticized Cuomo’s micromanagement of the MTA, which notably created a rift between the governor and then New York City Transit President Andy Byford, who resigned earlier this year.

“It was a thunderstorm of opposition, but we did it anyway and we went ahead with it,” Cuomo told reporters during his Sunday briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic. “We rebuilt the tunnel, and the tunnel is now done better than before.”

New Yorkers, however, aren’t completely out of the woods yet when it comes to L train work. In June, the MTA plans to complete a new electrical substation to improve the frequency of service on the line and is already in the midsts of a handful of projects to improve the accessibility of stations along the L line.

But straphangers aren’t expected to fully enjoy the fruits of the MTA’s labor for many months due to the pandemic, with subway ridership falling by more than 90 percent compared to this time last year, according to MTA data. Still, MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye says the early completion of the L train project is a sign that operations at the beleaguered transportation agency are heading in the right direction.

“Even in the face of this unprecedented global health crisis, the MTA delivered this project safely, months ahead of schedule, well under budget and with no shutdown of service,” said Foye. “This innovative approach is further proof that the ‘new’ MTA is committed to doing things differently.”