Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s surprising announcement Thursday that L train service won’t shut down in April for repairs—as the MTA and city officials have been planning extensively for more than two years—likely brought a sense of relief for many Brooklyn commuters.
But the governor’s plan, in which the L train will continue to run as repairs are made on nights and weekends instead, also raises questions: Namely, why didn’t officials come up with such a solution earlier, before the years of public hearings and preparation for a complete, more than year-long shutdown?
The optics of Thursday’s announcement, in which a plan devised in only a few weeks by Cuomo’s group of engineering experts replaced years of careful planning by the MTA, undermines the credibility of the transportation authority at a time when the agency is already struggling with its public image, experts say. It comes at a particularly crucial moment for the MTA, as the agency looks to drum up support from state lawmakers to fund its multi-billion dollar Fast Forward plan to fix the subways.
“If this is technically feasible, it’s a good question why the MTA didn’t consider it a while ago,” says Jon Orcutt, director of the transportation group TransitCenter. “The reality is that the MTA is going to Albany to ask for a huge amount of money right now to rebuild the system, and this is not a good time to take that credibility hit.”
Cuomo says his solution is the product of “fresh eyes” and “innovative engineering methods” that have yet to be used on a project like this in the United States. The new plan will relegate repair work on the Canarsie tunnel to nights and weekends only, when one tube of the tunnel will remain open to allow L train service to continue.
“Now, the MTA has done a very good job, the city has done a very good job in trying to alleviate the problems with the L train closing. A lot of people worked very hard and I applaud them,” the governor said during Thursday’s announcement—before going on to declare that his solution was better. “I had the best experts on the planet look at it, and this is the best way that it can be done,” he said.
The move, Orcutt says, raises the question: “What is going on inside the MTA?”
“If the governor has to directly intervene to force innovation, that’s not good,” he says.
Others expressed similar sentiments, including former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who’s currently running for public advocate.
“Of course everyone wants the subway fixed quickly and running smoothly, but the MTA and the governor owe New Yorkers the truth about why this new plan came so late in the game,” she said in a statement. “After two years of being told one story, New Yorkers deserve to know what systematic failures led to a shutdown being deemed necessary before all options were explored.”
MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer offered up an answer to this question Thursday–namely, that the engineering techniques proposed by Cuomo’s experts are so new and unique that the MTA didn’t consider them an option.
“So you might ask, well why wasn’t this approach considered earlier?” he said. “The answer is that the integration of these approaches, and there are several, and the technology has not been previously applied in the context of a rehabilitation project.”
But not everyone is buying that explanation.
“You’ll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input,” John Raskin, director of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance said in a statement.
“Actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt that will ultimately leave riders in the lurch,” he added.
Though Cuomo’s plan was presented Thursday as a mostly done deal, the governor told reporters during a conference call Friday morning that it still needs to be approved by the MTA board, according to reports.