Cancelling the “L”-pocalypse…

…Or why it takes an age to get anything accomplished.


Canarsie East River tunnel filled with saltwater following Sandy storm surge. (MTA)

This afternoon, Governor Cuomo almost literally at the 11th hour, has cancelled the long-planned closure of the cross-river Canarsie tunnels between Brooklyn and Manhattan  in favor of late night and weekend suspensions. His decision follows a December tour of the Sandy-damaged tunnel and a consultation of engineering experts from both Columbia and Cornell universities. This last-minute decision also comes on the heels of a recently thrown out lawsuit that, if successful, would’ve forced the MTA to postpone the tunnel closure until the affected parties were satisfied by the transit mitigation efforts. This entire project had the makings of creating a major transit crisis as the Canarsie L line is one of the most travelled lines in the subway system.

This planned closure, five years in the making from its conception in 2014, was a result of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy back in 2012. For those unaware, this cross-river tunnel was one of the last pieces of subway infrastructure to be restored following the full suspension of service just before the storm made landfall on Oct. 29th. The only cross-river tunnel that remained closed for a longer period was the Montague tunnel, which carries the R from Whitehall St to Court St in Brooklyn. When the initial plans for full restoration of the infrastructure to a pre-Sandy status were drawn up, it was decided that work on the L tunnels would be done at the end as such a suspension would require a lot of logistical hurdles to overcome due to the high use of the line.

sandy canarsie reopened

Sandy Recovery Map showing restoration of Canarsie service. Cross-river R service would not return until December 2012. (MTA)

When discussed at board meetings and eventually through the public outreach phase, the situation in the tunnel was painted as extremely dire and any postponement of the closure could potentially lead to its complete failure, which is why all the stops were being pulled to repair the damage. As many know, two major shutdown proposals were imagined. The first option would’ve been to close one tunnel at a time, allowing some service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, even if it would be severely reduced from current output levels. The second option, the one that was slated to begin this April, would’ve seen the full closure of the line west of Bedford Av. The trade off was that the work would be done much quicker if there was absolutely no service than the stop and start method expected under a partial shutdown.

Now, with Cuomo’s change to the plans, the full shutdown expected is now slated to just be a headache for off-hours riders as cross-river service is expected to be curtailed for the duration of the project. While that seems like a good thing on paper, even more so as the project is still expected to take the same amount of time as the full closure option, it comes at the expense of doing a thorough job once and not having to return to do patch up work at a later point in time. It also runs the risk of going beyond that slated 15 month timeframe.

Pretty much everyone knows that when it comes to a schedule, the MTA will avoid sticking to it like it was their job. Recently,  for instance, the end date for the Sea Beach rehabilitation project has once again slipped its planned end point; this time service is expected to resume on the Coney Island-bound side sometime this Spring and that is just for a normal restoration project. I don’t proclaim to have an intimate knowledge of construction work, but after being inundated by saltwater up to the ceiling of the tunnel and being patched up enough to remain in service for over six years, it would not be surprising if more work is required beyond the original scope of the project, necessitating a longer timeframe for the partial closure. On a site-note, all of the planned side benefits of the full closure will now have to happen with continual service on the line, making for a longer duration of the projects as well.

The risk of a catastrophic failure is also there unfortunately. I do not wish any of this to occur because I gain nothing from being right. I just do not believe the MTA was being hyperbolic when discussing the potential for failure here. This was a project that would’ve strongly benefited from complete isolation from passengers so that work could be done without interruption. Alas, it was not meant to be. At least weekday riders will continue to enjoy cross-river service with hopefully minimal disruption.


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