How will the roughly 200,000 New Yorkers who ride the L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back each day get where they need to go when the tunnel is shut down for more than a year in early 2019? With just sixteen months left before the Canarsie tunnel undergoes extensive repairs from the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, the MTA and the New York City Department of Transportation still have not come up with a plan.
“The deadline is drawing nearer and nearer…and the information getting back to us from the MTA and DOT has been extremely limited to nonexistent,” Williamsburg Councilmember Antonio Reynoso said at a press conference on Monday morning.
Reynoso was one of roughly a dozen lawmakers and representatives from community organizations who appeared before the media to say that both the DOT and the MTA have failed to communicate with them on how they are addressing the crisis, and that time is running out.
“In terms of business planning, next year is like tomorrow for our businesses,” said Leah Archibald, the executive director of Evergreen, a trade group for industrial businesses in North Brooklyn. “The pending L train shutdown is a big deal to the hundreds and hundreds of industrial businesses that we work with and their many thousands of employees.”
This past March, nearly a year after the coming shutdown was revealed, the MTA announced that the L train repairs would take 15 months, beginning in April of 2019. Both agencies said that a mitigation plan would be presented to communities and finalized by the end of this year.
In May, the DOT and the MTA briefed lawmakers on ideas for addressing the commuters affected by the shutdown, including bus-only and HOV lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a new ferry line to run between North 6th Street in Williamsburg and East 20th Street in Manhattan. But about 70 percent of L train riders, they noted, were expected to be diverted to the J/M/Z and G lines, which would see their service increased.
Asked when the MTA or DOT last had a meaningful discussion with lawmakers and community members about mitigation efforts during the shutdown, some attendees at the press conference said “never.” Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin replied, “Many months.”
“What we’re hearing from DOT and the MTA is that they have plans drawn up but they aren’t ready to share them with us yet,” said Minna Elias, the district chief of staff for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, whose district encompasses parts of North Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. “We understand that they’re sitting on the mayor’s desk or somewhere at City Hall, and it’s time for them to release their plans so that the public can comment on them.”
City and MTA officials insisted that the plan has not been delayed, saying the process is slow but continuing. Austin Finan, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, denied that a finished plan exists.
“Collectively with the MTA and DOT, a plan is being developed that addresses the scope of this challenge, the details of which will be shared when it is ready,” Finan told the Voice.
A spokesperson for the DOT, Scott Gastel, compared the L train shutdown to “the 2005 transit strike or the weeks following Sandy,” and said that the agencies “are working diligently on a daily basis to address the impact and this year-long collaboration is reinforced by the tremendous resources going into mitigation plans.”
MTA spokesman Shams Tarek added that the MTA is “working collaboratively with New York City DOT and developing a comprehensive plan to mitigate the issues caused by the badly needed L train tunnel repairs in 2019.” Tarek said that the agency had hosted 39 “community briefings” since May 2016, and that the outreach would continue.
For the elected officials and community members at the press conference, shunting the majority of L train riders onto other subway lines is insufficient. “The M train is already running at a high capacity and we’re seeing folks having to wait for trains on the M and J lines already,” said Councilmember Reynoso. (The J line in particular has already seen double-digit increases in ridership in recent years.) “I can only imagine what’s going to happen when the L train shuts down.”
Councilmember Levin added, “There has to be a dedicated bus lane on the Williamsburg Bridge. That has to happen. That is under the control of the DOT.”
Memos leaked to Second Avenue Sagas in October showed that while the MTA’s suggestions included “bus priority across the bridge,” the DOT’s plans favored making the bridge HOV-3 from 5 a.m. through the evening rush hour.
Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist, told the Voice that without a dedicated bus lane during the L train shutdown, the Williamsburg Bridge and the roads leading to it will be mired in chaos.
“I think that what will happen is that on the second day, people are going to jump out of the buses and they’re gonna start destroying the automobiles that are making them sit in traffic,” Komanoff said. “That’s what I would want to see, if the authorities are so cowardly and stupid as to not create the dedicated bus lane.”
Komanoff says that according to 2015 ridership figures, 54,641 people use the East River L train tunnel on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., roughly 300 people every minute. That number balloons to 400 between the peak hour of 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. He calculated that with articulated buses carrying 112 passengers, four buses would need to run every minute between Brooklyn and Manhattan to transport the same amount of people during rush hour.
“If we are taking a whole lane on the Williamsburg inbound to do this, with nobody else allowed, then hey, there’s less space for automobiles, and vans and trucks,” says Komanoff, a longtime proponent of congestion pricing. “And so if we have four inbound lanes that have to get squeezed to three or maybe even two, then that also warrants congestion pricing, to thin the traffic stream of ordinary automobiles.”
Komanoff calls the bridge the “easy part” of the mitigation plan. While controlling traffic on a single crossing is relatively straightforward, it will be a far more difficult task to keep the myriad streets on both sides of the river free of congestion so that the buses and bikes serving L train commuters can get to the bridge.
“I almost want to imagine that the city or the state could put up these East River bridge tolls on a temporary emergency basis to solve the L-pocalypse, without having to go through the standard rigamarole,” suggests Komanoff, who has noted that at least one legal scholar believes the city could move ahead with bridge tolls without waiting for state permission.
While Governor Andrew Cuomo has thrown his support behind congestion pricing, Mayor de Blasio maintains that there is no “fair” way to execute it.
“I can just see it, May of 2019, the headline: ‘L train Catastrophe: City Blames State.’ The next day: ‘L Train Calamity: State Blames City,’” Councilmember Levin said, urging the DOT and the MTA to collaborate on a bold plan of action.
“We don’t want to be saying in May of 2019, ‘We told you so.’”