Changes Coming to New York Subway

If you live in New York City, you’ve likely heard about the pending (and temporary) closure of the L-train. Since January, when Gothamist leaked a report about the potential shutdown, the news spread like wildfire and New Yorkers vocalized widespread concerns over access and commuting availability.

The L-train is the 10th largest subway in North America. For those living or working in the Village in Manhattan and much of Brooklyn, the partial or full closure of the train – which carries approximately 400,000 passengers per day – is a real concern. However, although there has been plenty of speculation and misinformation, there has been little conversation about the proposed plans until recently.

This past Thursday, the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) held a public hearing in Manhattan, in the theater of an old Salvation Army building on 14th St (the week prior saw a public hearing in Brooklyn.) Perhaps due to the heightened media attention, the majority of the audience was from the press, journalists filing around the rows, asking residents what their thoughts were. The panel event, entitled “Fix and Fortify: Sandy Recovery Work,” was aimed at helping affected residents understand the reasons for the shutdown, showing the proposed plans, and opening a dialogue surrounding potential solutions and asks on behalf of citizens.

The evening began with a short video explaining the problem and the scope of the project. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused severe flooding in much of New York, including the underwater subway tunnels. Lines such as Greenpoint and Montague were severely flooded, but the flooding in the L-line’s Canarsie Tunnel was “hit especially hard,” as was articulated in the video. The L-line is 92 years old, and was already in need of repairs before Hurricane Sandy. Thus, the technology and infrastructure were outdated and unprepared to deal with the damage that occurred. Both tubes in the tunnel were flooded with saltwater, and the boxes that store the cables – called duct banks – were filled with water and silt, which hardened around the cables. These cable ducts are also, incidentally, what riders would need to step on in the event of an evacuation. The process for ripping out the 3,700 feet of damaged cables is an intensive one, involving toxic silica dust residue, which explains why a 24/7 closure is necessary.

“We do not want to imply that the Canarsie tunnel isn’t safe,” said Veronique Hakim, President of NYC Transit. “It is.” The Canarsie tunnel is currently inspected twice weekly – and with the tunnel intact and stable, long-term construction and closure will not begin until 2019.

However, Hakim explained that the longer the city waits to operate, the more likely it is that unplanned closures might occur. Under the assumption that construction and closure are necessary, there are two options moving forward:


The first is a closure of one track at a time, which would last for three years. In this scenario, trains would run between Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, as well as between Lorimer St. and Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn. This would allow residents to travel on the L-train between Manhattan and Brooklyn, but the frequency of trains would be far lower, carrying approximately ⅕ of the current capacity. The MTA also expects a higher risk of unplanned closures due to the conditions of the tube.

The second option is a full tunnel closure, expected to last 1.5 years. In this scenario, the L-train would not run in Manhattan or in the Canarsie tunnel at all, although there would be sustained service from Bedford Avenue to Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn.


In either scenario – which are both still being seriously considered – riders will be heavily impacted. Commute times will surely go up, and as a result businesses in areas like Williamsburg may be affected. In light of this, many plans are under consideration to mitigate the burden to commuters through alternative modes of transit:  bolstering M-, J-, and G-train service; buses and shuttle services; ferries; and even ride-sharing programs are all being considered.

But, as Hakim noted, “The best option is to connect you to a subway.” It is quite simply the only mode of transportation that can meet the commuting needs of New Yorkers.

There are some perks to the closure. The MTA will be adding three new subway stations along the L-line, and some stations will receive upgrades to become more ADA-accessible. In re-installing the cables, the plan is to use water-resistant submarine cables in the underwater tunnels, in order to be more resident to flooding in the future.

For the majority of the public hearing, panelists responded to question cards from the audience regarding expectations and concerns. These questions dealt with everything from making certain stations more handicap-accessible, to the cost of taking a ferry, to what might become of the flower vendor in one of the stations. Residents had clearly done their homework, and officials took pains to explain exactly how necessary the closures would be, despite the huge inconvenience, and exactly how the city planned to use this opportunity to create a better transportation network.


“It is not just about fixing the subway,” said MTA CEO Thomas Prendergast. “It is about building something smarter and more resilient so that we don’t have to do this again.”

The city is expected to make its decision and sign a contract with an independent contractor in the next few months.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 16, 2016.


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