As he begins his third term in office, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo brought sighs of relief to residents and business owners on and near Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, as well as in the now-trendy neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  Residents in these areas had dreaded a 15-month shutdown of the "L" subway line in their areas that was scheduled to begin in April, but Cuomo has announced that service will continue.  Not only with this change benefit the City's subway riders, but it could also benefit the Lackawanna Coalition and other advocates who are pushing for a more-affordable alternative to the costly Gateway proposal for new new rail infrastructure between New Jersey and New York City.

The "L" line runs under Fourteenth Street, through the Canarsie Tunnels into Brooklyn, and eastward through that borough, to Rockaway Parkway, near Canarsie Shore (it ran all the way there many years ago).  The Canarsie Tunnels were damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and must be repaired.  Plans by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's MTA Capital Construction arm approved in April, 2017, called for shutting down the portion of the line under Fourteenth Street and in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for fifteen months, and at a cost of $492 million.  The plan called for major transit disruptions in the affected areas and "replaced" by augmented service on the "G" train (Brooklyn-Queens Local), which connects with the "L" but does not enter Manhattan, and extra buses on Fourteenth Street.  Neither of these services would have crossed the East River to link the boroughs.  During the shutdown, the bench walls inside the tunnels, which contain power and signal cables, would have been demolished and replaced with new bench walls and cables for the tunnels' entire length. 

Cuomo called in experts from the engineering faculties at Columbia and Cornell Universities, who studied "best practices" for tunnel construction in cities outside this country, including London, Hong Kong and Riyadh.  Rather than demolishing and rebuilding the bench walls with new cables inside, the engineers recommended abandoning the cables inside the bench walls, "racking" new cables (essentially securing them to the inside walls of the tunnels), keeping the existing bench walls as walkways where they are structurally-sound, replacing the segments that are not with new walkway surface, and using modern materials to improve strength and waterproofing. 

The new plan, as proposed by the Columbia and Cornell engineers, should save a considerable amount of money, although we do not yet know how much.  It cost $71.6 million to rehabilitate the Clark Street Tunnels between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (used by the #2 and #3 trains).  It may be even more important to residents and business owners along the line that the scope of the project will be reduced sufficiently to allow construction at night and on week-ends, with reduced service during those times, because one tunnel must be shut down for construction.  There would be no loss of service during peak-commuting hours, which would avert a major and long-term service disruption.

At this writing, not everybody seems to know what to make of the news that the long shutdown has been averted.  Coalition member John Bobsin reported on the Coalition's web forum: "Cuomo bypassed his MTA and consulted academic experts, who suggested techniques involving sonar never before used in U.S.  Nobody seems to know what this means yet, but all sorts of advocates are being quoted. One called it a last minute Hail Mary pass; another said even doing the work nights and weekends posed a great burden on the public.  The effect on Brooklyn real estate prices was also being pondered."  One of those advocates, Coalition member Joseph M. Clift, also a former Planning Director for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), was ecstatic.  He said: "It makes sense instead of dollars."  He was referring to dollars that will be saved, now that it will not be necessary to demolish and rebuild the bench walls, or to take the entire line out of service for an extended period.  Clift continued: "Who would be able to give you the most cost-effective advice: engineering deans and their specialists, or industry insiders?  The answer should be obvious."

A presentation from the governor's office, which can be found here,  explains the new plan.  One statement from that presentation may have a large impact on the proposed Gateway project and the Coalition's advocacy for a reduced scale plan that would be significantly less-expensive than the $30 billion estimated cost for all of Gateway as currently proposed.  It is noted under "Benefits" and says: "This new system design approach can be potentially applied to other projects, such as the Second Ave. Phase 2 and Hudson River Train Tunnels."  The former refers to the Second Avenue Subway, while the latter refers to the tunnels on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (between New Jersey and Penn Station, New York), also known as the North River Tunnels.  These tunnels were also damaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy, and Amtrak says they must be taken out of service for repairs within the next fifteen years.  The Coalition has been spearheading the effort to get a more-affordable alternative, with a cost sufficiently low that that the federal government would be willing to pick up some of the tab.

Long-time engineer and planner George Haikalis who is President of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility (IRUM) as well as Chair of the Village Crosstown Trolley Coalition and the Regional Rail Working Group, praised the new plan, saying: "At last, a sensible discussion of L Train tunnel repair strategies. The same is needed for Hudson Tunnel repairs."  Clift agreed and said: "They got an honest second opinion -- one that is not encumbered by the fear of not getting future work from a major player like the MTA." 

Whatever effect Cuomo's about-face on Canarsie may have on Gateway or advocacy for a more-affordable alternative to it remains to be seen.  What we already know is that Cuomo started his third term with a bang.  The new plan should improve transit service by averting a major disruption, while saving money; a rare feat in today's political arena.  New York City's transit riders will certainly notice, and many of the state's voters will probably notice, too.  We are not a political organization, but it is impossible to observe transit without observing politics, too.  Cuomo has been mentioned as a possible contender for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next year.  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has officially started her campaign already.  If Cuomo has unofficially kicked off his own campaign, he chose an interesting way to do it.  Of course, Cuomo has already been governor for the past eight years so, at least in theory, he could have done this sooner.  Still, the timing of his action might be good for all concerned.  Time will tell, and it will be an interesting ride.