A Better Way to Repair the L Train

Richard Barone

The MTA might shut down the L train tunnels under the East River for more than a year to repair the severe damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. That’s grim news for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who rely on the L and will have few easy alternatives to get where they’re going every day. Many of them will face longer commutes.

It likely will come as little comfort that after the much-needed repairs, the tunnels will be safer. In fact, once the work is done, most people won’t notice anything new. The MTA has done an excellent job so far keeping the system going and repairing tunnels that were inundated with salt water during Sandy. But what if the MTA took advantage of the major disruption to transform the L into a subway line that will meet the needs of our growing population and workforce?

The growth that has occurred along the L is nothing short of incredible. In 1985, the line carried 40,000 passengers on a good day. Today, it hauls more than 300,000 – that’s as much as the entire subway system of some major cities. The line is bursting at the seams: At the Bedford Avenue station in booming Williamsburg, annual ridership has surged 373% since 1995 to almost 10 million.

Yet at its busiest, the L only runs 20 trains an hour. The MTA has plans to nudge this up to 22 trains. That will provide a little relief, but still fall far short of what communities in Brooklyn and Manhattan need.

Yet we could be more ambitious. The L line is currently the only one in our system to operate with modern train-control technology. That means that the L line could run 30 trains an hour if the MTA took some additional steps during the shutdown, including significantly boosting electrical power, buying new subway cars, increasing train storage capacity and rebuilding the 8th Avenue station in Manhattan.

The MTA is planning to build a few new station entrances, but more are needed. The MTA also could make the experience of riding the L safer and more comfortable by adding stairs, escalators and elevators, widening platforms, and installing glass platform doors, as cities around the world are doing. This is disruptive work, so why not do it all at once and spare riders more inconvenience in the future? As a bonus, it’s less costly to bundle these upgrades together than to spread them out over years. Since our subways run 24/7, doing things like adding a station elevator can be a monthslong process. With service suspended, it could be done in days.

Sandy dealt New York a terrible blow, and we’re still years away from a full recovery. Let’s make it worth the wait.


Photo credit: MTA