Let’s Not Waste a Golden Opportunity to Transform the L

New York City subway riders have become uncomfortably accustomed to announcements of weekend track work, the extensive repairs to stations and tunnels that disrupt travel from Friday night through Sunday. But as painful as the service changes can be, they are essential to keeping the system running and upgrading to more modern infrastructure.

It would be much easier if the MTA could carry out this work in longer stretches, rather than in short windows, usually while trains are running. A few years ago, the MTA launched its Fastrack maintenance program, where a portion of a line is closed completely during consecutive nights for needed work. The approach is more efficient and safer, and the MTA continues to use Fastrack.

In 2019, the MTA will close the L train tunnel connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn for a year and a half. This mammoth outage, to repair damage done by Hurricane Sandy, will disrupt travel for hundreds of thousands of riders every day. Creating alternative options will be essential. At the same time, transit officials would be making a big mistake if they squander this rare moment to make major upgrades to a decaying train line while it sits empty of trains and passengers.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to transform at least five subway stations, all of which are in serious need of upgrades. Among the changes RPA outlined in a policy brief in April, the Eighth Avenue terminal should be rebuilt, with tail-end tracks added between 8th and 10th avenues so that trains could enter and exit the station more easily. Passenger circulation at the busy Union Square and Sixth Avenue stations should be improved. All the stations affected by the tunnel closure should be made ADA-accessible with the addition of escalators and/or elevators. And platform screen doors should be added to enhance safety and security, increase platform capacity, improve train performance and possibly help climate control some stations.

Not Enough Money?

As officials have noted, it would be hard to accomplish this work in 18 months. But that isn’t a reason not to start. The 18-month outage will give the agency an enormous head start and allow for the most disruptive work to be done while service is idle. That could mean huge cost savings.

Identifying the funding for major capital work is always a challenge, but there are several places where the MTA might shift current uncommitted dollars or dedicate future funding for these improvements. Given the unusual opportunity of a full tunnel closure, the MTA should consider using funds allocated for other upgrades in the 2015-2019 capital plan that aren’t as critical and are unlikely to be started on (procurement completed and funds committed), in the plan’s time horizon. The MTA also should allot funds for this project in the first year of the 2020-2024 capital plan. Finally, the agency could pursue additional federal funds from the same core capacity improvement program it is using to improve the First Avenue and Bedford Avenue stations.

Not Enough Time?

The shutdown of the L train tunnel starts in two and a half years. To most of us, that sounds like a lot of time to prepare for major renovations. But in the world of government procurement, it’s more like a New York minute: a very short period for designing the entire project, dealing with any regulatory issues that will arise, and then bidding it out for construction. Officials would be rightly concerned that it isn’t enough time to plan for major work.

While a conventional procurement would likely take two or more years to complete, assuming few regulatory hurdles, there is another option available that would speed things up. Called design-build, it would cut the process almost in half. In design-build, project design and construction are bundled into a single procurement, with both tasks awarded to the same bidder. The benefits of design-build go beyond shorting the procurement process; using a single team allows for greater creativity in project design and construction staging.

The unprecedented access to the five stations in Manhattan presents contractors with a unique opportunity, giving them a blank canvas and unshackling designers and construction crews from normal operating constraints. This is the perfect environment for design-build. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been a big advocate of design-build. There can hardly be a better place to put it into use than in the L train tunnel closure.

Not Enough Demand?

The subway system will always need more improvements than there will be resources to do the work. That’s why policy makers prioritize work based on ridership levels and other factors. Investing $1 billion or so needed to do the work RPA recommends is based not just on current demand on the L train, but also on the potential for the areas served by the L train in Brooklyn and Queens to grow and add more housing in the coming years. The need for New York City to be able to house its growing population is clear, but unless we make infrastructure improvements to accommodate that growth, the crowded stations and delayed trains that riders dread today will become only more common in the future.