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New York’s plan to avoid the L train shutdown is innovative, high-tech, and untested in the US

New York’s plan to avoid the L train shutdown is innovative, high-tech, and untested in the US


The L train will no longer shut down completely for 15 months, Gov. Cuomo announced

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Photo by Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo surprised subway commuters on Thursday when he announced that the planned 15-month shutdown of L train tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn that was scheduled to begin April 27th will instead become a high-tech and untested rescue plan.

The news may come as a relief to some L train riders who were growing increasingly stressed about the impending shutdown. But the new repair plan, in which track work would take place on nights and weekends, may prove to be equally problematic considering it has never been attempted in a tunnel restoration project.

This is a “major, major breakthrough,” Cuomo said during a press conference. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority would use an innovative engineering design to keep the tunnel open and operational while it is repaired on nights and weekends, he said. “This is the shortest, best route to the rebuilding of the tunnel,” Cuomo added. The governor said he consulted with Elon Musk’s Tesla, as well as other “out-of-the-box” experts, in his effort to come up with a plan to avert the shutdown.

“This is the shortest, best route to the rebuilding of the tunnel.”

The L train tunnel, also known as the Canarsie Tunnel, suffered extensive damage during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which sent millions of gallons of corrosive saltwater from the East River into the tube. The damage includes tracks, signals, switches, power cables, signal cables, communication cables, lighting, cable ducts, and bench walls throughout the flooded section of both tubes.

Cuomo’s announcement comes two weeks after the governor ventured down into the Canarsie Tunnel with a group of hand-picked experts to see for himself if the tunnel needed to be completely shut down for 15 months. The shutdown was first announced in 2016.

Cuomo allowed engineering experts from Columbia and Cornell universities to explain how the tunnel repair would commence. Power cables embedded in the tunnel’s bench wall, a ledge that runs along the base of the tunnel that’s used by emergency workers, can instead be hung on racks along the side of the tunnel and wrapped in fiber glass-reinforced polymer. This would allow trains to continue to run while repairs are made. The MTA would also install fiber-optic sensors and LIDAR laser sensors to detect any impending failures in the bench wall, so the agency can send in workers to reinforce those section as needed.

This won’t be a “quick fix,” said Lance Collins, dean of the engineering school at Cornell. These methods are typically used to fix bridges, and they haven’t been used in a US tunnel restoration project before, Cuomo added. An MTA official predicted that it could take up to 20 months to complete the plan.

It’s an abrupt turnaround for the MTA, which previously argued that the shutdown “cannot be avoided or delayed,” according to the agency’s former chairman Tom Prendergast. But as the impending shutdown grew closer, Cuomo’s disdain for the plan began to show. “I can’t tell you the number of people in Brooklyn who have looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Are you sure that there is nothing else that can be done and there’s no way you can possibly shorten this?’ I said, ‘I will make sure, personally, that there’s nothing else that can be done, and this is the best option,’” Cuomo said recently.

Cuomo, who is said to be considering a 2020 run for president, talked up the innovative nature of the tunnel repair plan. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” the governor said. “This is really a unique design, a unique system. We’ll deploy it here. But as you heard, this could be a national model because it is a totally different way to reconstruct a tunnel.”