Cuomo plan halts full shutdown of New York's L subway line

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday authorized a "less invasive" alternative to the nearly $500 million Canarsie Tunnel repair project in New York that will not involve a full 15-month shutdown of the 100-year-old L subway line.

The full shutdown of the line from Chelsea to Canarsie had planned to begin in April. While the tunnel itself is still structurally safe, massive salt water intrusion from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 destructed many electrical components.

The change will involve some night and weekend work and closures of one tube at a time, Cuomo told reporters at his Midtown Manhattan office. It could add five months to the project time frame.

Officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state-run agency that Cuomo controls, say they on board with the switch.

"No L-pocalypse," said acting MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer. According to Ferrer, the authority would continue working with city officials on transit contingencies including expanded service on the G, M and 7 trains, buses, expanded bicycle lanes and ferries.

Ferrer said he expects the MTA to renegotiate the scope of the work contract without rebidding.

"We'll be sitting with [contractor] Judlau but we expect we will be fine," he said.

"Fifteen months sounds like a relatively short time, but not if you're doing it one day at a time to get to work," Cuomo said, surrounded by Mary Boyce and Lance Collins, the engineering school deans at Columbia and Cornell universities, whose teams toured the tunnel with Cuomo two weeks ago.

The governor skirted questions about cost.

Thursday's announcement marked the latest instance of Cuomo expanding his footprint in major MTA projects. The MTA operates the city's subway and buses systems, plus Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads and several intraborough bridges and tunnels. It is one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $40 billion in debt.

Moody's Investors Service last month lowered the outlook to negative on its A1 rating of the MTA. S&P Global Ratings downgraded the MTA twice last year, bringing it to A from AA-minus, citing weaker debt-service coverage. Debt service now totals about 16% of the MTA's budget and could reach 20% soon.

Cuomo's assertion about public uproar over the shutdown marked an about-face from MTA statements over the past year that riders preferred a quicker, 15-month closure over an extended one.

The pending closure had raised alarm not only for commuters but also for Brooklyn residents and Manhattan business owners worried about property values.

"I did provoke them," Cuomo said of his new team, which essentially supplants the MTA's own internal team. "I gave them license to think outside the box or break the box."

Cuomo and the engineers said the new design, which they called unprecedented in the United States but used in Europe, would minimize the labor-intensive removal of benchwall, a supportive form of tunnel outerwall.

It will use material such as fiberglass wrapping that reduces the need for continual fixes. A "racking" system for cables will include decoupling cable-system housing from the benchwall.

"No rail system has used this before," Cuomo said. "It's faster, cheaper and better than the way we've done it."

The rebuilding will include a series of resiliency measures, "We're leaving the tunnel safer than it was originally," said Collins, who warned that future Sandy-like storms will hit New York.

According to Boyce, the new system could apply to other transit megaprojects such as the Hudson River tunnel and further buildout of the Second Avenue subway along Manhattan's East Side.

Money spent already on the project, said Cuomo, is not going down the drain. "There's tunnel work going on that's not just what we're talking about today," he said, referencing new power substations and station repair to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The MTA's immediate challenges include huge outyear budget deficits that could raise to $1 billion in 2022, capital financing uncertainty, state-city political conflict over funding, chronic service breakdowns and delays, ridership reductions, lost revenue from fare evasions and public angst about another looming round of fare and toll increases.

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Infrastructure Transportation industry Andrew Cuomo Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York