Cuomo's L-train tunnel alternative takes some flak

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Skeptics worried over the cost, timing and feasibility of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to complete the nearly $500 million Canarsie Tunnel repair without a 15-month shutdown of the L subway train between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

A new, Cuomo-assembled design team intends to use “innovative engineering methods” — code for untested in the U.S. — under a process that instead will require only weekend shutdowns, one tube at a time. This would eclipse the plan Metropolitan Transportation Authority engineers had crafted.

Unanswered for now is the new cost and timeframe, although the new work could add five months to the project.

Yet Cuomo would not promise a 20-month maximum, brushing off the suggestion as a “silly question.” He added: “Less time, less work equals less money, but I am a monster to negotiate with.”

About 275,000 rides use the L train every weekday. It connects Manhattan's Chelsea with Brooklyn's Canarsie and includes some of the city’s trendiest and fastest-growing neighborhoods.

“Part of it is that the governor wants to step in and be a hero to the people who say they will be inconvenienced,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research for Evercore Wealth Management.

Cuomo the past two years has seized the limelight on high-profile matters related to the state-run MTA, notably the completion of the Second Avenue subway line by the end of 2016. Six months later, he declared a state of emergency at the authority.

"Gov. Cuomo owns the L train shutdown now," said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The governor, a longtime political adversary of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, has also feuded with the mayor over city and state funding levels for mass transit.

“I hope this works out and the city doesn’t have to deal with another quagmire,” Cure said. “You could have the worst of both, where they have to do much more work and then they have to shut it down, anyway.”

The MTA, which operates the city's subway and bus systems, Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads and several intra-borough bridges and tunnels, is one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $40 billion in debt. Longstanding challenges at the MTA have included megaproject cost overruns and cumbersome procurement systems.

“It sounds as though they think that the project is not as complicated as they had expected,” Cure said. “You just hope they are right.”

Moody's Investors Service last month lowered the outlook on its A1 rating of the MTA to negative. S&P Global Ratings downgraded the MTA twice last year, bringing it to A from AA-minus.

Both rating agencies cited weaker debt-service coverage. Debt service now totals about 16% of the MTA's budget and is projected to further rise.

"We expect that MTA's financial position will remain very narrow over the next one to two years as the state and city resolve operating and capital support for the system," Moody's said.

The L-train project has spooked home and business owners in both boroughs and sent city and MTA officials scurrying for transit contingences, including added service on other subway lines, dedicated bus and bicycle lanes, and ferries.

Mayor Bill de Blasio responded cautiously to Thursday’s announcement.

“If there is a plan that can be better for the people of our neighborhoods, that’s great, but I want to reserve any further judgment until I hear more,” he said.

Sifuentes urged the MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation to continue their mitigation plans.

“The L train is already at capacity, and any reduction in service will mean riders will struggle to find ways to get around,” he said. “Every bus, every ferry, every [high-occupancy vehicle] lane will still be needed to meet the demand.”

A new design, said Cure, could escalate labor expenses and trigger expensive reviews. He also cited the MTA’s track record on such large projects as Second Avenue and East Side Access.

“The MTA has stumbled upon some very complicated projects,” he said.

Cuomo, flanked at his East Side Manhattan headquarters Thursday by the respective engineering school deans of Columbia and Cornell universities, Mary Boyce and Lance Collins, said European systems have used the new design.

The process intends to minimize the labor-intensive removal of benchwall, a supportive form of tunnel outerwall, and 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, the engineers said.

Lisa Daglian is skeptical.

“New Yorkers are a cynical bunch, we want to know that tried and true systems are being used, especially when we’re in tunnels,” said Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Is this a new precedent for how MTA construction projects will be handled — second guessing and last-minute vicissitudes?”

Loose ends, she said, include a possible rebidding of the project, despite MTA acting chairman Fernando Ferrer’s assurances to the contrary.

“Will [contractor] Judlau walk away, requiring the project to be rebid, or will this be the mother of all change orders, and at what cost? Who will want to bid on any project that can be changed on a whim?” Daglian asked.

Judlau Contracting, a unit of OHL Group, is a MTA contractor for bridge-and-tunnel related projects. MTA board members have cited mixed results with the company, praising its early finish on another Sandy-related project, the Montague Tunnel, while criticizing it for delays and substandard workmanship on Second Avenue and the Cortlandt Street rehabilitation.

“I don’t know why they’re not rebidding,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “Sure, they’d have to pay a penalty, but this is a completely new project.”

According to Gelinas, assurances that the tunnel itself is structurally sound contradicts an MTA statement in 2016.

“It seems like Gov. Cuomo is taking a big risk,” she added. “We’ll see over time. If he’s right, he’ll be proving the skeptics wrong.”

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Infrastructure Budgets State budgets Andrew Cuomo Bill de Blasio State of New York City of New York, NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York