New York City's L Train Won't Shut Down for Work, Cuomo Says

(Bloomberg) -- New York’s L subway line won’t be shut down for construction as previously planned, eliminating the specter of a nightmare commute for the 300,000 people who rely on the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan trains.

New technologies and materials will allow the line to keep running while workers fix damage from Hurricane Sandy, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Thursday at a Manhattan news conference. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had planned to close the tunnel for 15 months starting in April to avoid spending years on piecemeal repairs that have been routine as the agency contends with chronic operating deficits.

“There will be no shutdown,” Cuomo said.

A team of six engineers from Cornell and Columbia Universities “scoured the world” to develop an unprecedented combination of proven technologies to bypass saltwater-corroded cables embedded in the tunnel’s cement. Instead, wiring will be “racked” inside tunnel walls and encased in fire and corrosion-resistant fiberglass and polymers, said Mary Boyce, the dean of Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“It represents a huge win for our transit system and our customers and for that we can all be thankful,” said Acting MTA Commissioner Fernando Ferrer. The entire process may take as long as 20 months, without any service closing expected.

New Equipment

The plan includes installation of fiber-optic cables and other sensor equipment that will monitor tunnel structure in the two tubes under the East River that were flooded during Sandy. The tunnels themselves are structurally sound, Boyce said, although parts of its cement “bench walls” -- in which old cable is situated -- are crumbling and will be repaired.

The plan was questioned by John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, who challenged the governor to produce more details that could be reviewed by a panel of transit experts unaffiliated with the governor.

“You’ll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input,” Raskin said. “Actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would reserve judgment until he knows more about the plan but would support it if he’s confident that it would avoid disruption.

Cuomo said he formed the engineering team some time ago to see whether an alternative strategy could repair the vital east-west subway link without a closing. They came up with a series of recommendations that the MTA accepted. The new processes may also hold out the promise of saving the agency money, Cuomo said. The governor said the group’s solution to the construction problem was unprecedented in the rail industry.

By using fiber-optic cable encased in polymer sheaths, the tunnel work no longer requires demolition of the “bench walls”. That reduces a lot of labor intensive work that would have required the tunnels to be shut down, Boyce said.

“This positions New York to be a leader in infrastructure,” Boyce said. “We looked at how do we do the next new thing for the long term, and our success here can be mapped on to other projects.”

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