Scotch tape for crumbling subways

January 8, 2019

Brady O’Shea argues that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s dramatic announcement of a plan to “save” the New York City L train is designed to serve his political interests.

LO FROM down from the governor’s mansion, our knight in shining armor cometh baring a decree!

The L-pocalypse shall be avoided! The residents on the L shall be spared a horrible fate! All must kneel before the valiant, all-knowing, all-powerful White Knight from Albany, Andrew Cuomo!

Yeah, right.

White knight? More like a Trojan horse: Beware governors bearing gifts.

For those of you who are blissfully unaware, the L-pocalypse is a term given to the previously foretold shutdown of service on the L subway line, which connects Manhattan and Brooklyn, and serves 567,000 people on an average weekday — more than the entire daily ridership of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (foreground) pays a visit to the New York City subway
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (foreground) pays a visit to the New York City subway (Patrick Cashin | Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

During the estimated 15 months it would take to fix the Canarsie Tunnel under the East River, which was damaged in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy, this mass of riders would have to have found another way to get around, leaving residents of the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Brownsville, East New York and Canarsie up shit’s creek without a paddle.

These riders can now rightfully heave just a little sigh of relief. Just a little one, though.

That’s because the L-pocalypse has not averted, merely delayed. A plan to fix the tunnel that has been painstakingly worked out for years and was, as of last week, at the procurement stage has been recklessly tossed aside in favor of a patch-it-up plan that conveniently delays widespread rider impacts until after Cuomo is long out of office. Après moi, le déluge.

AS BENJAMIN Kabak explains at his excellent Second Avenue Sagas blog, Cuomo’s new plan, while a relief for Brooklyn residents in the immediate term, betrays a lack of a vision for the future that is sorely needed if New Yorkers want to continue to be able to go about their daily lives in the decades to come.

A number of subway tunnels have been damaged due to spalling concrete in the bench walls, leading to the derailment of a G train in September 2015. After Sandy, the Montague Tunnel that carries the R line between Brooklyn and Manhattan was shut down for over a year in order to complete necessary repairs on the same issue of degraded bench walls.

Now, Cuomo wants to essentially do a patch of the Canarsie Tunnel’s concrete bench walls instead of a full-out replacement, and he has dragged out talking heads from Columbia and Cornell Universities to lend the plan legitimacy. But the New York Post reports that these hastily assembled “experts” spent only a few weeks looking at the original plans — and just one hour inside the actual tunnel!

The problem isn’t that the patch won’t work. It probably will, at least for a while. Many of the surface-level cracks will be shored up, but the damage done by the sulfate attack from the East River and the corrosion that the reinforcing steel sustained in the duct bank cannot be undone without completely demolishing it.

The repairs will be “good enough” for maybe 10 years — or until the next flooding event comes around, which is of course increasingly likely due to climate change. But that should be long enough for Andrew Cuomo to get the hell out of there, and to make it someone else’s problem — namely, the poor and working class people who will inevitably always pay the price for such tricks.

In fact, we are paying the price right now. Judlau, the prime contractor for this project, has already invested tens of millions of dollars on planning for the 15-month project. All that money has now gone out the window, and the city will have to spend tens of millions of dollars — if not hundreds — in tax money plus countless work hours devising a new plan completely from scratch.

The impetus for the governor’s sudden change of plans is likely driven by his ties to real estate interests and their ravenous hunger for profits on the Brooklyn waterfront. Among Cuomo’s top donors are massive developers such as Brookfield Asset Management ($400,000), RXR Realty ($395,000), the Durst Organization ($300,200), Fisher Brothers ($250,000) and SL Green ($236,000).

Williamsburg, one of the greatest focuses of new development in the past decade, has seen massive declines in rents for the first time in years, in anticipation of the L-pocalypse, which pushes forward the timeline for new developments to see their requisite return on investment. For the lords of New York’s housing market, this simply will not do!

The trouble in North Brooklyn came on top of an already weakening housing market in New York City overall — though the average New Yorker is still being crushed between the millstones of high rents and low wages — along with an increasingly pessimistic overall economic outlook facing telltale signs of recession.

Cuomo’s developer donors don’t want to take more haircuts on top of what is already coming. This stopgap solution to the transit crisis is expected to revive the North Brooklyn housing market and keep those profits flowing for at least a bit longer.

NONE OF this to say that the original plan to fix the L would pain-free and comprehensive.

The L train is insufficient as a subway service for the neighborhoods it serves. On a daily basis, this service is taxed far above what it was designed for. What is truly needed, yet very seldom discussed, is a new East River crossing and a new subway line through Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and southeastern Brooklyn.

As far back as 1940, plans were in the works for a subway line that would connect Second Avenue/Houston Street on the F line, through a new tunnel under the East River, through South Williamsburg, under Broadway, and then down Utica Avenue to Floyd Bennett Field. In fact, the 2nd Avenue station on the F line and the Broadway station on the G line already have the provisions laid out for this very line.

As the commuting populations of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Flatlands, Marine Park, and Mill Basin increase, this extension only becomes more necessary. No matter what changes are made to the L Train tunnels, the number of people reliant on them will increase, and the crowding conditions will continue to exist.

New Yorkers can’t live with decisions that are short-sighted and ultimately only beneficial to the immediate financial interests of the developers and robber-baron landlords who are raking in mountains of cash on the backs of the poor and working class.

We are the ones who are going to have to continue to live with the insane crowding and crumbling conditions on our subways. We are the ones who are going to risk serious bodily harm from derailments that will inevitably occur when the bench walls in the Canarsie tubes crumble into the track bed.

What is needed now, more than ever, is a bold, encompassing vision of a rebuilt and expanded subway system that is free and accessible to all.

To make that vision a reality and avoid the cataclysm that’s coming for the entire aging subway system, we’ll need to ditch the false saviors in Albany and build a powerful socialist movement that demands the public transportation that the working class of New York City deserves.

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