April 27, 2019 was to be the day that threw Brooklyn into turmoil. The long-dreaded closing of the 14th Street Tunnel between Williamsburg and Manhattan would disrupt and delay thousands of commuters, changing work and life plans for countless New Yorkers. Until that is, a press conference hastily called on January 3 where Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, after much deliberation, the shutdown was itself being, well, shut down.
New York’s 5.5 million daily commuters are certainly no strangers to working around delays and changes, but a major East River crossing being shut down for 15+ months is a new beast entirely. The shutdown had been discussed in near-apocalyptic terms, and now it may not be happening at all.
The controversial plan kicked off as a result of flooding from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The 14th Street tunnel, connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan along the L train line, suffered major water damage that, left unfixed, threatened the integrity of the entire tunnel. To make the crucial fixes, at least a partial closing of the tunnel, shutting off train traffic, was said to be necessary.
The controversy isn’t in making long-overdue infrastructural fixes to a system in need of many–few New Yorkers will claim that fixing signals, tunnels and tracks is a net negative–it’s the massive disruption that many have been preparing for since the shutdown was first proposed in 2016. The L train is one of many lines in the subway system, but for many neighborhoods, it’s the only link to Manhattan. Williamsburg, a hugely booming Brooklyn nabe for the past decade-plus looked to be cut off completely from their best route into the city.
Many are rejoicing at the news, but the sudden change naturally calls into question all of the consideration city and state officials had on display throughout the entire planning process. Months of town hall meetings and community board gatherings informed the MTA’s 18-month plan. Does this unilateral move by the Governor threaten to undermine these voices? The new plan still must be approved by the MTA Board, who are largely expected to okay the plan lest their public perception drop even further.
The announced fix-up plan, based upon a method used in Europe and Asia but new to the U.S., will eliminate the need for miles of old cable to be removed from damaged tunnel walls. Instead, workers will be mounting new cables on the walls themselves and installing a system to monitor the old walls and spot-fix rather than wholly replace them. This work will be taking place nights and weekends for a planned 15 months, about the same length of time the entire tunnel was expected to be closed. Any big changes to the complex world underneath NYC’s streets demands careful thought and consideration, and many are concerned these construction changes weren’t fully thought through by those in charge.
In any case, the 250,000 daily riders of the 14 Street tunnel, plus countless businesses on both sides of the river are now dealing with an entirely new set of circumstances. This change came as a shock to many, especially Brooklyn residents, businesses, and realtors who made plans for 2019 and beyond on the assumption that the L train would be a non-factor. Daily L train ridership may be slightly reduced in number thanks to the change, but don’t expect empty trains at rush hour. It’s likely that assuming the new plan is approved by the MTA board, the majority of riders will be thankful the potential crisis has been averted.
New York City’s subway has seen a lot in its century-plus history, and a major shutdown being canceled certainly ranks among it’s most surprising happenings. No matter what happens next, planned overhauls of MTA processes and equipment aim to bring the nation’s oldest underground rail system into the 21st century. The subway system may never truly be problem-free, but it’s a future 5+ million New Yorkers will definitely hope for.