NYC's L-Train Debacle: Your City Is Next

What does it take to fix decrepit infrastructure in our nation's biggest city?

The further east a city is in America, the more sure you can be that its infrastructure is crumbling. The future is here, knocking, and we’re stuck with cities that are so entrenched in their ways — and submerged in concrete — that we can’t open the door.

There’s at least one notable exception to this rule, but, for the most part, it holds true. Westward the course of empire took its way; the farther west you are, the newer your city. East Coast cities remain cultural nexuses, but they’re all at once showing their age. And we’re just talking America: elsewhere in the world, cities are just as old if not far older, but upscaling resources are far fewer.

Chicago faced a required reconstruction crisis with its Red Line a couple years ago, and managed alright. Our nation’s capital has major metro issues, which they’ll soon begin to address. New York City is perhaps worst off.

Here, subway ridership has tripled since 1990. Annually, it’s approaching three billion; each weekday, the system serves almost ten million residents and visitors. And it’s over a century old: the first line went in way back in 1904.

The L train, the tenth most-ridden subway line in the nation, is 92 years old. Four-hundred thousand people ride it every weekday. Of those 400,000 people, 225,000 go through the Canarsie tunnel — over a mile of cast-iron, concrete-lined tubes — which New Yorkers hand-dug in 1924.

And thanks to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the Canarsie tunnel is falling apart. On Thursday night, at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority-led community meeting about the reconstruction effort, Chairman Thomas Prendergast called Sandy the “worst physical event that this system has experienced.” The raging East River flooded nine of fourteen tunnels with over seven million gallons of corrosive saltwater. The Canarsie tunnel bore the storm’s brunt.

Other stations were likewise inundated.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

That’s what last night’s meeting was all about: the MTA needs to figure out how the hell it’s going to accomplish such an absurdly complicated task. Neither of the two leading options are particularly appealing: the repair will either shut down both tracks and the entire tunnel for a year and a half, or one track at a time for three years. (The latter option would serve only 20 percent of current riders for those three years.)

The city must extract and then reinstall 51 miles of cable and conduit, seven miles of concrete duct bank, and three miles of track. From a tunnel under the East River, no less. All extraction will release carcinogenic silica dust, making health precautions paramount. To construct a new tunnel — the most common suggestion for alternative solutions — would take “ten years, and money we don’t have,” Prendergast said.

Luckily, Prendergast proclaimed that the MTA finds New Yorkers to be “very resilient people.” Resilient, that is, when they know what’s coming. So they hosted a community meeting, replete with a PowerPoint presentation and numerous officials from around the city, to inform residents, answer questions, and address concerns.

It takes extraordinary, citywide, interagency cooperation to discern and best alleviate such a project’s negative impact: one assemblyman called it a “Herculean task.” It also takes money — $500-600 million dollars, in this case — but, Prendergast assured attendees, money was not the deciding factor. It also takes an immense amount of information and data: officials need to understand affected riders’ routes so as to offer the most effective alternatives, changes in accessibility, and the extent of repercussions for businesses along the line — to name just three. Pro-con charts indubitably abound.

Prendergast on Thursday in Manhattan.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

As with other, similarly dreadful projects nationwide, the MTA needs to figure out which alternative solutions will combine to most effectively compensate for the loss of the L. These solutions comprise many miniature fixes: many little Band-Aids to limit the hemorrhaging. The MTA is planning to add bus lines, ferries across the river, and will augment bike- and ride-sharing opportunities. In addition, they’ll add more cars to trains that commuters will use in the L’s stead. (This increased burden will necessitate preemptive repairs for these other lines.) They’ll also incentivize hired contractors to finish the work ahead of schedule — and penalize them if they fall behind.

The idea here, and again elsewhere, is to use the project as an opportunity to benefit future generations, MTA President Ronnie Hakim said. “Capacity for growth is part of this project,” she explained. “This is one-hundred-year construction.” Plus, they’ll be retrofitting the system such that it can withstand another event like Sandy. Still, given that transportation technology relentlessly improves, this whole project seems less prosthesis than wheelchair. No matter the outcome, New York City is stuck with outmoded, decrepit subway cars. Who knows how people in the future’s truly modernized cities will get around.