Leaks, Cancer-Causing Dust: L-Train Plan Similar to Cuomo’s Was Rejected Over Safety

[What you need to know to start the day: Get New York Today in your inbox.]

The key to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s surprise decision this month to call off the L-train shutdown is a new repair plan that relies on mounting subway cables to the tunnel wall — a less disruptive approach that would allow the work to be done on nights and weekends.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had considered a similar approach nearly five years ago and determined that it raised serious safety concerns, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

The transit agency has come under intense criticism for not thinking of the idea sooner, but officials did closely examine an option much like the one Mr. Cuomo is pursuing in May 2014. Engineers warned that mounting heavy cables to the wall of a nearly century-old tunnel under the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn could damage its lining, according to the documents.

“Excessive anchor bolt penetrations for installing critical cables may damage the concrete lining and induce leakages,” according to a report by the transit agency and Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering consultant now known as WSP that is leading planning for Mr. Cuomo’s alternate plan.

Instead of closing the subway tunnel for 15 months, the new plan would limit construction work to one tube at a time on nights and weekends over a longer period of time. But the report raised concerns that the construction work could create silica dust, a hazardous mineral that would be difficult to remove during a short weekend closing. Exposure to silica dust can damage the lungs.

2014 Report by the MTA and Parsons Brinckerhoff

Parsons Brinckerhofff, an engineering consultant now known as WSP, issued this report with the MTA in May 2014. (PDF, 27 pages, 27.2 MB)

The engineers also said there was a “high risk” of not being able to restore train service on time every Monday morning.

On Tuesday, the authority’s board will meet to be briefed on the new repair plan by WSP. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who controls the authority, had called for the “emergency meeting.”

Jerry Jannetti, a senior vice president at WSP, said the firm was confident in its new approach, known as a racking system. Cables would be placed on a tray and would likely require fewer bolts and shorter ones.

“We are confident that the frequency and depth of the bolt penetration will pose no risk to the tunnel lining,” Mr. Jannetti said in a statement.

The new plan also removes a smaller amount of the concrete bench walls that can create silica dust, Mr. Jannetti said.

“Any issues related to silica dust will be managed by the contractor and overseen by an independent consultant, and will be safe for both workers and riders,” he said.

Some board members have criticized Mr. Cuomo’s secrecy in announcing the new approach without their input and the last-minute meeting — a decision that one board member called a “publicity stunt” since the board was already scheduled to meet next week. The board will have to approve the new plan, though no vote is expected on Tuesday.

The M.T.A. has become a punching bag over the last two weeks. Mr. Cuomo, complaining of its stodgy bureaucracy, said he wanted to “blow up the M.T.A.” A piece on New York Magazine’s website asked: “Is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority staffed by idiots?”

But the documents show that the agency had considered other options, but determined that a full shutdown was the best option. In February 2015, a report by Jacobs, an engineering consultant, warned that “weekend construction is not acceptable,” listing concerns over silica dust control and reliability. A chart showed the downsides of weekend closures, including high labor costs and a longer construction period.

Former subway leaders have criticized Mr. Cuomo’s plan as being just a temporary fix for the tunnel, which was built in 1924 and damaged by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The new plan, developed by a team of engineers from Columbia and Cornell Universities, would hang the cables from the wall, instead of encasing them in a structure known as a bench wall. Workers would remove damaged parts of the bench wall and secure other parts with a substance known as fiber reinforced polymer that could last 40 years. Rebuilding the bench walls, as the original plan called for, could last more than 80 years.

2015 Report by the MTA and Jacobs

In February 2015, the MTA considered a report by Jacobs, an engineering consultant. (PDF, 53 pages, 55.62 MB)

Carmen Bianco, the former president of New York City Transit, said he recalled attending meetings to discuss different approaches for the repairs, but the idea of hanging the cables was ruled out “very quickly” because of the tunnel’s age. Mr. Bianco did not provide the documents to The Times.

“We all knew the worst thing we could do was a complete shutdown,” Mr. Bianco said. “We knew what that would do to the neighborhoods and to the economy and to people trying to get to work. We couldn’t find another scenario that was really safe and made sense.”

Mr. Bianco, who argued in an Op-Ed in The Times last week that the revised plan had not been properly vetted, said Mr. Cuomo’s plan could still be very disruptive since the L train is popular on nights and weekends. Trains would run every 20 minutes.

“If people continue to use it as normal, then it’s going to be very crowded,” he said.

The shutdown was set to begin on April 27. It is not clear when the work will begin now. Andy Byford, the subway’s leader, supports Mr. Cuomo’s plan, but called for an independent review and said he would not be “steamrolled” if that process takes a while.

Silica dust has emerged as a central concern. Removing parts of the concrete bench wall could create silica, a mineral that can cause an incurable lung disease or lung cancer if its particles are inhaled, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The transit agency learned how to contain silica from rebuilding the Montague tunnel in 2014, according to the 2014 report on the L train. It requires “isolation of the work area,” which is difficult during a weekend closing, the report said. One approach of wetting the dust to remove it was not foolproof, the report said.

“Mister and water-spray systems reduce airborne dust by about 50 percent” but do “not eliminate the hazard,” the report said.

The debate over the L train also comes at a critical time for the transit agency. Mr. Byford introduced a plan to save the subway last May, but he needs Mr. Cuomo’s help to pay for it. Mr. Cuomo has urged state lawmakers to pay for it by approving congestion pricing, a proposal to toll cars entering the busiest parts of Manhattan.

Switching to a less ambitious plan in order to avoid having to shut down the L train would be a missed opportunity to fix the tunnel for the long haul, said Mitchell L. Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

“This is like delaying open-heart surgery,” Mr. Moss said. “We don’t know how long the stent is going to last.”

Follow Emma G. Fitzsimmons on Twitter: @emmagf

Source: Read Full Article