In This Issue
Summer Bridge Issue on Engineering for Disaster Resilience
July 1, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 2
The articles in this issue present examples of engineering innovation to develop resilient infrastructure.

Op-Ed Post-Sandy Engineering Innovation in New York City

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Author: Andrew Cuomo

New York is what it is because we built it that way. The Erie Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Holland Tunnel—these engineering marvels exemplify the bold spirit that characterized New York for decades. And the New York subway system was no different. Opened in 1904, its 600 miles of tunnels revolutionized the way people lived, traveled, and did business in the greatest big city on Earth.

Yet as decades passed and president after president paid lip service to rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the United States fell behind. Today, other countries are developing faster than ever before, using emerging technologies that challenge and rethink conventional approaches to engineering. Their unique approaches and out-of-the-box thinking have produced marvels of their own—the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Millau Bridge in France, the Gotthard Tunnel from Switzerland to Italy.

In New York, our subway system for too long fell victim to the same neglect that has plagued infrastructure across the country. The Metropolitan Transportation -Authority (MTA), created in the 1960s as a sort of holding company for the region’s subway, commuter rails, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, grew into a bloated bureaucracy that lacked accountability or the innovative spirit that had built the subway system in the first place. Major capital projects were consistently delayed for years or decades, and the MTA relied on the same technologies, approaches, and vendors that it always used.

No project better exemplified the MTA’s stale approach to the region’s transit infrastructure than the effort to rehabilitate the Canarsie Tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The century-old tunnel that carries the New York City subway L train under the East River was severely damaged by saltwater from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and was in dire need of repair.

But confronted with a unique opportunity to employ innovative tools and technologies to strengthen the tunnel for the next century, the MTA instead decided to rebuild the tunnel the same way it had been built nearly 100 years before.

The original rehabilitation plan called for the entire removal and replacement of the tunnel bench wall, the concrete structure that houses the power and signal cables along the tunnel. It was to be a painfully long -project and would have required completely shutting down the tunnel for 15 months, affecting roughly 250,000 daily commuters. While New York City and the MTA were diligent in their efforts to provide alternative service to alleviate the nightmare scenario for commuters caused by the L train shutdown, I wanted a second opinion.

In December 2018, before the scheduled shutdown, I charged a panel of engineering experts, including the deans of the engineering schools at Cornell and Columbia Universities, to closely review the plans to rehabilitate the L train tunnel. I asked them to view the project through a different lens and consider modern, innovative approaches. After spending hundreds of pro bono hours reviewing the original plan with the design engineers and discussing possible alternatives, the team designed a new approach that uses emerging yet proven technology that enhances the tunnel’s resiliency and safety and has far less of an impact on riders.

Instead of removing and replacing the entire bench wall, the team recommended that the MTA use a cable racking system widely used in modern train tunnels, including the London Underground and Riyadh Metro. These racks offer easier access for maintenance and cable upgrades, among other benefits. Additionally, instead of replacing the entire bench wall, the plan calls for removal of only the heavily damaged sections, leaving the structurally sound parts intact. And it reduces the amount of hazardous silica dust that would have resulted from complete demolition of the bench wall.

The damaged portions of the bench wall will be -fortified with fiber-reinforced polymer, a proven technology commonly used to strengthen bridges. Moreover, a high-tech fiber optic system will be used to monitor the structural integrity of the bench wall and the -tunnel itself, providing real-time data that will enable the MTA and contractors to make any necessary repairs for years to come.

Not only does this innovative plan improve the structural integrity of the tunnel, but it will avert a full shutdown of the L train by limiting work to nights and weekends.

When approaching large-scale infrastructure projects that impact millions of people, it is important to include fresh perspectives and ideas that challenge conventional approaches. The L train rehabilitation project combined unique perspectives and varied engineering expertise to produce a safer, more efficient plan.

The lessons learned from the L train project can be applied to other major infrastructure projects, and New York is doing exactly that. This year, we passed a law requiring that major capital projects—-including the East Side Access project connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, which for decades has been the poster child for MTA -mis-management—undergo a full review by an outside expert panel so we can apply innovation and creativity to how we build.

While the federal government continues to fail at addressing our nation’s crumbling infra-structure, New York is again leading the way in building for the future and serving as an example for the rest of the nation to follow. I hope other states will follow New York’s lead, and use bold, innovative approaches to address one of the greatest challenges of our time.

About the Author:Andrew Cuomo is governor of New York.