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Under Andy Byford’s leadership in Toronto, TTC customer satisfaction rose to 80 per cent from 72 per cent.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Andy Byford, who becomes president of New York City's transit system in January, has the unenviable job of modernizing a century-old system of underground subway tunnels beset with track fires, power outages, signal malfunctions and delays.

The repairs needed are so extensive that, in the case of the L train that carries passengers under the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the tunnel will close for 15 months in April 2019. Already, Byford has joined an urgent debate among transit advocates, policy makers and politicians about how best to avert an economic crisis that would ensue if hundreds of thousands of pedestrians and motorists choked movement above the L train path on 14th Street, one of Manhattan's busiest thoroughfares.

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to close the L line entirely to work on it full time, instead of a one-track-at-a-time closing that would take three years. The decision was a departure from the piecemeal way of making repairs that has become routine amid a lack of funding. Advocates say the shutdown presents an opportunity to fundamentally change how people move around the most populous U.S. city.

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"Tinkering won't cut it; we've got to take radical action," Byford said during a Dec. 20 telephone interview. "I'm coming in with an open mind and a new agenda, to rapidly, relentlessly improve public transit in the city, and that means nothing's off the table."

Rider delays

British-born Byford, 52, comes to New York from Toronto, where he ran that city's transit commission for five years. That system has 1.8 million daily bus and rail riders, while New York subways alone have 5.7 million.

Under Byford's leadership in Toronto, customer satisfaction rose to 80 per cent from 72 per cent. Sentiment is nowhere near that rosy in New York, where delays from signal malfunctions slow train speeds to a crawl and test the patience of commuters on a daily basis.

In 2014, an MTA survey touted 78 per cent customer satisfaction among subway riders. This past July, in a survey by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, 74 per cent reported that subway delays had made them late for work, with 13 per cent losing pay and 2 per cent fired. His office estimated such delays cost the city economy $389-million a year.

Sandy damage

Some 400,000 people ride the L train every day, with 225,000 using the Canarsie tunnel to cross the river between Brooklyn and Manhattan. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the tube was flooded with saltwater, causing power and track equipment damage that requires a complete overhaul.

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Earlier this month, the state MTA and city Transportation Department released a joint preliminary plan that would ban cars from the Williamsburg Bridge and part of 14th Street during undefined "peak hours," turning it into a boulevard of express buses and pedestrian walkways. Cars with a minimum of three passengers would be allowed on the bridge at certain times of day. Express bike lanes would be installed along 13th Street and more changes would be made to encourage foot and bike traffic around Union Square.

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bikers, walkers and mass transit, said the agencies have been overly optimistic in assuming that up to 80 per cent of the displaced riders could migrate to other subway lines, which are already overcrowded. He called for more street space dedicated for express buses, bikes and pedestrians.

Faster trips

"This is a classic opportunity to use this crisis to show how we could create car-less streets to move people more efficiently," White said. "We are going to have to shut down other subway lines to modernize and repair the system and we have to develop alternate strategies to move people quickly on the surface when those lines shut down."

Kate Slevin, vice president for state programs and advocacy for the Regional Plan Association, said her organization has called upon city and state transit officials to adopt policies to reduce car traffic as much as possible, restricting motorists from some streets, charging tolls and making parking more scarce and expensive.

"The closing of the L train presents the opportunity to show New Yorkers how quickly you can move large numbers of people with buses, bicycles and walkways," she said. "Private automobiles are the least efficient way to move around."

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Toronto experiment

Byford in November tried a similar program on a limited scale in Toronto, a one-year experimental restriction on drivers using King Street in an effort to speed travel times for 65,000 riders of streetcars that got backed up waiting for motorists to make left turns. While streetcar travel times decreased, neighborhood merchants have complained that less car and foot traffic has hurt business.

Early in December, a group of elected New York city officials gathered near the Williamsburg Bridge and questioned whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo were up to the task of dealing with the disruption to be caused by the L train shutdown. The two have been engaged in power struggles and feuds for years.

"I can just see the May 2019 headline, 'L train catastrophe; city blames state,'" said Councilman Stephen Levin, whose district includes the bridge. "The next day: 'L train calamity; state blames city."

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