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What's supposed to happen at the Vanderbilt Yard? And why did the MTA initially resist Ratner's money-saving changes?

What was approved in December 2006 by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is surely to be changed in new plans likely to be released at the June 24 board meeting, but the below graphic, Figure 1-13, from the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement, shows what was supposed to happen.

The ten-track railyard for servicing the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), located in the western third (Block 1119) of the Vanderbilt Yard, would be given up, replaced by a nine-track yard in the eastern third (Block 1121) capable of storing, cleaning, and toilet servicing longer trains, given that the LIRR now has longer cars.

The new yard would be reduced to just seven tracks, and that change, I'm told, was initially resisted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). (Click to enlarge)

Changes in the plan

Rather, as acting Metropolitan Transportation Authority Acting Executive Director Helena Williams testified May 29 at a state Senate oversight hearing, in early 2008--well before the real economic downturn, I'd note--Forest City Ratner “came to me and said we need to go through a value engineering exercise” to reduce the cost of construction of the permanent railyard.

“I am pleased to announce we have reached a tentative agreement on that new design,” she announced, explaining that “the new yard will have seven tracks plus an eight-car drill track, and will be sufficient to support future ridership growth.” A drill track is used for switching cars.

Why did the MTA agree?

I've since been told, by sources with secondhand knowledge of the negotiations, that the MTA long resisted Forest City Ratner's plan. What made them change their mind? I've filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to find out. No, I don't expect results.

Also, there's supposed to be a temporary yard built in Block 1121. One concern I've heard is that this temporary yard would be all that gets built, but we'll have to see the documentation that emerges at the MTA Finance Committee meeting June 22 and the MTA board meeting June 24.

From the FEIS: Project Description

Text below is from the FEIS. Chapter 1, Project Description, contains a section titled LIRR RAIL YARD IMPROVEMENTS:
While less apparent than the above-grade elements of the proposed project, the renovated rail yard is an important component of the significant package of public improvements provided by the proposed project. In order to allow at-grade development on the entire project site, the proposed project would include a relocated, improved, and covered rail yard. The new design would streamline train movement between the rail yard and the LIRR Atlantic Terminal and would also add to the rail yard’s capacity. The new rail yard would facilitate the use of LIRR’s new, longer MU electric train fleet.

A reconfigured and upgraded rail yard would be built below street grade on the eastern end of the existing rail yard footprint to allow for both the continuance of LIRR rail yard operations and the operation of the arena. In order to provide for the continuance of LIRR Atlantic Branch operations during construction of the arena, construction would be staged to provide a temporary storage yard in Block 1121 prior to the completion of the improved rail yard.

Because of ADA requirements, new rail cars accommodate fewer passengers than older cars, and thus longer trains are needed to accommodate the same number of passengers. The new rail yard would consist of longer 8- and 10-car tracks, facilitating the use of these longer trains (see Figure 1-13). Additionally, the new rail yard would provide a drill track; provide wider areas between tracks for servicing; relocate and replace the existing electrical substation; and provide more modern switching, signal, and toilet servicing equipment. These improvements would modernize the rail yard equipment and improve train circulation within the rail yard and between the rail yards and Atlantic Terminal. Additionally, parking for 30 cars and five trucks would be provided and located within Block 1120 post-construction or another location satisfactory to LIRR, and usable storage space would be provided in Blocks 1120 and 1121 consistent with the needs of LIRR.

The west end of the improved rail yard would include a new portal (West Portal) which would provide a direct route to and from the LIRR Atlantic Terminal to the storage yard. The West Portal would also provide an emergency detour route for passenger train egress from the LIRR Atlantic Terminal, adding flexibility in the event of an emergency on the main line. The project sponsors would be responsible for the entire cost of the upgraded rail yard, although a portion of the state and City contributions to the project may be utilized for this purpose.

From the FEIS: Construction Impacts

Text below is from the FEIS, Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, under the heading RECONSTRUCTION OF THE LIRR VANDERBILT YARD. Note that the timetable is already way out of whack.

It states:
The Vanderbilt Yard is usually filled with trains during the day, where they are cleaned, serviced, and marshaled for the evening rush hour out of the Flatbush Avenue Terminal. Therefore, some track work within the Vanderbilt Yard would have to be done during evening and weekends when the yard is empty. Reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard is expected to start in late 2006 and to be completed in 2010.

The first step in the reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard would be to build a temporary yard in Blocks 1120 and 1121. Existing tracks and other structures in the area of the temporary yard would be removed. Then a temporary trestle from the main line would be built to allow train access. The Carlton Avenue Bridge and its foundations would be demolished and rebuilt. Some temporary electrical switchgear and other operating equipment would be installed. A temporary ramp along the north edge of Pacific Street would be constructed to allow access. Finally, the new temporary tracks would be installed, and the existing yard closed. This phase of the work is expected to take about two years.

Once the temporary yard is operational in the southern half of Blocks 1120 and 1121, the tracks in the old yard would be removed. The 6th Avenue Bridge would be demolished, and its reconstruction started. Within the same area, a new drill track (track used for switching cars) would be built under Block 1119. In addition, construction of the West Portal would begin at the western end of Block 1120. The West Portal would connect the new Vanderbilt Yard to the Atlantic Terminal, located on the south side of Atlantic Avenue at Block 1120. Four new permanent tracks for maintaining and servicing the trains would be built on the north side of Block 1121. When the new, permanent tracks are operational, the temporary trestle to the temporary tracks on the south side of Block 1121 would be removed. This phase of the work is expected to take about 18 months.

At this point, the temporary tracks would be removed and replaced with permanent tracks on the south side of Block 1121. The West Portal into Atlantic Terminal and the drill track would be complete. All of the temporary switchgear and other operating equipment would be removed.

The permanent signals and power would be installed, along with the new train maintenance and servicing equipment. This work is expected to take about 12 to 14 months, and the reconfigured Vanderbilt Yard would be fully operational in 2010. The new rail yard would have nine tracks for storing, cleaning, and toilet servicing of trains, a new drill track for switching trains, and a direct connection into Atlantic Terminal, all with modern operating equipment.

Almost all of the construction work on the rail yard would take place below the street grade, and would be less noticeable than that of the arena or project buildings. Reconstruction of the two bridges, excavation of an open trench for the West Portal, support of the excavated areas, and construction of the access ramp from the rail yard to the street level would be the main surface construction tasks. However, cranes would likely be at street level to lower materials and equipment into the below-grade areas. In addition, trucks would enter and exit the construction site from the streets.

Large pieces of construction equipment would be used for reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard. These would include cranes, bulldozers, backhoes, compactors, concrete pumps, and pavers. In addition, special railroad equipment would be used for laying ballast and track, and installing operating equipment. The reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard would take place over the course of 42 months, and the number of workers and truck trips would vary greatly over that period of time. At its peak, about 200 workers would be on-site, and about 40 to 60 trucks would enter and exit the site. For the majority of the reconstruction, the activity would be less than these peaks.


The West Portal would connect the new Vanderbilt Yard to the Atlantic Terminal, located on the south side of Atlantic Avenue at Block 1120. Construction of the West Portal would be a “cut and cover” operation, which involves opening a large trench across several of the traffic lanes and the sidewalk on the south side of Atlantic Avenue. The trench would be too wide to be covered by steel plates and would be open for about a 10-month period in late 2008 and into 2009. At all times, at least two eastbound and three westbound lanes of traffic on Atlantic Avenue would be open. The method of maintaining traffic during this time and the potential impacts are discussed below in the “Traffic” section of this chapter. After the subterranean utilities are relocated and the structural steel installed for the West Portal, the trench would be closed, and traffic lanes reopened.

After the cut and cover trench is closed, all work would be underground inside the tunnel and not noticeable to area workers, residents, or visitors. During construction of the West Portal, several measures would be taken to prevent damage and disruption to the LIRR tracks in and out of Atlantic Terminal. Walls would be erected to separate the main line tracks from the work within the West Portal area. The wiring for power and signals would be moved out of or away from the West Portal work area. During the opening of the existing tunnel wall, the work would be undertaken at night, when the tracks are not in use. In addition, a false wall to separate the existing tunnel from the active tracks would be installed to prevent any materials or debris from spilling onto the tracks.

The number of construction workers would vary depending on the actual construction operation, but would generally number between 20 and 30. The equipment would consist of backhoes, excavators, mobile cranes, cherry pickers, dump trucks, concrete trucks and many small hand tools. The West Portal would be opened with excavators, which would place the excavated materials onto dump trucks for disposal. Then the foundations and walls would be built with reinforced concrete. About 15 trucks per day would be needed for this work on the West Portal. Steel girders would then be placed to form the roof of the West Portal and the base of the reconstructed Atlantic Avenue. The steel girders would be placed with mobile cranes and bolted into place. Atlantic Avenue would then be repaved to New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) specifications and standards.


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