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Safeguarding New York's Subways in Sandy's Aftermath

Eric Goldstein

Posted November 2, 2012

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As it barreled into New York and New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy caused significant loss of life and billions of dollars of property damage just in the metropolitan area alone.

All of us at NRDC extend our sympathies to those who have suffered (and are still suffering) from what could be the most damaging hurricane in the region's history.

Among the many problems left in Sandy's wake has been the shutdown of the New York City subway system, which -- along with our buses and commuter railroads -- is the region's transportation and economic lifeline.

In Manhattan, some people walked to work on Wednesday and Thursday.  Others rode bicycles or struggled with limited bus service or shared taxis.

But without a functioning subway system, moving people and conducting business in the nation's largest city became a monumental challenge.  Workers making trips of less than ten miles from Brooklyn to Manhattan were stuck in their cars for up to three hours or more. Delivery trucks and emergency vehicles were delayed in clogged streets across the city.  Thousands of businesses -- even those not affected by a loss of electricity -- simply closed for the week.

Gridlock on 1st Avenue

The Bloomberg and Cuomo Administrations did a good job in providing advance warning to their constituents and in shutting down subway, bus and rail service hours before the storm hit.  This enabled the MTA to keep its fleet of vehicles (and transit riders) safe from the storm's immediate fury.

But, once the hurricane struck, Sandy's water surge flooded seven subway tunnels in a matter of hours.  And it looks like it will be a full week at least before normal subway service resumes throughout the city.

Clearly, a long-term strategy must be designed to minimize the possibility that future storm-related floods will again knock out this indispensable transportation network.

A key first step is a full-scale study of and price estimate for what is needed to construct added protections that can shield transit tunnels from stormwater surges. The study must also identify options for installing state-of-the-art, high-volume pumps that can handle flood waters that enter such conduits.

In 1980, NRDC and the City Planning Department prepared a detail cost-analysis of what would be needed to bring the city's then-crumbling transit system into a state of good repair.  Then MTA Chairman Dick Ravitch and Mayor Ed Koch adopted the NRDC-Planning Department recommendations and worked with the State Legislature and governor to advance the first multi-billion dollar capital rebuilding program to get this program off and running.

Now, elected officials must launch a similar effort to protect our transit network from the additional challenges presented by a changing climate.

What is also needed is a permanent source of funding for these and other capital needs for the MTA and other transit systems throughout the state.  (The MTA's 2016 deficit is projected to be greater than 3.6 billion dollars, according to the Citizens Budget Commission.)

Enacting legislation that will provide a permanent source of funds for New York transit operations won't be easy.

But anyone who doubts the importance of this issue to our regional sustainability need only turn on the television news and see the havoc that a non-functioning subway system has brought to the New York region this week.

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Louis InfanteNov 2 2012 09:37 PM

Just as it happened with Katrina in New Orleans, the federal government in conjunction with the Army Corp of Engineers should provide the funding and technical expertise to upgrade this system. There is no reason to have spent $10billion on New Orleans flood control without showing the same support to the much larger population in New York to protect their economic lifeblood, the MTA transit system.

bruce gallaudetNov 3 2012 03:39 AM

Louis, that probably is the smartest comment I've ever seen added on any internet story or blog. The federal government funding needs to be all over the recovery of this region -- as does support from the military (Army Corps of Engineers and the national guard for patrol and cleanup -- then the feds should get out of the way and let the local governments and agencies do what is best for their own backyards.

Eric GoldsteinNov 3 2012 10:21 AM

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Bruce and Louis.

We completely agree that the federal government has a major role to play in funding programs to help New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy's devastation.

President Obama has stated his commitment that the feds will be there to help with both immediate aid and in the longer-term rebuilding effort.

And Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and our Congressional delegation can be expected to press for such assistance on Capitol Hill.

Still, the need for Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Silver, Senate Majority Leader Skelos and all who represent the region in Albany to devise a permanent funding program for the MTA's subway, bus and commuter rail system remains essential.

Eric GoldsteinNov 3 2012 10:22 AM

Thank you for this interesting report, Ryan. It sounds like exactly the kind of technology that should be fully investigated. Having low tech solutions that use little energy would be a real plus.

Richard DruryNov 3 2012 04:51 PM

"Why didn't I think of that???" It is basically old technology used for years in the piping and pipeline industries, just the bag is bigger, thinner, and folds up smaller.

And it is a nice idea, but hardly a solution. You have to seal ALL the openings in this situation -- the vents, the emergency stairs, the drains (where the water goes down on one side of the barrier and comes back up on the other side.

And if you look at the movie of the test you will notice one other item they did not include, because they cannot seal around it … the TRACKS!

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