Safeguarding New York's Subways in Sandy's Aftermath

Gridlock on 1st Avenue

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.

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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