One year after Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York, the city subway system’s ability to withstand a major storm has improved in small ways, but the prospect of long-term solutions are still years away.
“We’re certainly better prepared now than before Sandy hit,” MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg told Business Insider.
The MTA’s pumps, degraded by the heavy work of clearing out millions of gallons of water in Sandy’s aftermath, have nearly all been repaired, Lisberg said. Some new pumps will be waterproof.
If a major storm hit New York now, the MTA would still have to resort to the sandbags and plywood that failed to keep water out of stations and tunnels last year.
But there is reason to believe that method would be more effective now than it was last year. “We learned valuable lessons, the hard way, unfortunately,” Lisberg said. The “hard way” was seeing much of the subway system fill with corrosive salt water.
But that gave the MTA a good look at how the system floods: where its vulnerable points are, and how quickly water can move through small openings.
The important thing, Lisberg said, is not the sandbags themselves, but how they are deployed. He pointed out there are 540 vulnerable openings in just six subway stations in Lower Manhattan. Every single one needs to be covered — and will be, he added, if another major storms heads this way.
The long-term plan is to have specially built covers that can be locked into place, but that will take time. In May, the MTA’s Sandy Recovery and Resiliency Division issued 16 task orders to six architectural and engineering design firms. They are developing plans to increase pump capacity and design ways to mitigate flooding in low-lying areas.
Steady Progress, But Years Of Work To Come
The MTA did an excellent job getting the subway system back in service after Sandy flooded nine underground tunnels: Within five days, 80% of service was back. In contrast, it took a month to restore partial service for the PATH train, which connects New York and New Jersey and is operated by the Port Authority. Full PATH service returned in early March.
“We have years of work ahead of us still,” Lisberg said, but steady progress has been made. Some of that work has required painful service cuts, most notably the ongoing 14-month closure of the tunnel that carries the R train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The duct banks under the walkways along the sides of the tunnel collapsed in areas, and must be removed and totally rebuilt.
Some of the toughest work has already been completed, in the Rockaways. The peninsula in Queens was devastated by the storm, and a 1,500 feet of above-ground tracks were wiped out. They have been replaced, and the MTA built a three-mile sea wall between the tracks and the water to protect it from future damage.
Flickr / MTAPhotos
The MTA built a sea wall to protect tracks in the Rockaways from future storms.
The Bad News
Funds from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should cover the $US5 billion worth of damage to MTA systems caused by Sandy. That money is just enough to restore the subway system to its pre-Sandy condition.
Right now, there’s the wall in the Rockaways, some new pumps, tunnels that are slowly being waterproofed, and plans to replace the plywood and sandbags with actual metal and plastic.
It will take billions more to make it better prepared than it was before. As the changing climate makes the likelihood of megastorms like Sandy more common, New York’s transit system needs that money desperately.
In May, the FTA allocated nearly $US898 million to resilience projects that will make the system better prepared. There are billions more in federal funds that have not yet been allocated.
In 2008, the Authority published a report on the challenges climate change posed to its public transit systems. But limited money went to other, more pressing projects.
Some of those are found under “Continuing Needs” in the MTA’s latest 20-Year Capital Needs Assessment report. These are important things that won’t keep water at bay:
- Replacing obsolete signals with new technology
- Providing innovative and enhanced bus service
- Communicating real time information
- Implementing new fare and toll payment options
- Improving access for the elderly and physically challenged
- Optimising system links
- Maximizing investments in commuter rail stations in NYC
- Implementing strategic corridor improvements to improve service
The capital needs report notes that some resilience projects will be paid for with federal funds. But even if it does get the money, the MTA is not good at completing large projects on time or on schedule. The East Side Access project, to connect Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal, is a decade behind schedule. Its cost is now twice the original estimate, according to Bloomberg.
The MTA has put a lot of time, work, and money into getting the city’s subway back to where it was before Sandy hit, a monumental task. It has some good ideas on preparing for future superstorms. But they’re still ideas on paper, and it will take a lot of funding — and careful proper use of those funds — to put them in place.
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