Home MTA Absurdity Scenes from the Snow: What went wrong

Scenes from the Snow: What went wrong

by Benjamin Kabak

MTA crews worked earlier this week to dig out snowed-in subway tracks. (Photo courtesy of MTA)

As Thursday dawned, subway service throughout New York City had finally returned to normal. Snow drifts that had built up in the outdoor trenches of the Sea Beach and Brighton Lines in Brooklyn were cleared; station platforms were shoveled; and entrances finally salted. Bus service remains detoured as surface streets are still chock full of snow, but getting around town can proceed apace.

Yet, the fallout from this week’s snow-inspired disaster is continuing and will do so for the foreseeable future. Both The Daily News and The Times investigated the city’s and the MTA’s responses to the blizzard, and these reports jibe with what I’ve heard from other sources. Essentially, because of a worse-than-expected storm and a push to keep overtime costs low, the MTA was not prepared for the snow. The results were disastrous for the city and its transit network.

The story begins early last week when, as The Times notes, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm outlook on Tuesday. As it’s December, few reacted with urgency, and by Friday, snow predictions were holding at six inches. Late on Christmas afternoon, the weather service issued a winter storm warning, and the city was slow to react. “As of about 5 p.m. on Christmas Day, the forecast called for about a foot of accumulation, which is not uncommon and which is not a basis for a snow emergency declaration,” Seth Solomonow, a DOT spokesman, said. I can see how this story unfolded simply by looking out the window at the sidewalks and streets below.

At the MTA, the agency was similarly slow to react. The Times reports:

On Friday morning, top managers at New York City Transit gathered for a ritual that occurs every weekday from November through April: to make a decision, based on weather forecasts, about whether to put in place precautionary measures in the case of a winter storm.

The managers can choose from one of four plans, prescribed each year in a telephone-book-size manual that lays out, in 300 pages of excruciating detail, the exact process for keeping the nation’s largest public transportation system functioning in the event of inclement weather. Plan 1, the lowest level of preparation, takes effect when the temperature drops below 30 degrees; Plan 4, the full-press emergency response, is activated when at least five inches of snow is expected.

By that morning, the Weather Service had been warning of a significant winter storm starting on Sunday afternoon. But at 11 a.m., the managers issued a proclamation of Plan 1. Officials, who had been tracking the storm since Wednesday, believed that the city would be spared the brunt of the storm.

The decision would have far-reaching consequences: because of a quirk in the transit agency’s system, the plan chosen on Friday stays in effect all weekend. And the agency would not officially make the switch to Plan 4 until 11 a.m. on Sunday, when snow was already building up on the streets.

Because the agency had opted for the modest response, several important aspects of rescue operations and disaster preparedness — diesel trains and other heavy machinery, like trains that blow snow off tracks or spray antifreeze on the third rail — were not automatically deployed.

On Sunday afternoon, the agency tried to institute its Plan 4 protocols, but by then, it was too late. Buses had been dispatched and were finding roads impassable. Due to very strong winds and high snow drifts, at-grade subway routes were felled by snow. Passengers were trapped on subway trains miles away from their destinations and with winds gusting past 40 miles per hour outside. “I’m appalled,” one Transit manager said to The Daily News. “I’ve never seen us fall apart this way.”

In the aftermath of the 2007 rain storm that left the system flooded and the MTA’s website offline for much of the day, the authority instituted new communications protocols and rebuilt its air grates along flood-prone areas. Until Sunday, it hadn’t suffered a major weather-related outage in over 41 months.

This week, though, the snow shut down the city’s transportation lifeblood. As it became impossible to drive on the city’s surface streets, the subways shut down as well. It was the perfect storm with an imperfect response ahead of time, and the MTA, working hard to keep overtime as low as possible, wasn’t ready to take an expensive plunge at the end of the year to keep subways running better than they did.

Walder has promised to investigate why. “In the coming weeks, we will reflect and look to make improvements for the future,” he wrote to his staff. Heads will probably roll, and policies will change. They have to; after all, the response to this storm couldn’t be any worse, and odds are good that it won’t be the last big snow of the winter.

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26 comments

John December 30, 2010 - 12:04 pm

Forgive the obvious question, but why not go with plan 2 or 3? Did anyone say? It sounds like “plan 1” is essentially business as usual, and it sounds clear that the weekend would not be business as usual, weather-wise.

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samsam December 30, 2010 - 12:09 pm

Also keep in mind the alleged Sanitation slow-down-as-a-protest, which, if true, impacted bus routes

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Jonathan December 30, 2010 - 12:11 pm

“Heads will probably roll?” Has that ever happened before, that a MTA executive lost his or her job because of a poor response to a storm?

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John December 30, 2010 - 1:43 pm

Who said anything about executives??? 🙂

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Mad Park December 30, 2010 - 12:52 pm

“Essentially, because of a worse-than-expected storm and a push to keep overtime costs low, the MTA was not prepared for the snow. The results were disastrous for the city and its transit network.”

When a State Legislature, City Government, etc (and the national “mood”) make infrastructure maintenance and public service a lower priority than paying overtime, our nation is in serious trouble

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JP December 30, 2010 - 1:02 pm

Disaster? No. The MTA did just as well as anyone else around here.
The airports were closed for what, two days? A whole lot of streets haven’t been plowed, plenty- PLENTY of people haven’t dug out their cars yet.

Public/private property damages in the millions? Loss of life? Dramatic change to the landscape or environment?

Come on- it was just a whole lot of snow. People got stuck in New York, camped out at Penn Station and on the trains- but that’s not disastrous. Two crazy things were reported in the news- no, not snow on the platforms. One was that construction shovel/tow truck fiasco, which we can chalk up to utter stupidity. The other was those folks who were stranded on the A- by far the worst thing that happened, unless I missed any stories about trees falling on people or buildings collapsing.

Happy New Year! We’re all cheering for that 2nd Avenue Subway- someday.

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nycpat December 30, 2010 - 1:21 pm

That incident on the A could have been avoided simply by running a locomotve over the tracks a half dozen times on sunday. Evidently all day sunday the’re was ony one loco available in brooklyn for the IND/BMT. They did’nt want to spend the money. Penny wise Pound foolish.

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Adirondacker12800 December 31, 2010 - 11:30 pm

…ya get what ya pay for….

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BrooklynBus December 31, 2010 - 9:49 am

Two people died because ambulances could not transport them to the hospital.

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Alon Levy December 30, 2010 - 2:28 pm

I’m leaning toward Krugman’s jab at Bloomberg here, who’s essentially spending more time telling everyone how competent he is than doing competent things.

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Christopher December 30, 2010 - 3:10 pm

I tend to look at snow like a Chicagoan since I grew up there. And the expectation is that life will go on as normal the next day after a storm (during even!). As such I tend to do things like drive and move during blizzards. (Last year I rented a truck and moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn during one of the December storms in 1996 I drove from Charlottesville to NYC during the blizzard.)

My expectation as such is that (a) all snow emergency routes will be clear of cars as soon as the snow reaches 2″ or above. (Why that doesn’t happen in NYC I don’t know.) I also (b) expect that snow removal will begin during the storm and continue throughout it. That’s how you prevent accumulation on the streets. There seems to be a total lack of understanding of these basics for not letting snow cripple a city from NYC to DC. It’s bizarre too as it’s not like snow doesn’t happen regularly. Especially in NYC, this crippling of a city during a snow storm should not be tolerated.

I’m never been a fan of term limits, but thinking back to Chicago and how Bilandic was basically voted out of office because he didn’t handle the 1978 blizzards well, I thought I well Bloomberg has no suck political pressure. This is his last term. What’s he care?

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John-2 December 30, 2010 - 3:29 pm

These things tend to go in cycles — the city royally screws up a snow emergency (see John Lindsay in 1969), and as a result of that get very vigilant about not making the same mistakes again when the next few rounds of major snowstorms hit in the ensuing months and years. So everything’s OK for a while, until the people who were in charge for the last foul-up are gone, and new officials start deciding they can get away with a little less here or hold off calling people out for a little longer there.

Throw in the alleged Sanitation Department slowdown and you have a recipe for a new snow clean-up nightmare, which starts the cycle anew (though I’ll be interested to see how the city’s infrastructure handles Friday night, since the storm has pretty much knocked all the normal stories about the preparations for New Year’s Eve off the front pages).

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BrooklynBus December 31, 2010 - 9:48 am

This was ten times worse than Lindsay in 1969. At that time Eastern Queens residents fumed when their streets were not plowed in three days. The rest of the City was all cleaned up in two. This time it’s already 5 days and many areas of the City are still not clean, and traffic is a slow go on cleared avenues because everyone is double parking because there is no place to put your car.

Imagine how much worse it would have been if the snow lasted more than 24 hours, was followed by another one, or the temperatures remained below freezing. Instead of 2 people dying, the number of fatalities, with people not being able to go for dyalisis treatments, would be far greater. It could have been disastrous.

Does anyone remember when Mayor Wagner closed all streets to all traffic except for emergency vehicles in 1960, so the streets could be cleared? there were no stuck cars or buses to remove.

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The Driven Snow « Bourbon Myths December 30, 2010 - 5:01 pm

[…] accomplish anything on even a perfect day.  But, even so, there seem to have been some failures in judgment and execution that are worth reviewing and learning from. One ought to ask questions like: How […]

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Boris December 30, 2010 - 6:51 pm

People have been comparing this with the “Lindsay snowstorm” of 1969. The comparison can’t be more apt, and it extends well beyond snow removal.

Then, as now, public employee pay was way out of line with private sector pay, a recession caused heightened tensions, and the city’s budget was facing continuous cuts. Sanitation workers, cops, and firefighters were taking their early retirements in droves and were replaced by less-paid, less-competent people, or nobody at all. The subway system was rapidly deteriorating. And, of course, the city went bankrupt 6 years later, in 1975.

This time around, events may be unfolding in a slightly different sequence, but the general direction is clear: unwilling to negotiate in order to make their fellow citizens’ lives tolerable, the public sector is once again grabbing the money and running.

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Adirondacker12800 December 31, 2010 - 11:33 pm

or people are unwilling to pay for the services they expect. Depends on your point of view.

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Anon December 30, 2010 - 9:52 pm

Remember when the subway was a blessing?
http://books.google.com/books?.....038;f=true

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Andrew December 31, 2010 - 6:02 am

I’m not sure why you blame this on “a push to keep overtime costs low.” Neither of the articles you cite says anything of the sort.

On Friday morning, the forecast called for no more than a few inches in New York City. Even at 7:33 PM, there did not appear to be a problem:

THE MOST LIKELY OUTCOME AND COURSE OF LEAST REGRET IS EITHER STRAIGHT CONTINUITY FROM THE PREVIOUS FORECAST…OR A BLEND OF THE 06Z GFS AND 00Z ECMWF…WITH A LOW TRACK CLOSE ENOUGH TO DELIVER ADVISORY CRITERIA SNOWS TO SOUTHEAST CT AND EASTERN LONG ISLAND…LESSER AMOUNTS WESTWARD TO SW CT AND NYC METRO…AND LITTLE IF ANY ACCUMULATION WELL NORTH AND WEST OF NYC. IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT THE PROBABILITY OF A SIGNIFICANT SNOWSTORM WITH AMOUNTS OVER 6 INCHES IS STILL NONZERO BUT IS LOW…ONLY 30-40 PERCENT FOR EASTERNMOST CT/LONG ISLAND…AND 10-20 PERCENT FARTHER WEST. FORECAST DETAILS MAY STILL BE SUBJECT TO SIGNIFICANT CHANGES IN EITHER DIRECTION AS CONFIDENCE IN THE INTERACTION OF THE MULTIPLE SHORTWAVES TO FORM THIS SYSTEM INCREASES…SO STAY TUNED.

So, on Friday at 11 AM, it made perfect sense to call a Plan 1. (Plan 4 not only entails additional labor costs; it also imposes some pretty substantial service changes, such as the loss of most express service all weekend. It doesn’t make sense to declare a Plan 4 if it isn’t needed.)

The problem was that, when it became clear on Saturday that this would be a major snowstorm, there was no systematic way to upgrade the Plan 1 to a Plan 4. Some preparations were made on an ad hoc basis, but not nearly enough. So much more of the system went down than would normally have happened, and it took much more time for it to come back.

And it didn’t help that, at the same time, the city failed to clear the streets in a timely fashion, so much of the bus network collapsed as well.

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Al D December 31, 2010 - 9:12 am

Judging by the accompanying photo to this post, a big problem appears to be too much reliance on manual labor. Maybe they sould buy some more snow blowers of the type that they were featuring prominently in their preparedness promotions. Is that the only blower that they have for the entire system?

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BrooklynBus December 31, 2010 - 9:55 am

Keeping overtime as low as possible is admirable, but Walder needs to learn the difference between overtime abuse and necessary overtime. Adequate overtime for this snowstorm was necessary, not optional.

He made the same mistake earlier this year when he didn’t fill vacant runs on bus lines due to operators who were sick or on vacation to save overtime. This resulted in missing runs and trips on bus lines with scheduled headways of 20 or 30 minutes, so people had to wait over an hour for a bus. That is not an advisable or acceptable practice. He tried to punish the unions but was really punishing the customers more.

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Spendmore Wastemore January 2, 2011 - 12:53 am

About twenty five people with shovels.
Total cost well over a thousand dollars per hour
total snow removed .. not much.
That whole stretch they are working on could be covered in 45 seconds by a plow.

Is this 1810 or 2010? I thought of comparing it to 1910, but even then there were snow moving inventions, and bolting an improvised plow onto the front of a 450 ton train then cleaning up switches and signals via shovel would have occurred to any sentient humanoid.

Beyond that I don’t see why some random mass produced diesel engines can’t be stuck onto old subway cars ==> instant rescue trains. $12K buys a NEW 400hp diesel from GM or Ford. You don’t need a million dollar locomotive to use for 100 hours/year rescuing stalled trains or other utility work.

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nycpat January 2, 2011 - 11:04 am

How is the plow supposed to get to this area which is obviously full of stalled trains. The plow should of been there sunday afternoon but was never used.

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Andrew January 2, 2011 - 12:14 pm

If a Plan 4 had been called Friday morning, the plow would have been there. But based on Friday morning’s weather forecasts, a Plan 4 wasn’t justified, and there was no way to upgrade from a Plan 1 to a Plan 4 on Saturday, when the Winter Storm Watch was upgraded to a Blizzard Warning.

As I said Friday morning, there needs to be a planned way to switch plans mid-weekend.

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Andrew January 2, 2011 - 3:40 am

Could be worse. In Toronto it is $3.00 cash fare, $2.50 for tokens (5 or 10 at a time), $36.00 weekly pass, $121.00 monthly pass. Given that $1 CAD is approximately $1 USD right now, Toronto’s transit fares are significantly higher than NYC.

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MTA IG set to examine blizzard response :: Second Ave. Sagas January 3, 2011 - 2:56 pm

[…] MTA has already pledged an internal review of its poor response to December’s blizzard, and now its own internal watchdog will do the same. Barry Kluger, the MTA inspector general, will […]

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The MTA, the City Council and snow :: Second Ave. Sagas January 18, 2011 - 12:02 am

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