Jan
18

The MTA, the City Council and snow

By · Published in 2011

The MTA is still trying to dig itself out from under the metaphorical snow left in the wake of its failed blizzard response. (Photo courtesy of MTA)

No body of legislators and politicians has perfected outraged hindsight better than the New York City Council. Tasked with providing a check against the mayor and granted oversight powers over city agencies, the City Council can’t press too hard on the MTA, a state authority that derives its power from Albany, but it can make New York City Transit Authority leaders squirm. That’s just what the Council did on Friday.

For five hours on Friday, stretching past lunch and into the afternoon, City Council members used their lofty committee perches to rake Transit officials over the fire. Even though The Times and The Daily News had complete post mortems a few days after the snow, the City Council had to hear it from the horses’ mouths themselves, and the Council members had to make sure they looked appropriately outraged and disappointed for the cameras. All around, it was a giant mess.

For their part, Transit officials didn’t put on a show, but we already know how badly they messed up. We know that they opted to put the agency on a low-level Plan 1 footing on Thursday morning before Christmas Eve. We know, even as the forecast worsened, that they didn’t ramp up their staffing and procedures to Plan 4 until well after the forecast changed late Saturday afternoon and snow began to fall on Sunday. We know about trains that were stuck near Howard Beach and the deeper reaches of Brooklyn, about buses that were dispatched without chains and were stranded in the snow-covered streets. We know the MTA didn’t have a situation room or a centralized command structure in place for such a storm that weekend.

Yet, despite this knowledge, the Transit officials under the gun didn’t have answers. Transit president Thomas Prendergast said that his men “forgot” about the A train stuck at Howard Beach and had no evacuation plan once streets became impassable. The agency didn’t ready a situation room, and Prendersgast simply said, “The fact that it fell out of practice is a serious deficiency.” He didn’t know how much the storm cost the authority and said that no one had been fired or demoted yet as Transit is still conducting its own review. “We were lulled into a false sense of security on our own,” he said of the unexpected accumulation from the storm. “Nobody led us into that.”

Often, Prendergast said he didn’t have detailed answers for the Council members because his staff had been preparing for subsequent winter storms. He also reiterated what MTA sources have told me: Concerns over overtime costs played no role in the MTA’s decision to call in extra employees to respond to the storm. When deemed appropriate due to snow fall, Transit moved to a Plan 4 footing and paid no heed to the staffing costs. After all, weather contingencies are a part of the MTA budget.

Ultimately Prendergast issued his own mea culpa. “We failed during the blizzard and this is an apology on our part due to that failure,” he said.

The City Council, of course, didn’t take to Predergast, his team or his apology. The outrage ran the gamut from a call to the Governor to remove Prendergast from Transit to a clear attempt to blame Transit for the city’s own failures. It was hindsight at its finest. “Today was an abject failure,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said of the hearings. “I was shocked by the performance of the transit leaders, the folks from the MTA at today’s oversight hearing. It really left me not feeling any greater level of confidence that the MTA can handle the next storm.”

Quinn, who called Transit’s responses “beyond shocking,” had more to say: “All you had to do was open up the blinds and see that the snow was falling. Blizzards don’t happen every week, but it’s not like a swarm of locusts came into New York or something we’ve never seen.”

She wasn’t alone in condemning Transit. David Greenfield, a councilman from Brooklyn’s District 44 who has been dubbed “Kvetch” by former Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek due to his ability to complain about literally everything, was live-blogging the hearing via his Twitter account. He comes across as simply a complainer looking to score easy political points and didn’t accept Transit’s words.

When union leaders testified that the MTA did indeed have overtime costs in mind when they didn’t call a Plan 4, Greenfield lapped it up like a good political puppy. It doesn’t matter if the TWU and ATU officials who spoke had first-hand knowledge of the response; if the MTA said it, Greenfield won’t accepted it. “Sadly, I am not surprised,” he said after the hearings. “The MTA is broken. I believe that in order to keep this city moving forward we have to stop accepting excuses and overhaul the structure of the MTA.”

Letitia James, who never met an MTA hearing she couldn’t exploit for personal gain, used her time in the sun to rail against the late December fare hikes. “You failed us and should not have raised your fares on December 29,” she said. Because of a poor response to the blizzard, the MTA should not have raised its fares to address a potential $400 million budget gap. In the world of the City Council that makes perfect sense.

Ultimately, everyone lost. New Yorkers lost when Transit was ill prepared for the biggest storm of the winter. Transit officials lost the little faith they had from the City Council and straphangers. Transit officials may also, as Nicole Gelinas wrote, lost a chit in their upcoming labor battle as well.

But the City Council came out looking petty and kvetchy. They have perfected the time-honored tradition of complaining about subway service but offered no solutions. Should Transit have dumped passengers off the A train in Howard Beach and let them fend for themselves? What should the proper blizzard response team look like? How would the City Council prefer to see the subways run? These are questions that have to be answered if New York is to move forward with better transit.

It will snow again this winter. We’ll get another big storm, and the MTA will be tested. It won’t be Christmas Eve, and Transit won’t be blindsided by mounting drifts. Will the Council accepted an improved response or still find reasons to complain?



35 Responses to “The MTA, the City Council and snow”

  1. MaximusNYC says:

    Thanks for the summary of the (disappointing) City Council hearing.

    I’m trying to parse this sentence: “The authority did not wait to call in workers due to concerns about overtime costs and apologized.”

    I think maybe you mean either “did not call in workers” or “waited to call in workers”.

    • I tried to elaborate and updated the post. The MTA has told me a few times that overtime cost concerns had nothing to do with their delayed snow response. Because of the holiday and unexpected accumulation, they both didn’t and couldn’t act fast enough to call in enough workers to combat the snow as it started to fall.

      • John says:

        Of course they’re going to SAY that. But I think we’d be naive to think it wasn’t in the back of somebody’s mind, somewhere in the pipeline.

        • R. Graham says:

          Honestly, people had to be called in. How many do you think ignored the phone call. Let’s not be naive. I have a relative who works for transit and they have done the same thing in the past. Also it is a holiday and a weekend. Lots of people had the day off and countless others may have been out of town. Getting the manpower in before the storm would have meant handling all of this on Christmas day. I don’t see it happening. I still call this the perfect storm at the most inconvenient time.

          • John says:

            If they were called in and didn’t come in, they should be fired. Or at least disciplined, depending on their track record. Transit in NYC runs 24/7/365, it’s not a job where you should count on days off.

            Granted, I’m not sure how the “on call” situation is handled. What I said above would only apply to people who were on call.

            • R. Graham says:

              I’m not thinking about anyone who may have called out. Transit handles that pretty well. You’ll find a MTA vehicle sitting outside of your house prepared to stalk you.

              I’m referring to everyone who wasn’t on the original schedule. With transit, everyone is on call. It doesn’t matter what your level of seniority may be, they will call if they need you.

      • BrooklynBus says:

        “The MTA has told me a few times that overtime cost concerns had nothing to do with their delayed snow response.”

        And you actually believe them? Of course we know that the MTA would never lie, or maybe that’s what you think.

        We all know the MTA screwed up. (I initially took their part regarding the buses, but changed my mind once I uncovered more facts.) Yet the focus of this and most other articles you write is to blame someone else other than the MTA. This time you put the onus on the City Council for not offering solutions. It would be nice if they did, but they didn’t. The bottom line is that it is the MTA’s job to come up with solutions not the City Council.

        You end on the note that if the City Council will accept an improved response next time or will just continue to complain. A more appropriate concluding statement would have been, has the MTA learned what it did wrong so that this never happens again? The City Council did nothing wrong. The MTA did.

        • Please go back and count the number of times I’ve blamed the MTA in this and my other articles about the snow. Hearing you tell me without reading or comprehending my articles that I don’t blame the MTA for their obvious failures is getting quite tiresome.

          Here’s one example, in paragraph form, for you:

          For their part, Transit officials didn’t put on a show, but we already know how badly they messed up. We know that they opted to put the agency on a low-level Plan 1 footing on Thursday morning before Christmas Eve. We know, even as the forecast worsened, that they didn’t ramp up their staffing and procedures to Plan 4 until well after the forecast changed late Saturday afternoon and snow began to fall on Sunday. We know about trains that were stuck near Howard Beach and the deeper reaches of Brooklyn, about buses that were dispatched without chains and were stranded in the snow-covered streets. We know the MTA didn’t have a situation room or a centralized command structure in place for such a storm that weekend.

          It’s right there in the post. No one is excusing the MTA’s performance in December. No one.

          • BrooklynBus says:

            Yes you do blame the MTA, but you always color it somehow to spread the blame to other parties as well like you did this time by criticizing the City Council for not suggesting solutions when they have no power over the MTA anyway other than public opinion.

            Rather than commending them for holding the hearings, your first sentence attacks them for being experts in hindsight and your last sentence asks if they will be satisfied when MTA performance improves or will they just continue to complain. Your dislike of politicians is obvious and most of the time well-founded, but it shouldn’t color every negative article about the MTA.

            I can’t even begin to tell you how many lies I’ve caught the MTA at in the past 35 years I’ve had dealings with them, yet seem seem to take their word as gospel when they told you that overtime was not a factor in delaying action which may or may not be true.

  2. Not a word about the rumored wildcat strike that Sanitation pulled? Or are we still pretending that just because it was covered in the New York Post, we can pretend it didn’t happen?

    • That came up at the hearing the Council held with regards to the city’s response to the blizzard. I didn’t cover it here, but it had only a tangential impact on the MTA. I’ve mentioned it in the past though. It still seems to be “under investigation” with accusations and denials still flying.

      • R. Graham says:

        I still say those accusations are BS. The claim is that sanitation workers staged a quasi strike because several managers were being demoted. 5 workers spoke to Michael Daly of the Daily News and when asked about this one stated: “management does nothing for me, I could care less about backing them up. Especially in a storm like this. What people need to understand is that I live in this city too.”

        Before I read that quote I was already wondering why workers would do such a thing to back management. I never believed it and refuse to do so now. Fact is if you are in sanitation you know a storm like that is all hands on deck and you are coming in anyway. Now it’s more of a matter of did someone declare a snow emergency prior to snow falling? I doubt it and I think the declaration didn’t come until after things spiraled out of control and at that point you have workers trying to travel to garages in impossible conditions. Once again on a holiday weekend when a lot of people had off or traveled to be with family outside of town.

    • petey says:

      “because it was covered in the New York Post, we can pretend it didn’t happen”

      that’s not bad reasoning at all, obv.

  3. abba says:

    They should have at least given an option for the A train passengers to evacuate.In my opinion.In Brooklyn people had options to leave.But isn’t Aqueduct in the middle of nowhere?

    • R. Graham says:

      It’s to my understanding that pedestrian travel from the Aqueduct station is ill-advised/impossible. The other option is walking the tracks but we’re also talking about the Broad Channel in a storm where wind and snow drifts can mount to some of the highest totals in the city.

  4. paulb says:

    I heard in a report on WNYC that, before the hearing began, some of the council members were “pre-apologizing” to the MTA witnesses for the angry posturing, that it wasn’t personal, they just felt they had to do it because their constituents were so angry.

    For myself, I shrug off the behavior of our so-called leaders here, in Albany, in D.C., everywhere. The Decline of America continues.

  5. John says:

    It seems like the only real fault you can pin on the TA/MTA here without bringing in other city agencies to the mix is with the trains that were left stranded in the open cut/bermed elevated sections. The bus problem was just as bad, but even if the chains had been put on, the failure of the city to declare a pre-Christmas snow emergency and the action by the Sanitation Department would have made operating the buses in many areas problematic anyway.

    It took nearly 42 years to have a snow emergency screw-up on the level of John Lindsay’s 1969 follies, so you know this isn’t going to happen again any time in the near future. The only real test will be the next time there’s a forecast for a major storm around a holiday period, where overtime concerns again become a factor in setting the emergency preparedness level (and with Easter being so late this year, all that’s really left for 2011 would be a big snowfall scheduled for President’s Day weekend in February).

    • nycpat says:

      Just so you know, for payroll purposes the holiday at NYCT was Friday Dec. 24th, the 25th and 26th were regular days. They were trying to save money by not calling in workers PERIOD. Not because of any additional premiums.

      • R. Graham says:

        That doesn’t change the fact that service was to operate on a Sunday schedule on both Saturday and Sunday. Which it would seem to me that staffing levels was already at it’s low point. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you work for transit. Now maybe you would have accepted the call to come in. Can you really speak for all of the rest of your co-workers? That’s not to say that everyone had ill-intentions, but maybe since it was Christmas maybe some of your fellow co-workers were away. The last snow storm to hit last week was forcast for 10-12 inches. The original forecast for the Christmas storm was the same UNTIL Saturday. Who’s even there to begin the emergency reponse organizing?

        • nycpat says:

          Saturday was a saturday schedule in the subways. I worked my regularly scheduled/picked jobs that weekend. Personally I try to avoid overtime when possible. There are a lot of Train Operators who would’ve come in, especially in “C” Division, work trains, the guys who would of staffed the de-icers and blowers. They need money badly. That’s why they choose to sit on diesel engines in tunnels for hours at a time. When it snows people usually call the crew office to see if there are jobs open. The response was pathetic and it was a MANAGEMENT FAILURE! Anyone trying to blame this on rank and file transit workers or the TWU is way off base.

          • No one is trying to blame this on the rank and file.

            • nycpat says:

              John believes that in NYCT there is some sort of holiday premium paid to hourly workers. That this gave management pause in calling in workers.There is no such premium. Easter is a regular sunday as is Xmas day when it falls on a weekend. There are no arcane union clauses that would make it extra expensive to implement plan 4 on a holiday weekend.

              • John says:

                Actually, my point was more what R. Graham was saying — how many people want Christmas off? How many want the three-day weekend on President’s Day, or Easter, or even Monday with the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday? More on average than I would guess for an average two-day weekend.

                Throw that in with the normal holiday/weekend scheduling and the fact that the city had gone four decades without a real snow-related clusterfark, and having an intensifying storm on a Christmas weekend was a recipe for disaster.

          • R. Graham says:

            I agree with Ben. No one is trying to blame anyone battling in the trenches. No matter what happened after the fact certain declarations needed to be made so everything could fall into place. The emergency declarations didn’t come. Not the fault of TWU or the working base, not the fault of sanitation workers and to me not the fault of it’s managers and not the fault of the OEM.

            Now there have been dismissals from Sanitation and the OEM which to me is a shame. The person who should be fired is Goldstein and yet he still has a job while little guys are biting the bullet for him. The sanitation commish is likely next and what could he do? What power does he have without getting the permission from one of the many useless deputy Mayors.

  6. Al D says:

    The council was venting the anger of their constituents who do not get the same forum through which to vent their anger and frustration.

    Having buses literally stuck in a snow drift and blocking streets from the plows is unacceptable as well as having trapped passengers on a train. Not too long along ago, the FAA introduced penalties to airlines who ‘trap’ their passengers on a plane for less time than those passengers were stuck.

    • R. Graham says:

      The biggest crime is the plows that didn’t make it to the streets these buses travel long before the buses got stuck. But then again the rate at which the snow fell was unbelievable. Who knows if the plows would have made that much of a difference overall. I helped a car get unstuck from my block. That car was stuck for two hours. In the time the car was stuck a three feet snow drift built up on the front side of the car. This storm was a once in a lifetimer and it put a human face on something we call manpower. I feel the results wouldn’t have been that much different no matter what was done. Holiday weekend!

      • paulb says:

        Agree. Didn’t council speaker Quinn say something like, “It’s winter, it’s snowed before”? I don’t know what city she’s been living in, but this did not seem to me anything like a typical NYC blizzard. Did any meteorologists appear at any of the post-storm witchhu sorry I mean hearings?

  7. petey says:

    “No body of legislatures and politicians has perfected outraged hindsight better than the New York City Council.”

    the young vallone is good at this.
    (ps – should be ‘legislators’. sorry, can’t help it, i’m a pedant and a language teacher to boot.)

  8. paulb says:

    What the MTA needs is another huge ferocious blizzard that it handles well. A conductor or driver delivering a baby or two in emergency conditions might help. Shoot, even rescuing a few kittens from trees might be good PR. Anything.

  9. Andrew says:

    The first step of a Plan 4 comes at the end of the evening rush, with trains being stored underground rather than in their usual yards.

    But the last evening rush before the blizzard was on Thursday, and there was no indication that it was going to be a blizzard until Saturday.

    Simply declaring a Plan 4 on Saturday wouldn’t have been of much good, since most of the trains were stored in the wrong places. They all had to be moved underground. But that requires lots and lots of train operators, more than normally work on a given Saturday. Many train operators are happy to come in for unplanned overtime, but probably not nearly as many on Christmas than on a normal Saturday.

    What NYCT needs is a way to upgrade plans mid-weekend. That would require having a large number of train operators (enough to move all of the cars that were stored in the yard at the end of the last weekday underground) placed formally on call every weekend that severe winter weather was even a remote possibility, required to come in if called.

    • nycpat says:

      Implementing a ragged and imperfect plan 4 is better than doing nothing. By Saturday night plenty of transit workers would of lept at the chance to get away from their in-laws.
      Either no one was in charge, quite possible, or the superintendant in charge was too scared to implement it because he was told to keep costs down.

      • Andrew says:

        Agreed on your first sentence, but the plan was designed to be implemented as planned – hence the name “plan”! – and there didn’t seem to be a predetermined way to shift into it mid-weekend.

        Nobody is told to keep costs down during an emergency. It simply doesn’t make sense – it costs more to clean up the mess afterwards. I frankly think this is a fabricated charge, fabricated by the same union whose task it is to keep costs up under all circumstances.

    • nycpat says:

      Also, laying up snowbirds from the yards is easier and can be done quicker than laying them up from passenger service at the end of a weekday rush hour.

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