IG Report: MTA snow response woefully inadequateBy
As Wednesday’s Winter Solstice draws nigh, snow is on the MTA’s mind. After last winter’s disastrous December blizzard that left subways stranded and buses buried, the MTA has put in place a new plan to better combat the snow. The plan at first appeared to be an attempt to cut off criticism, but now we hear a different side of the story: According to a report released Monday by the MTA Inspector General, the authority was woefully unprepared to handle the snow last year.
The report, available here as a PDF, does not paint a very flattering picture of the MTA. It is as though the transit agency had never understood what a slow, wet and heavy snow could do to the city’s roads. Ancient and out-of-date communications systems failed, common sense seemed to disappear, and the authority had no plan to rescue passengers.
Barry Kluger’s report, all of which has since been accepted by the MTA and incorporated into the authority’s new winter weather preparation, assess the response through tales of stranded buses and slow-moving subways. The MTAIG’s office spoke with transit managers, customers and rank-and-file workers who were tasked with moving people throughout New York City as the snow fell.
The first section of the report deals with the Department of Buses. In both cases, buses in Brooklyn were stranded for upwards of eight hours as Bus Command Center personnel told drivers help would be arriving in a “while.” Even after the drivers and passengers were rescued, the buses remained on the road for another 36 hours. “At the time of the Blizzard,” Kluger writes, “there was no plan for providing assistance to passengers taking shelter in snowbound buses.”
One major concern the IG’s report noted with respect to buses concerned tracking. Essentially, the MTA has no sure way of finding out where along the routes its buses are. If the radio system — built in 1991 and set to last for 15 years — is functioning, they can manually locate buses, but until BusTime is online throughout the city, guessing remains a major part of the equation. To that end, Kluger’s office strongly urges the MTA to replace its bus radio and amend its practices to allow drivers to use personal cell phones in the event of an emergency. The report paints a dire picture of MTA communications equipment:
The existing radio system was installed in 1991 and was originally intended to have a useful life of 15 years. Buses stated that a “new Bus Radio System is scheduled for 2018 in the Capital Program,” 12 years beyond the useful life of the existing system, and that “in the interim, Buses shall continue to secure parts to maintain the system in a state of good repair.” However, such maintenance will be very difficult at best because the current radio system is no longer supported by the manufacturer and maintenance personnel are already cannibalizing radios for parts. Also, it is not clear from our interviews why beneficial use will not be achieved until 2018. Thus, according to the current schedule Buses will have to rely on the existing – already outdated — radio system for the next seven years.”
Finally, the IG found that bus dispatchers could not stop buses from heading out into the storm. Says the report, “The AGMs at all three depots told us that they were aware that a large number of buses that left their depot were becoming snowbound because of the storm. Yet all three said that they continued to dispatch vehicles from the depot because they lacked authority to make any adjustments to service – even to keep additional buses from certainly getting stuck.” Although the MTA has amended its operating procedures, common sense should have made this a moot point a year ago.
Beyond the bus system, the Inspector General’s report also noted a failure of communication, long a bugaboo with the MTA. Despite advances in public address announcements and customer information signs, the MTA is woeful at communicating timely and useful information to its riders, and last December, it did no better with its external communications. The IG found, for instance, that it took between 4-24 hours for updated routing information to hit the MTA’s website while subway delays were equally ill-reported. The authority simply did not adequately prepare its customers for disruptions.
Next, the MTAIG took on the subways as well. A pair of trains along the A line in the Rockaways drew headlines as straphangers were left stranded in trains with doors frozen shut as the connection between the train and the third rail iced over. Field supervisors could not stop trains from attempting to ride over the Broad Channel bridge even as conditions become treacherous. Semi-autonomous local command centers should address these problems.
Finally, the report cast a skeptical eye on the MTA’s weekend preparations. As last winter’s storm hit on a weekend, the MTA’s top brass had already decided on an operating path. Trains would run as scheduled according to the Plan Level determined on Friday at 11 a.m. The authority would not in fact be in a position to update that plan until Monday. According to the MTAIG, “not enough employees are available on such [weekend] days to
implement a higher Plan Level.” Thus, the MTA needs “contingency action plans that enable flexibility and expediency over these weekend days and holidays.”
Ultimately, the short report paints a pretty alarming picture of MTA operations. As I mentioned, the MTA had seemingly never planned for a weekend snow emergency and did not allow for the use of common sense in operations. Luckily for riders, the authority has essentially responded to all of the Inspector General’s complaints and has said it will adopt each of the recommendations this winter. Plus, the authority has ordered a set of new snowblowers (that, for some reason, won’t arrive until 2013). So far, though, we haven’t had a chance to validate those claims, but winter is almost here. The snow will soon follow, and our transit network will be put to the test again.