IG Report: MTA snow response woefully inadequate


This stranded train was a part of the MTA Inspector General's assessment of the MTA's 2010 snow response. (Photo courtesy of MTA)

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 Ancient and out-of-date communications systems failed, common sense seemed to disappear, and the authority had no plan to rescue passengers.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.

Categories : MTA Absurdity

11 Responses to “IG Report: MTA snow response woefully inadequate”

  1. Larry Littlefield says:

    The MTA has had detailed winter operations policies for subways for some time. Despite the fact that the storm intensified on a holiday weekend, that basically worked. The morning after the blizzard, I was able to walk a couple of miles to an underground portion of the subway and get to work. I was the only one there.

    It appears there was no such planning for the bus system. I guess the attitude was the rails are the MTA’s responsiblity, while keeping the streets clear for buses is the city’s responsibility. And since the city’s “snow emergency” rules due not order vehicles off the roads, they just limit parking on “snow emergency” routes, the city did not order the buses to stay home.

    I repeat my suggestion for the MTA to stop providing bus service, which would be turned over to the city and counties along with payroll tax revenue (if they want those revenues). Rail operations require special expertise only available in a dwinding number of organizations. Bus operations do not.

  2. nycpat says:

    A lifelong New Yorker, I had never heard of a snowbound bus until last year. Some consultants must have come in and messed up the usual way of doing blizzards.
    As for the subways -“a senior manager has the power to change the snow plan level during the weekend”. It’s messy and expensive, but if continuous service is your goal it could be done by calling in crews. Someone didn’t have the guts to do it. Penny wise, pound foolish.

  3. UESider says:

    response to the headline… “This is news!?!”

    awesome to know the gov spent millions of dollars to produce a report titled, The MTA’s response was inadequate

    but i feel so good knowing that the city now has a snow plan because we need one? shouldnt this just be BAU for the mta? its not like snow is new to us – the white stuff has been falling every winter since long before the first subway

    please excuse the sarcasm… and happy holidays everyone !

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Stupid question: was last year’s snow episode unusual by historical standards?

    • It was a perfect storm in that temperatures were just slightly below freezing so that the snow was wet and heavy and then it froze. It wasn’t a great storm, and it dumped a lot of snow. But it also wasn’t absolutely unique. We’ve had snow like it before.

      • Andrew says:

        When a major snowstorm is predicted, trains are stored underground at the end of the previous PM rush. But the snow fell on the third day of a three-day weekend, and the forecasts on Thursday weren’t calling for a major snowstorm. So the trains were all laid up in yards, and the proper procedures weren’t in place to ramp up to a Plan 4 over the course of the weekend.

        The lack of preparation, not the nature of the snow, is what set this storm apart. There was another major snowstorm in late January, but that time the agency was prepared, and service was back up on most (or all?) lines the next morning.

  5. UESider says:

    and I’d be willing to bet crews werent put on standby because of administrative oversight (someone was on vacation or alseep at the wheel) (no pun intended), and every employee at the MTA, DoS, Transportation, etc. that should have responded were home with their families for Christmas and decided they werent giving up their holiday because the system failed

    and i dont really blame them, but now we get to read reports stating the obvious, spend millions of tax dollars ‘studying’ the issue, which probably amounts to someone forgetting to hit ‘send’ on the standby email

    • The Cobalt Devil says:

      Including the Mayor who, lest we forget, was in the Bahamas at the time. Mike seems like a guy who thinks if he’s in a warm, sunny climate, then NYC must be sunny and warm. And if he lives in a nice townhouse guarded 24/7 by the police, then the rest of NYC must be nice and quiet too. And if he gets a ride from the police to the 59th St express stop on the Lex, and travels three whole stops to City Hall in 10 mins, then everyone’s commute must also be a breeze.

      Somehow one doesn’t think Mr. Mayor empathizes much with the people he represents.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        Somehow I don’t think ANY of our public officials emphathize much with transit riders. They all get parking placards. Bloomberg is considered the Metrocard Mayor because he rides the train some of the time.

        For the political class, and for most public employees who commute in from the suburbs, the standard is not to subject yourself to NYC public services at all.

        • SD says:

          The Mta is a joke

        • Think twice says:


          Especially with self-hating, arriviste, urban and suburban politicians who consider mass transit to be a “shameful” reminder of their or their parents’ humble origins. Even now their dreaming of macmansions and golf-courses in the Sun Belt; all paid for with their future lobbyist income and New York State pension.

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