The costs of repairing the transit system


Two weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy swept through New York, leaving death and destruction in its path. With the cleanup and recovery efforts well under way, the monetary costs of the storm are slowly coming into view. The initial price tag, at least, tells only part of the story though as the effects from salt water exposure will be felt for years.

As the cleanup began in earnest a little more than a week ago and the subway system slowly came back online, The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece on potential costs of recovery. One recent study pegged the cost of cleanup at close to $60 billion citywide, and MTA executives warned that transit repairs would be substantial.

“Think of it as a 90- to 100-year-old patient that got into an accident and is in the hospital,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said to The Journal. “Things always happen when you get in the hospital that you don’t expect. The amount of saltwater that is in the system, as we clean it out, we’re finding other things.”

Today, The Times reported that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will ask Washington, D.C., for at least $30 billion, and a good portion of that will be for transit repairs. The article notes that Cuomo will ask for $3.5 billion “to repair the region’s bridges, tunnels and subway and commuter rail lines.” Already, the Governor has pledged to refund the MTA fares lost to the days when transit was offline and then subsequently free, and with the precarious state of the MTA’s budget, these are dollars the authority can ill afford to lose.

Yet, there’s more to it then just this starting point. In The Times’ article, reporter Raymond Hernandez mentions how the $30 billion total would be allocated. Cuomo hopes to spend some money not just repairing infrastructure but upgrading it. Power delivery systems would be modernized, and the fuel supply lines would be upgraded to prevent the shortages currently impacting the region. Missing though is any talk of upgrading the subway infrastructure, and boy, does it need upgrading.

The immediate problem concerns one of avoidance. How do we prevent this storm surge from flooding out the subways the next time we get a big storm? (And, yes, there will be a next time.) Over the past few weeks, some have suggested giant inflatable plugs that can dam tunnels, but those still lead to flooding in front of the plug. Others have talked of storm doors, surge barriers and better drainage systems. Whatever the answer, something must be done with an eye toward prevention.

The long-time problem focuses around that exposure to salt water Lhota mentioned. Even with the system up and running, salt water will impact the useful lifetime of this equipment. Switches and signals will degrade faster than they otherwise would have, and the MTA will have to spend money it did not anticipating needing on necessary infrastructure repairs. Who will fund these projects as well?

We’re in unchartered territories here in many ways. In the post-election climate in D.C., multi-billion-dollar allocation requests may be tough to see pass through the House, but the region needs money and support. The services provided by the MTA, as we saw, are too critical for the region and its economy to be swept under the rug. A discussion focusing on storm preparedness if one we need to have sooner rather than later, and the money must follow.

Categories : MTA Economics

45 Responses to “The costs of repairing the transit system”

  1. Theorem Ox says:

    I always figured that it would take a major catastrophe before anybody in power gives a second thought about upgrading infrastructure.

    Not only do we need full cooperation from all sides living here to make this work, we’ll also need Mother Nature’s cooperation too. Otherwise, we just might be around to witness the slow death of an once great city.

  2. BoerumBum says:

    I don’t know… these days, people even seem to forget about major infrastructure failures quickly.

  3. Nathanael says:

    You’re right. With the GOP “destroy the country” caucus still controlling the House (despite receiving less than half the House votes nationally), thanks to gerrymandering, they will continue to refuse to pay for any useful infrastructure. After all, whether you pay for it with taxes on the rich or printed money, it means the wealth hoarded in the hands of the rich is a smaller percentage of the money supply — and you can’t pay for it with taxes on the poor, because they have no money. Since the primary goal of the GOP caucus is to make the rich richer in the very short term, their behavior is predictable.

    This is, indeed, a problem; our political dysfunction is creating economic dysfunction.

    • Nathanael says:

      I’ve suggested elsewhere that California is big enough to ‘go it alone’ and essentially print its own money. New York probably isn’t big enough.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        One of the blurbs floating around is that California is the world’s tenth largest economy. Or as big as Canada’s. Rough way to do a reality check on that is that California roughly has the same population as Canada. One of he blurbs bandied about is that New York City’s economy is the world’s 17th largest. Or as big as Turkey’s. Bigger than Switzerland’s. Last I checked the Canadians, Turks and Swiss have their own currency.

        • Bolwerk says:

          The size of an economy doesn’t tell the whole story about how much money people/corporations in that economy have,* and consequently doesn’t tell you how much a state or country can borrow. If you are resident in Manhattan and own a profitable factory in Texas, you get some of the factory’s income; that income is probably at least in part taxed by NYS, but it’s part of the Texas economy.

          * If anything, the reverse might be partly true, since government spending by definition is a factor in measuring GDP.

      • KAR says:

        Nathanael – there was once a civil war over southern secession… let’s not get high-minded to think it wouldn’t happen again if California or Texas or NY tried to secede.
        In reality – California became what it is because of a lot of federal money. For instance – Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist as it is if the military didn’t pour money into it because it was cheap land at the time. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
        That said – the world is moving toward consolidating currencies – not adding them.

        • Nathanael says:

          California doesn’t need to secede. It can just print, uh, “vouchers”. (Look ’em up.) (The legal argument over whether it’s allowed to “print money” is pretty much irrelevant — nobody in power would care, just as nobody seems to care whether it’s unconstitutional for the President to assassinate American citizens, which incidentally it is.)

          They would be accepted, which makes them money.

          The point is that California’s economy is largely *self-contained*. Money spent by the California government goes to California workers who spend it on California businesses which pay California taxes. To the extent that it’s not self-contained, a lot of it is already dealing with foreign exchange (Mexico, trans-pacific trade).

          New York’s economy is completely tangled up with the economies of Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, etc. It’s not in nearly as good a position to print its own money.

          • KAR says:

            I’m not sure where you get your info… but California’s economy is not “self contained”. any economy that is “self contained” in this day and age is a faulty economy.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Neither can “print money.” Only the feds can do that. Both can leverage a large, wealthy tax base to borrow a lot of money, but unfortunately they have largely done this.

        • Nathanael says:

          California absolutely has the power to print money, and it proved it the last time it went through the “vouchers” nonsense.

          California may be constitutionally prohibited from printing money, but there are multiple ways around it. One is for California to organize a bank owned by the state of California (like the Bank of North Dakota) and have that bank print money (since private banks are still allowed to print money in the US, believe it or not).

          • Nathanael says:

            But as I say, this is more of an option for a largely self-contained economy than for one where millions of people commute across the border daily.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Vouchers aren’t money anymore than mortgages or bonds are money. Vouchers are (presumably negotiable, promissory) notes that can be redeemed for money at a future date – I believe they are, technically, examples of derivatives.

            You can do the exact same thing Kalifornia does, on a piece of scrap paper even. The only difference is banks might not want it. If you promise it to me (“I, Nathanael, promise to pay Bol Werk $75 on December 1st, 2012” or it can get more elaborate), I can negotiate it to somebody else with an endorsement like a check (“Pay to the Order of Who Ever [signed] Bol Werk”); then Who Ever can come knocking on your door for payment on the due date, and can sue you if you don’t pay up.

            The only possibly unusual caveat with CA vouchers is the bank accepts the derivative note as a deposit before the payment due date, and then redeems it with the state on its own when it can. I bet the bank gets a small interest penalty (from the state) as a result, too.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Also, banks don’t print money either. They “create” demand deposit money as they loan it out and accept deposits. If you have a $1000 in the bank, the bank can loan out (say) $900, the next bank that receives the deposit can loan out $810 of that, the next bank can loan out $729 of that, the next can loan out $656.10, and so forth. They’re required to keep some reserves to meet demands on existing deposits.

            Even the feds probably don’t usually literally print money. I think what they do is make bank loans, possibly of their own existing demand deposits (they could print money too) or buy back assets (e.g., gov’t bonds).

  4. Alex C says:

    If the MTA were smart, they’d move up the fare hike to January. As I said before, the useless media will hound them for it regardless of when they do it, as will the frauds that make up our state assembly. Start the fare hike in January and get the media nonsense out of the way.

  5. Tower18 says:

    Would tunnel plugs have helped, really? Sure it might have kept the water from filling the river tunnels, but the water still has to go somewhere…one would think it would then go up. How far uptown could the water have traveled, a la Sea Beach Line?

  6. ks1111 says:

    The House will eventually approve the aid because disaster isn’t a Red vs Blue state issue nor is it in the interest of either side for it to become so.

    The first priority should be to have the ability to totally seal off all the subway access points (stairs, elevator shafts, vents)in Zone A on short notice. Backup power for pumps (and adding a few high volume pumps at low points in the system) to deal with leakage should also be high on list since it clearly can’t be assumed ConEd will remain online.

    • Nathanael says:

      “The House will eventually approve the aid because disaster isn’t a Red vs Blue state issue nor is it in the interest of either side for it to become so.”

      Unfortunately, it is in the interest of the “drown government in a bathtub” types to oppose disaster aid.

    • Alex C says:

      They held disaster relief to Alabama (after deadly tornadoes) hostage for budget cuts. What makes you think they would be any better for repairs in a Democrat-voting part of the country? Especially a part of the country they’ve demonized as “unamerican” for the past 4 years.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        They have been demonizing it since at least the time Spiro Agnew uttered “effete Eastern liberals”. It’s always been viewed with some suspicion. After that Dutch weren’t terribly concerned about what religion you practiced, only how much money you could make.

  7. Larry Littlefield says:

    We might get the $3.5 billion, but no more.

    And it appears that most of the requested money is for gasoline and electricity. In the end rate payers will have to pay for the electrical repairs and upgrades. The federal government might provide money for gasoline.

    My view: the tunnels proved to be “dry wells” that protected the rest of the system, most critically the interlockings, but luring water away. It turned out to be a “system” that worked.

    Infrastructure within the tunnels should be replaced by infrastructure that is less damaged by flooding. And some sort of barriers should be put in place to protect the rest of the subway system from flooding. That’s, plus the MTA’s existing plan and an extra pump train or fixed pump or two, about the best we can expect.

    As for electricity, if the power station at 14th had not blown out service could have run down to Chambers. People would only have had to walk, or if they couldn’t take a bus, over the bridges. Perhaps the MTA needs a separate power network, so it can be turned on even when the rest of the grid is off.

    • John-2 says:

      They would have had at least part of a separate network, but the TA and the city sold it off back in 1959. Given the Manhattan real estate costs nowadays and the public’s general distaste for power generating facilities in their neighborhoods (some people really do seem to believe the electricity fairies power everything from their trains to their iPads), it’s probably too late to bring the subway-old power grid back

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:

      “My view: the tunnels proved to be “dry wells” that protected the rest of the system, most critically the interlockings, but luring water away. It turned out to be a “system” that worked.”

      You sure?

      To dry well the ocean, you’d need a bigger boat 😉

  8. Nathanael says:

    PATH is running to Newark. NJT is running from NY to Morristown. (I guess they really did decide it wasn’t worth providing service unless the service went to NY.) The Pasack Valley and Bergen lines are running again as well.

  9. John-2 says:

    The easiest ‘fix’ would be a program to raise the subway vent grates in areas near the river or in low-lying sections prone to flooding. The MTA already has taken some steps with the raised vents on Queens Blvd. and on Church Street in Lower Manhattan, and other areas most affected by the storm surges from Sandy can also be flagged and market for improvement.

    Other situations are more problematic. The Sea Beach cut or the Jamaica Bay trestle are both easy storm targets (though I suppose in the case of the former, or even the open cut on the Brighton, the MTA can look at decking over the lines and selling the air rights, as they’ve done with some of their rail yards). As for the stations, inflatable plugs might be a good investment for entrances to the stops closest to the rivers or the Upper Harbor; but you’d have to put them either at the street entrances or just past the fare control area to do any good or on trackage like the leads to the 207th Street yards, where the water only has one direction of entry for a very long distance.

    • SpendmoreWastemore says:

      Sea Beach is within walking distance for either the D or F along the entire length of the open cut. As someone with a disability, I can tell you that if you can’t make it to one of the alternate lines, you probably can’t make it to the N either, unless you live above the station.

      Solution for Sea Beach: Waterproof expensive components that might be destroyed by saltwater. Waterproof cheaper, replaceable components if possible, considering the time required to replace them.

      When Sea Beach floods, it floods. Let the sea go back out, run an work train, then a test train, then back to service. Put the non-wasted resources into flood recovery such as submersible pump rooms, backup power for the under-river tunnels etc.

      Also keep some light, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel around (basically a cheap grade of jet fuel). That should be good enough to allow diesels to pull passegenger trains under the rivers during major emergencies. Power-vent the tunnels w backup power, with no diesels running before/after rush hours. As it is, work trains have been chuffing through the system on cheap, heavy oil and none of the crews have died. Let everyone know they’re on a diesel ride and immunize MTA against opportunistic lawsuits.

  10. Thunderfoot says:

    Has anyone thought of waterproofing electrical system the way it’s done pm ships?

  11. nyland8 says:

    I see a fantastic opportunity here.

    It seems to me that, in the long run, the most costly way is to have all of these proposed half-assed measures protecting both infrastructure, public housing and businesses is by having everyone, including the MTA, fend for themselves. The saner thing is a single surge barrier across the Narrows.

    A surge gate at the Narrows protects all of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens up the East River, and all of Manhattan and New Jersey up the Hudson estuary. That means that the Battery, the Gowanus, Newtown Creek, the East River and Hudson Shore lines never incur a devastating surge. It means that the surge, which went all the way up to Albany and beyond, is stopped at a gate between Staten Island and Brooklyn.

    Sure, I’m talking about a major infrastructure project – and it would cost Billion$ – but it would only be ONE project, and it would protect so much of the city and Hudson County New Jersey with one single infrastructure project, the benefits would far outweigh the costs.

    We all know the geographic limitations of living where we live. We’ve all heard descriptions about how the roughly 140 degree angle made by Long Island and the Jersey Shore will continue to concentrate wave heights beyond reason in a large storm, especially at high tides. NYC has just felt the brunt of a Category 1, with wind speeds hovering just above tropical storm. What happens when a churning Cat 3 or 4 – or worse – comes barreling up the coast? Then Indian Point turns into Fukushima Daiichi !!

    There’s no practical way to protect barrier islands – like Long Beach and Fire Island – except perhaps with a series of floating breakwaters. But they’d have to be well off shore, miles long and a menace to navigation. Wetlands, like those along our shores in Staten Island and elsewhere will always have to be evacuated and suffer whatever destruction a storm might wreak. But most of Manhattan, and huge swatches of Brooklyn, Queens and costal North Jersey might have been totally spared by this storm wrath.

    Yes – we’d still have to contend with high winds and heavy rains. But the kind of total washouts that happened to tunnels and underground power stations, as well as the evacuation of so many low lying areas, could have been completely avoided by a single gated wall across the Narrows.

    If ever there was a time to consider building it, it is now.

    • John says:

      Hear, hear. But, oh me of little faith… Something tells me this will never happen. And it’s a damn shame. I’m watching last night’s 60 Minutes and they’re covering the devastation in Belle Harbor. It’s just horrible, and very, very sad to witness what these humbled residents are going through. My heart goes out to them. We can only hope that city, state, and federal hands are all on deck.

    • SpendmoreWastemore says:

      Mmm, you’ll also have to block the East River from surge coming through Long Island Sound. All it takes is one opening, and water will level itself, then you if you’re in the way.

      You’ll also have unintended consequences from the artifical barrier. Even when “open” the structure will severely constrict the normal flow of water, silt and so forth. You’ll then need another project to fix the ‘oops didn’t think that would matter’ issues, or you must design and maintain a truly monumental system that lays flush with the sea floor when not in use but somehow rises above storm level a couple times in a lifetime… and works 100% on the rare occassion when it’s needed.

      • Don Anon says:

        Huh? The Dutch and the British (as well as our New England neighbors in Rhode Island) have installed storm barriers over the years. It’s not some great unknown, untested technology.

        • John-2 says:

          It’s not untested, but you’ve got to plug three holes — Atlantic, Arthur Kill and Long Island Sound — to make it effective. Then you have to worry about the other flood of tort lawyers.

          I already saw one proposal that would put a barrier basically from Sandy Hook to Breezy Point, much longer than a Narrows barrier, but protecting all of Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Raritan Bay areas of New Jersey. But what if you live in Sandy Hook or Breezy Point? Or if a barrier was put across the Narrows, what if you live in South Beach or Sea Gate? The city/state/feds are basically putting up a wall to protect people behind it from high water, but if the water can’t go into the harbor, it’s going to bunch up and go outward on either side, inundating the areas just to the southeast of it even more than Sandy did.

          If your house, business or property is on the wrong side of the proposed barrier, you’re in court a nanosecond after this project is announced complaining that your investment is about to be waylayed. And designating those areas as non-re-inhabitable land as some of the outer barrier islands in southern states have been is going to be either a major court fight, or someone’s going to have to shell out some big bucks to buy out people in the areas that would be most negatively affected by the barrier but have been home to residences and businesses for a century or more.

        • Boerumhillscott says:

          The Dutch did it by totally chaging the natural geography of their country.

          All other examples are much smaller than what would be needed for even NY Harbor. Protecting anything outside of the Narrows (Rockaways, Coney Island, South Staten Island)would be another order of magnitude more expensive and disruptive.

          • Nathanael says:

            The Dutch are also UNDOING some of the previous seawall / polder construction.

            See, the biggest problem with the “seagate across the narrows / Arthur Kill / LI Sound” proposals is this: what if you get a massive rainstorm which dumps water in the Hudson/Hackensack/Passaic basins? Suddenly your water is on the WRONG SIDE OF THE SEAGATE. Sucks to be you!

            That is in fact a fairly common flooding scenario. Don’t be stupid: don’t build a giant wall against one flooding scenario and make the other one worse!

            • nyland8 says:

              The sea gates would be normally open, Nathanael. No flooding. And the Hudson estuary is tidal for well over a hundred miles. Even the biggest upstate floods in history barely appear in the lower Hudson. Plenty of time and space for diffusion.

              It would NEVER flood from behind – unless it were simply poorly designed and operated, and was closed when big surges went up both the Kill and the Sound.

              John -2 … As for homes and businesses being on those shorelines for more than a century, New Jersey has invoked a flood law decades ago, which says that if more than half of your structure is destroyed in an event, it simply cannot be rebuilt. The idea is that nothing is taken away from anyone – unless nature itself takes it.

              In other words, if the flood takes your home away – it’s gone. Act of God. The idea is that, even if it takes a few hundred years, eventually all the natural flood plain in the State becomes reclaimed as flood plain.

              If a State, or city or borough isn’t willing to protect it’s own shoreline with whatever it takes – floating breakwaters, for example – then why should the burden of financing these catastrophes forever be placed on all of us?

              Perhaps we should line the coasts with wind farms? If we then protect the mills with breakwaters, the combination of those, and the windmills themselves, might substantially reduce the damage of storm surges.

            • BBnet3000 says:


              The Thames barrier is used not only for storm surges but also for huge rainstorms upriver. At high tide, the rainwater coming down can back up on the tide and flood London and other cities.

              So they close the barriers at low tide ahead of the swell, making the river itself a pocket for all the extra water coming down until the next low tide, when they let it out.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      “The saner thing is a single surge barrier across the Narrows.”

      Plus one in the Arthur Kill, and one in the East River. The water doesn’t, and didn’t, just come from one direction. And it would have to be big. And it would lead to even bigger surges on the other side.

      • Clarke says:

        This is something that happened in another northeast city about 50 years ago after a devastating flood. Yes, of course, the size and cost would be different, but there’s a seemingly high return on investment.

        • Nathanael says:

          This wouldn’t help in the case of a rainstorm pouring water in the upstream watersheds, which is *another* flooding scenario which is becoming more and more common. And the upstream watersheds for the Hudson, Hackensack, and Passaic — that’s a huge watershed.

          There’s a reason why seagates are usually a sloppy, poorly thought out, unwise idea: they address only one of the possible sources of flooding. It’s better to place your seawall with a relatively small drainage basin behind it !!!

    • nyland8 says:

      Yes … the hydrology is quite complex. It would require study and modeling – both computer and mock-up. And yes, they would no doubt reveal that other mitigating systems would be required … for the Sound, for the Arthur Kill, etc. But all we’re really talking about is engineering. All the possible permutations of storm surge CAN be modeled.

      We might find, for example, that the Arthur Kill only requires floating breakwaters. And perhaps the Sound only requires a series of permanent wing dams coming from Connecticut and Long Island. But the engineering studies should be undertaken.

      If we can build super computers and input logorythms that can predict with over 90% certainty that a storm system hitting the southern coast of Cuba will race up north, hug the coast and then swing sharp left, slamming into the coast of New Jersey – A WEEK BEFORE IT HAPPENS !! – then modeling the hydrology for surge gates to protect the estuary system here is certainly not beyond our abilities.

      And with rising sea levels, the need will only become more pressing.

      Of all the things our federal government is capable of throwing a few million at, I would find it hard to imagine a better use of our tax dollars than putting some serious study into protecting the financial capitol of the world. In fact, it seems like a no-brainer.

      And when we look at the true cost of not doing it, suddenly such a study begins to feel like a bargain.

  12. Anon says:

    The Tunnel Plugs are custom made. Why couldn’t they be installed in the wall of a stairwell of a station in addition to tunnels?

    don’t think you are looking at this right.

  13. Phantom says:

    Off topic question

    Does anyone have any idea when the R train / Montague St tunnel is expected to reopen?

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