Many pixels have been burned over the looming L train shutdown and the day-to-day effects losing the BMT’s Canarsie Line will have on the city. We’ve talked bus bridges and Peopleway; and we’ve talked holistic solutions to an 18-month problem that will lead to longer, more crowded daily commutes for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. We have not talked about how the L train repairs will start over six years after Sandy’s floodwaters swept through the subway tunnels, and we have not talked much about whether the MTA could weather another storm.
Last week, Neil deMause in the Village Voice shifted the focus from the Fix aspects of the MTA’s Fix & Fortify plan to the Fortify piece, and the picture is not a pretty one. Although the MTA has access to billions of dollars in relief money, the pace of spending has been slow, and the fortification efforts are far from complete. If another storm with a surge as high as Sandy’s swept through the region, the subway tunnels and stations would flood all over again, and as climate change outpaces the MTA’s ability to close nearly 6000 entry points from water can get in, it still seems as though damage from another storm is a question of “when” rather than “if”.
deMause offers up his story in the context of these fortification efforts and begins with an anecdote about covering station entrances:
Only fourteen Flex-Gates have been installed to date — subway entrances aren’t standardized, so each entrance plug has to be individually designed. ILC Dover is under contract to eventually provide another nine, with more than forty additional locations still waiting for the MTA to bid them out.
It’s an exceedingly deliberate pace, considering that nearly four full years have passed in the city since the flooding that resulted from Superstorm Sandy, inundating much of the subway system beneath a thirteen-foot storm surge, and resulting in damage that is still awaiting repair. But the MTA proudly points to the Flex-Gate as a major improvement in response to Sandy. “Right now, today, both with our temporary measures as well as what we’re working on long term, we are far better prepared to address flooding than we were back in October of 2012,” says authority spokesperson Kevin Ortiz.
Better prepared doesn’t mean fully prepared, though…In lower Manhattan alone, the subway system has over 5,600 such street openings that the MTA considers “vulnerable” access points for floodwaters. “It’s stairs, it’s vent bays, it’s hatches, it’s manholes, it’s duct entries, it’s elevators, it’s escalators,” says Ortiz. And to effectively protect the subways, every one of them has to be sealed in the day or two between a storm’s approach and its arrival. Ortiz says the MTA is working on deployable vent covers that can be triggered by subway workers in advance of a storm. But they’re not even in the prototype stage, and asking workers to cover up 5,600 openings would leave a lot of opportunity for simple human error to let the water in.
As the MTA completes its tunnel reconstruction work, various key systems such as signals and communications wires are better protected than they were four years ago, but climate experts tell deMause that the city and state and MTA do not have a long-term plan sufficient enough to address rising sea levels and more frequent storms. “We are fiddling around on the edges, and have no plan for a sea level–rise resilient, sustainable transit system,” Klaus Jacob, an expert in climate change, said. “These are all repairs post-Sandy. That does not really prepare the system for the next Sandy.”
deMause’s piece delves into familiar territory (the L train outage will over six years after the storm), but he adds some stark numbers to this tale. He notes that 30 subway entrances sit below the level of the Sandy storm surge and “dozens” more sit only four feet above that storm surge. With Sandy-like storms now 1-in-30 years events (and increasingly frequent as the climate changes) rather than 1-in-100 years, the MTA’s systems and low-lying tunnels will remain vulnerable for the foreseeable future.
As with many things MTA, there is enough blame for the slow pace of spending to go around. The governor and mayor haven’t been particularly receptive of calls to fund the MTA, and the MTA can’t spend the money it has fast enough as either the projects aren’t in the construction stage or there simply aren’t enough qualified contractors to execute. One might even call it the perfect storm.
The long endgame here is another catastrophic flood and a race to stave off destruction. The MTA would have to rethink station ventilation throughout Lower Manhattan, parts of the Upper East Side, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens as water levels inch upward without the help of a storm. As deMause notes, though, no one knows just how much it would take (or cost) to keep Sandy-like water out of the subways entirely, and as water will always seek out the lowest point, it may be a fool’s errand. There is no strategic retreat for the subway system, and that’s a sobering thought for New York City’s future.