Let’s start today with a proposition: New York City didn’t get as much snow as initially expected, and the supposedly disappointing nature of the storm has clouded the commentary. That said, even if the city had gotten 20-30 inches, I contend that, with service properly curtailed in the right spots, the New York City subways could and should have operated as originally planned. This is a widely, but not entirely, accepted contention, but it’s one that gets to the heart of the role transit plays in city life and the MTA in planning transit.
The trouble, as we well know by now, started when Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to shut the subway system late Monday night. He spent a little bit of time consulting with MTA leaders, but by all accounts, this was a decision he imposed upon the agency. It wasn’t part of their well-developed snow response plan, and it was one that was unprecedented in New York City history. As I discussed last night, before we knew the storm wouldn’t be as substantial as threatened, the subway system can withstand the weather so long as the proper precautions are implemented.
In the aftermath of Cuomo’s decision, the
Monday Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking has been nothing but blowback. We learned early on that Mayor Bill de Blasio — who admittedly has no political control over the subways — knew about the shutdown approximately 15 minutes before Cuomo announced it, if at all, and in a post on The Upshot on The Times’ website, Josh Barro delved into the economic costs of effectively closing down the city for a day. Barro explores the argument I made last night concerning a seeming overreaction to the storm, and he too feels that shutting down the subway should be implemented rarely and with great deliberation.
Meanwhile, WNYC’s Kate Hinds delved into the plans the MTA had at the ready. Her piece is informative and important as it highlights how the operations teams tasked with managing the subway were more prepared than the governor. She writes:
The MTA has a winter playbook it turns to when it comes to snowstorms, detailing just how much service it can safely provide. And speaking at a lunchtime press conference on Monday, as what looked like a blizzard bore down on the East Coast, the agency’s chief said it was time to put one piece of it into action. “We’re going to put a Plan V in effect,” MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said, “which occurs when we have a storm of this magnitude.”
Plan V is meant to prevent debacles like the December 2010 storm which blanketed the city in 20 inches of snow. [After that storm, the MTA] revised and expanded its winter operations plan. According to that 360-page document, a copy of which was obtained by WNYC, Plan V governs operations during a declared snow emergency. To protect the fleet, subway cars are to be stored on underground express tracks, reducing service. Some lines which duplicate service, like the B or the Z trains, may be suspended. Lines that run outdoors — such as the N or the A lines in Brooklyn and Queens — may run less frequently. The plan also details specific crew actions, and even talks about where to position diesel trains in the event that a regular subway car gets stuck in the snow.
Plan V indicates how committed the MTA is to keeping subways running in the worst of winter weather. Since 2010, subway service has been occasionally disrupted during snow, but never completely shut down. And the system had never, in its 110-year history, been entirely closed because of snow until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to on Monday.
The MTA’s eventual ex post excuses rang hollow because they were. As we’ve seen before, Tom Prendergast must stand by his boss, and he did that during a press conference Tuesday when he said closing the system allowed for a quicker restoration of services. That wasn’t a factor last winter when Transit implemented its severe weather policies, and it wouldn’t have been an issue this week even with 20 inches of snow. In response, the Straphangers Campaign has asked for some soul-searching. “What role,” they asked, “did Governor Andrew Cuomo and other non-MTA officials play in the decision to shut down the transit system?”
But, to return to my proposition, why should the subway run in bad weather? Because the city keeps running, even if at reduced speeds, and New Yorkers need to see that transit is a safe and reliable option when cars aren’t. Emergency workers and first responders need to get to their hospitals and firehouses and precinct houses. Low-wage workers who don’t have the benefit of taking a day off because it snowed need to get around. Cuomo’s move in fact made it more dangerous as people were left to trudge six or seven miles through the snow. That’s not, as I noted last night, how New York operates, and it’s not how the city and its subway is designed to operate. The system can weather the storm, and that’s a point that seems to be lost on the governor.
If Cuomo wanted the credit for responding to a Serious Weather Event, he has to take the blame too when his initial reaction was the wrong one. Giving him a pass would simply set the stage for another subway shutdown driven seemingly by long-term political concerns rather than short-term benefits to the eight million New Yorkers whose city never really sleeps.