Home Capital Program 2010-2014 No money for old snow equipment

No money for old snow equipment

by Benjamin Kabak

MTA crews worked in late December to dig out snowed-in subway tracks. (Photo courtesy of MTA)

When the MTA faltered during the December blizzard, a few sources mentioned concerned over costs as a reason why the authority was slow to adopt a Plan IV response. While those charges were vehemently denied, other long-term cost concerns have led to deferred investment in show removal equpiment, Pete Donohue reported yesterday.

In his weekly column in the Daily News, Donohue delved into these financial difficulties:

One of the biggest mistakes that hampered the MTA during the December blizzard might have been a failure to act – years before the first flakes fell. At least as far back as 2008, Metropolitan Transportation Authority managers in charge of subway equipment deemed the fleet of snow-clearing trains too old and too small.

An MTA planning document from February 2008 stated that the authority should spend $9.5 million to buy eight new and powerful snow thrower cars “in order to ensure the tracks are kept clear, and service is not compromised in winter storms.”

The authority, however, moved as quickly as an A train stuck in a snowdrift. It still hasn’t purchased the big rigs. A spokesman last week cited “financial constraints” as a reason for initial delays, but he also said the current administration does intend to buy the equipment. “We’re moving forward,” the spokesman said.

This has now become a familiar refrain from the MTA. As I explored last week, the MTA knew about structural deficiencies at 181st St. years before the ceiling collapsed, but the authority simply did not have the dollars to address the problem. Now, we’re hearing the same thing in regards to the authority’s weather response preparedness and 30-year-old snow blasters that are due for replacement.

These are, in essence, early warning signs of a system on the brink of disaster. It costs money — a lot of money — to maintain an extensive network of subway tracks, trains and stations. Even as the MTA pares down its administrative costs, it still needs enough capital money to fulfill those maintenance demands, and right now, with a $10 billion hole in the capital budget, that future is murky. Will it take another monstrous snow storm or ceiling collapse before the people controlling the purse strings start paying attention?

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JAzumah February 22, 2011 - 1:45 pm

We are well past the brink of disaster. The disaster has started in New York and it is going to start disrupting service shortly. There are numerous stretches of infrastructure that are well past their service lives and are functionally obsolete. Most of the elevated structures are years beyond their service lives.

al February 22, 2011 - 10:35 pm

The debt on those bonds are coming due, and so are the pension obligations. They will weigh down the operating budget into the next decade.

Scott E February 22, 2011 - 2:05 pm

When blizzard conditions strike, motorists are advised to stay off the roads for (1) their own safety, and (2) to allow snow removal crews to do their jobs. Rail passengers should do the same; there should be no obligation to move passengers as normal in adverse weather conditions. Yes, it stinks to be stranded; it can happen to those traveling by car, by bus, by plane, and – yes – by train. People need to be smart, be prepared, and get home before the storm.

tacony palmyra February 22, 2011 - 2:37 pm

But what do we define as an “adverse weather condition”? There are transit agencies operating in climates that make New York’s winters seem practically balmy by comparison. What we consider a terrible blizzard is routine in some cities. Don’t their buses and trains run fine? What makes this so hard in New York? Is the MTA using best practices in dealing with winter weather? Is it time for MTA brass to take a field trip to Moscow?

Ever spend time in a Southern city during a rare snow storm? They don’t even have snow plows so they start freaking out and declare it an emergency. The largest transit system in the country shouldn’t need to do that. We get a handful of significant snow storms every year; this winter is worse than most but certainly shouldn’t be bringing the city to its knees.

Christopher February 22, 2011 - 4:54 pm

As a Chicagoan I’d tend to agree but then I don’t expect snow to get in the way of much of anything. But from living in DC, I know that’s not the way other cities approach winter. In DC, which gets a decent amount of snowfall and bad winter storms, just accepts that the city (and government) will shut down during a storm. Workers are dismissed early. Metro runs no trains above ground with a few inches of snow and above. It’s an entirely different way to approach winter, but it’s probably slightly more cost effective.

Andrew February 22, 2011 - 9:19 pm

DC has one major employer. If that employer shuts down, the city shuts down. NYC doesn’t have that degree of employer centralization.

It’s undoubtedly more cost effective, but any minute the subway system isn’t functioning, NYCT isn’t fulfilling its mission. (It would be most cost effective of all for NYCT to shut down permanently!)

Alon Levy February 22, 2011 - 4:52 pm

Trains are technologically better-equipped to handle snow than cars. Freight locos can shovel multiple feet of snow out of the way; urban rail plows are weaker, but still much better than anything running on rubber tires. One of the ways regional trains get ridership in countries where they’re run well is by promising better reliability in adverse weather than highways.

Scott E February 22, 2011 - 7:36 pm

All true, but I’m not referring to your regular winter snowstorms. I’m referring to your Christmas-blizzard-like storms. Is it worth it for any transit agency to pay for machinery to prepare for storms which occur one day in every five years? The MTA can always get more snow-removal equipment. The city can always buy more plows and hire more drivers until every block and every quarter-mile of highway has its own snow-removal crew on standby. At some point, you need to weigh whether its worth it.

Andrew February 22, 2011 - 8:53 pm

If you’re suggesting that the subway system preemptively shut down for snowstorms, how are those snow removal crews supposed to get to work?

There are some lines that are especially vulnerable to snow – two in the Coney Island area, one in the Rockaways, and one in the Bronx. NYCT should make every effort to keep the rest of the system running.

Donald February 22, 2011 - 3:11 pm

The main reason why snow has such a devestating impact is not because of the age of the system, but because of the design. Snow accumulation is far worse at outdoor stations that are on ground level (like the one in the picture above). Underground stations obvivously don’t have to worry about snow, and neither do elevated statiosns since the snow just falls to the ground.

al February 22, 2011 - 3:54 pm

The nexus of wind, snow, and melt water flowing and freezing can do horrible things to an elevated line’s electrical and signaling systems.

Sara Nordmann February 22, 2011 - 4:10 pm

I very nearly remarked on the help offered by the fed govt today for the cost of snowstorm-related repairs, but then I re-read the press release. Apparently it mostly applies to Nassau and Suffolk counties. Darn.

Andrew February 22, 2011 - 8:49 pm

There isn’t enough capital funding available for the MTA to do everything it would like to do. The “MTA planning document” presumably was making the case for this project, but in the end, like countless other worthy capital projects, it wasn’t selected.

I can’t say if that was a good or bad decision, but the only reason it’s even being brought up now is because we got hit by a blizzard two months ago.

Al D February 23, 2011 - 9:54 am

There is also this bureaucratic morass that keeps purchases like these from being made even years later. There needs to be a review/re-shuffling of processes/procedures and management structure that prevents this from happening.


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