Earlier this week, when the MTA finally secured state approvals for the rest of its three-year capital plan, we viewed it as a victory for the transit authority, but in reality, it should be a warning sign. Since New York City has largely washed its hands of its own subway system, we are dependent upon the state to deliver money, and the state has been a reluctant funding partner for a while now.
To gain approval for MTA funding from Albany Republicans, as Dana Rubinstein wrote yesterday on Capital New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had to usher in significant road expenditures and further infrastructure commitments for upstate New York. I scratch your back, and you scratch mine even harder. That seems to be the way of things in Albany.
For the MTA and for New York City, though, securing capital money and the ability to raise the debt limit is just the beginning. On Wednesday night at the Transit Museum, Andrea Bernstein led a panel on the subways that I unfortunately could not attend. The topic focused around transit and sustainability in light of rising sea levels. A recent article by Katharine Jose covered similar ground, and experts pain a rather dire picture of the MTA’s future.
The threat from Irene last August was just the beginning. A direct hit from a major storm or a surge from rising sea levels could make things much, much worse. Jose wrote:
Imagine a scenario in which a 100-year-storm flooded all of the parts of the system that are most susceptible—the tunnels that carry trains under the East River to and from Manhattan, and the major connection points in Lower Manhattan. Then Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island would essentially be cut off from the mainland for the millions of commuters who pass through those links every day. And not for a short time. “Essentially the subway system will be shut down and the restoring time will be at least a month,” [Professor Klaus] Jacob said. “And probably many months.”
In the same way that many people, during Irene, didn’t understand why it took so long to shut the system down and so long to start it back up, if there is that kind of flooding, they will have to pump all the water out of the tunnels, take out the signal systems, wash them off (because they will have been in touch with brackish water), dry them, put them back together, test them, and reinstall them. And since much of the subway system is as old as 100 years, new parts cannot exactly be ordered up immediately; new ones would probably require starting from scratch…
[The M.T.A.] is an agency that does not get its money from New York City; it’s the state legislature that decides how much public money will go to the authority. This, historically, has been a problem for transportation networks that don’t stretch beyond the limits of the city, and it still is. For massive capital projects, the political will could be hard to assemble for significant projects. And in the meantime, the M.T.A. has been in financial trouble, funding much of its ongoing operation and “state-of-good-repair” work with bond issues, which is not feasible in the long term and doesn’t leave much room for large capital projects that would normally depend on such financing.
So far the M.T.A. has been taking smaller, less expensive measures to prepare for flooding and sea-level rise. They are raising sidewalk grates that vent stations and tunnels and putting bicycle racks on top of them, anad building concrete platforms a few inches high in front of the entrances to stations.
Jose’s piece is a sweeping examination of the way the city is responding to the threat of climate change, and it sounds as though the MTA is relying more on hope than concrete investments. The agency can perform mitigation efforts along with support from the New York City DOT. The raised grates can alleviate flooding from routine storms, and a more efficient pumping system can better assist the MTA in readying service after a storm.
The authority however has no protection against flooding in the tunnels, and many of its rail yards are in low-lying areas around the city’s edges. The Coney Island Yards is particularly susceptible to a storm surge, and the East River tunnels could be vulnerable to a rising tide. Without a firm commitment from the state, then, the authority is left where it often has been. It can’t invest in any sort of storm shutter system or true mitigation efforts.
So in the meantime, we too must hope. We’ll have to hope that our system, started in 1904, can withstand the challenges of 2012, and we have to hope that one day Albany will realize the uniquely vulnerable position we’re in. I’m not holding my breath on either issue.