As the MTA and transit community at large begin to examine how best to move forward with protecting the system, somehow plugging the tunnels will take center stage during the debate. The MTA saw first-hand during Hurricane Sandy that a storm surge of 13 feet will swamp eight subway tunnels and two road tunnels between Manhattan and the land mass known as Long Island. Protecting that infrastructure from future flooding is of utmost importance, but even doing so raises some delicate issues.
During my Problem Solvers discussion on Wednesday night, MTA Bridges & Tunnels President James Ferrara spoke about protecting the infrastructure but as part of a larger conversation the city needs to have. During our panel discussion, Ferrara seemed a bit more skeptical than I am that another storm will arrive. He understands that it’s very costly to harden transportation infrastructure and seemed to believe that we shouldn’t do so for storms that happen once every 100 years. Of course, we’ve now had two hurricanes in two years along with a variety of other weird weather patterns, and the oceans are getting warmer.
But protecting the Montague St. Tunnel or the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel from future flooding isn’t as easy as installing a plug or dropping doors across the tunnel entrances. As Tom Abudllah, Transit’s Chief Environmental Engineer, said during my talk, the water has to go somewhere. If you seal off the tunnels, the water goes into the stations, and if you seal off the stations, well, then the water winds up all over the place at street level.
This realization played itself out in the media earlier this week when Joe Lhota started talking about shoring up the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. “I had one very prominent real estate builder who owns buildings in lower Manhattan—actually all over the city—thank me for allowing the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel to be used as a drainage ditch. I wasn’t particularly pleased with the comment,” he said to Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein. “The fact of the matter is, if I plug it up, we plug it up, the MTA plugs it up—if God forbid this happens again, the surge is the same or even higher, the water will go elsewhere.”
In Lower Manhattan, “elsewhere” means into buildings that house multi-national corporations and into expensive housing that’s popped up downtown over the past ten years. Bill Rudin was the real estate scion who thanked Lhota, and the two engaged in a weird sort of back-and-forth over Lhota’s comments. That’s pretty much besides the point.
Ferrara spoke to this issue on Wednesday night at the Transit Museum, and he noted that we can’t just talk about protecting tunnels in a vacuum. It has to be part of a larger community discussion about protecting areas, neighborhoods, regions from the impact of flooding, storm surges and rising tides. This discussion has the potential to devolve into inaction though. Residents will come to appreciate having the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and other infrastructure as “drains” while those in charge of the infrastructure need to find a way to protect it. Someone will have to step into moderate, and our elected officials haven’t shown much leadership on, well, anything. It’s probably naive to expect them to find the ability to solve this more complex problem.
Ultimately, we have to remember that fixing these vulnerabilities isn’t as simple as unilateral MTA action. It’s never that simple, and the water doesn’t just disappear. So sooner rather than later, we’ll see this prickly process begin. Will real estate interests dominate transit? If history is any guide, it’s going to be an uphill battle to protect those tunnels.