When Superstorm Sandy swept through the New York City area, it left a wide swath of transit destruction in its path. New York City Transit’s subway tunnels connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens were flooded out while some parts of the system suffered further destruction. New Jersey Transit rather foolishly left its rolling stock in vulnerable areas. The Port Authority’s PATH trains still aren’t operating 24-7. It was the closest to a transit armageddon the region had seen in over a decade.
In the aftermath of the storm, Gov. Andrew Cuomo commissioned a few panels to ascertain the region’s next steps, and one of them — NYS2100 — released its preliminary report this week. We can’t wait until 2100 to implement these suggestions, and they’re worth assessing now. None of the panel’s transportation suggestions are all that groundbreaking, but with a state-commissioned body putting forward these ideas, hopefully acting and, more importantly, funding can come sooner rather than later.
NYS2100 featured some transit luminaries, including current RPA head Robert Yaro and former MTA chief Joe Lhota, and their suggestions seem to reflect such influence. At a high level, the panel has recommended a rapid CBTC implementation, action on the Gateway Tunnel and Metro-North Access plans and a faster and broader bus rapid transit network for the city. On a more philosophical level, the panel has urged the city to reconsider its transportation priorities.
“Even now,” the report says, “the state’s transportation network is being stressed to the limits of its capacity. For this reason, the recommendations in this chapter — building redundancies that enhance the overall transportation network — focus strongly on ways that enhance the resilience of the New York of tomorrow. The infrastructure we invest in today will serve generations of New Yorkers.”
First up is the subway system’s signaling. The panel suggests a rapid CBTC implementation because of the flexibility and increased capacity such a system provides. How this ties into a response from a major storm is a good guess. As far as I can see, CBTC would allow any non-flooded routes to run more trains. Otherwise, it’s an upgrade that shouldn’t require a massive weather event to see the light of day.
Next up comes the recommendation making headlines: The NYS2100 panel urges a crazy bus rapid transit network. “A world class BRT network would enhance the resilience and redundancy of the overall transit system by expanding and supplementing surface transit options,” the draft report says. SBS, says the panel, could be a foundation for a true bus rapid transit network, but all I see is the potential for four or five years of endless public studies with no actual progress made. Let’s reform the process before things get out of hand.
Furthermore, the panel urges New York to push forward on both Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel and the Penn Station Access project. The former requires a significant federal contribution and the latter the completion of the East Side Access project. Neither are expected to be ready before 2019 at the earliest. Looking to the future, the report also calls upon the state to “encourage alternate modes of transportation.” It is truly compelling language.
In terms of proactive protection, the NYS2100 panel put forward some recommendations that don’t need nearly as much snark as their forward-looking affirmations of projects currently in progress. The report urges the MTA to retrofit subway stations with waterproof roll-down doors; install below-grade vent closures to seal ventilation shafts; and to use inflatable plugs to seal tunnels. Of those three recommendations, the third is most controversial. It’s likely easier to recover from a tunnel flood than it is, as South Ferry has shown, from a station flood, and we should figure out a way to deliver more floodwater into the tunnels while better draining that piece of the infrastructure puzzle. I can’t argue with the doors and vent closures though as keeping water out in the first place should become a priority.
So what do we make of this panel and its suggestions? As my tone may indicate, I’m not too impressed. Most of these projects are in progress, and they hardly solve major problems. They don’t represent a major expansion of the rail network — with a corresponding decrease in car travel — and they seem to respond to problems we witnessed two months ago. They don’t address potential future problems different storms or steadily rising sea levels may pose to the city and its transportation network, and they don’t address funding sources. None of these ideas, obviously, are cheap.
In the end, we’re left at the beginning: With ideas that have long been discussed and no way to pay for the necessary upgrades. This is but a draft report. Hopefully, the final version can deliver on specifics, but I’m not too optimistic. Without the dollars and a funding source, the waters will rise, and the floods will come.