Home View from Underground To prepare for storms, panel urges rail expansion, CBTC and a BRT network

To prepare for storms, panel urges rail expansion, CBTC and a BRT network

by Benjamin Kabak

The H train is a symbol of the challenges facing the New York City transit system as superstorms become a greater threat to the region. (Photo via Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Amy Hausmann)

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.

You may also like


Bolwerk January 8, 2013 - 1:33 am

Sure, let’s spend billions on sub-par surface transit so we can have have a little bus service the few days each few years we have a Sandy-esque hurricane (and, yes, they’re probably gonna be more frequent). Hell, let’s buy three or four BRT vehicles for every subway car that will be put out of service. Let’s store them, I dunno, in the middle of Queens Blvd?

Really: that’s not even a sane position if we could afford the BRT. The only question is whether BRT advocates are stupid, cruel, or just delusional. If we let these clowns decide, NYS of 2100 is going to have the resilience of Hamburg in 1920.

corey best January 8, 2013 - 3:00 am

It should be LRT or Subways for most of NYC aside from a few LIRR expansions for NYC…nothing more , nothing less. For Urban Jersey complete the LRT Expansions in Newark , Elizabeth , Jersey City ,Paterson no BRT for Urban Jersey only LRT. Mostly Grade Seperated as with the original plans. If we had built the LRT network completely network by now , the PATH and NJT sandy issues would have been mute or lessened…

Bolwerk January 8, 2013 - 9:37 am

I think it still makes sense to build for the days we aren’t flooded, not the days we are.

Either way, we’ll never have enough buses or drivers to carry that many people on those days. LRT is a little better, but it won’t replace the subway system either.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 9:44 am

LRT is actually worse. Whenever there’s traffic, the entire LRT system gets messed up. If there’s an accident on the tracks, the LRT system gets messed up. If somebody is double-parking on the tracks, the LRT system gets messed up. So it’s not like the MTA wants to build any light rail lines any time soon.

Bolwerk January 8, 2013 - 10:33 am

That’s what bus ideologues always like to pretend. They want us to be held hostage, with a second rate surface transit system, to things that are rare but could conceivably happen. Most of the solution is dedicated lanes and proper traffic enforcement.

Even some American cities (e.g., Philadelphia) manage to handle street-level, mixed traffic surface rail. If anything, it might be more reliable than buses even then.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 10:42 am

That’s because they have private ROWs for part of their way, and have their own traffic light phases. NYC has nothing of that sort (except on the S79)

Bolwerk January 8, 2013 - 10:53 am

And you think light preemption and dedicated lanes are technical challenges? Dedicated lanes are often unnecessary, at least on minor streets.

We’re talking about something that doesn’t necessarily need a bigger footprint than SBS, except for (maybe) longer platforms.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 11:34 am

Most of the LRT lines planned for NYC (including the 42 St crosstown line) run mostly on major streets where during rush hours, the streets can get very crowded. If you converted a nearby side street to LRT-only (e.g. 44 St), that would be an entirely different story.

Bolwerk January 8, 2013 - 11:44 am

They belong on major streets. Those are the places people need to get to. The Vision42 plan explicitly calls for making 42nd LRT and pedestrian only.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 3:38 pm

There are other places, however, where LRT will be needed (e.g. 50 St) and it would be too hard to convert that major street to LRT/pedestrian-only.

Benjamin Kabak January 8, 2013 - 3:41 pm

It would only be “too hard” to do such a conversion without the right vision or support. The only thing stopping it from moving forward is a lack of organized effort honestly. Otherwise, what’s “too hard” about it?

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 11:24 am

@Someone: I’m not saying we should be building LRT willy-nilly. However, people who make claims about it not working because of track obstructions are parading a remarkable degree of ignorance and NIH outlook.

That said, I think there is a place for LRT in the city’s transportation mix. Vision42 is a smart project. I wouldn’t say it’s the most worthy LRT corridor in the city, but it’s not a bad idea.

Someone January 9, 2013 - 11:32 am

Ben: Imagine the gridlock that would ensue on neighboring streets when a major one-way street is closed. It would be mayhem, even though the light rail line itself would be more efficient.

Benjamin Kabak January 9, 2013 - 11:36 am

Two points:

1. 50th St. isn’t that major of a one-way street. It’s two blocks in either direction from other one-way streets that also head east.

2. When you close streets, traffic levels decrease. Just look at 7th Ave. south of 50th Street for a comp. That hasn’t resulted in a traffic apocalypse through Times Square.

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 11:45 am

Ben: I have it on good authority (BrooklynBus) that the DOT and/or police are simply conspiring to hide the traffic increase several blocks away from Times Square. Derp!

Someone January 9, 2013 - 3:24 pm

Ben: Seventh Avenue hasn’t been closed below 50th St- yet.

Benjamin Kabak January 9, 2013 - 3:26 pm

Broadway south of 50th is closed, and opponents predicted traffic chaos on 7th. That has not happened.

Someone January 10, 2013 - 8:36 am

It’s only the portion of Broadway south of 47th that’s closed, as far as I know.

Larry Littlefield January 8, 2013 - 7:21 am

Certainly some of these things should be done if the MTA, city, state and federal government weren’t basically going broke, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the storm. It’s like Pataki asking the federal government for money for high speed rail upstate in response to 9/11.

How about fully funding the next capital plan with something other than borrowing, finishing the modest expansions (somehow called “mega-projects”) now under way, and adding a little bit of low cost storm proofing to the program? With an unfunded capital plan, this is yet another PR joke.

We are facing Hurricane Seniors — soaring Medicare and Medicaid costs and no more excess Social Security revenues to raid at the federal level, and unfunded and growing pension and retiree health care costs at the state and local level — plus the excess debts Generation Greed will leave behind. Yet they want to talk about great things in the encumbered future. Many 20 years after they are gone.

Nathanael January 8, 2013 - 9:28 pm

Remember, the federal government *cannot* go broke. It prints and coins money (Bureau of Engraving and Printing).

What’s happened is that the federal government has *decided*, for very poor reasons, not to print enough money. And to bestow the money it does print on extremely rich bankers, or defense contractors, or to blow it up in foreign countries,…. instead of using it to pay people to do useful things.

The money shortage among average people is a direct consequence.
The money shortage at the state, city, and MTA level is a secondary consequence.

We need a New Deal.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 7:58 am

Sure, let’s create some more BRT routes and see where all the money’s going to go- probably down the drain. A hurricane is rare and for the 2-3 days every one or two years that there is a hurricane, there’s going to be too little ridership to justify a BRT route. Besides, as Bolwerk said, where are all the buses going to be stored?

TP January 8, 2013 - 10:32 am

Huh? I took buses to work the day they were back after Sandy before the subway was running. They were packed beyond belief. It’s nice for professionals who can “work from home” during bad weather to say that there’s no ridership during or after storms because THEY wouldn’t be among that ridership. But it’s just not true. People have to get to jobs, family, and errands 24/7. The city can’t shut down. Car owners and cabs were traveling throughout Sandy. Some people can’t afford them.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 10:51 am

The buses (including SBS routes) were shut down during Sandy. The only reason why they were “packed beyond belief” the following day was because the fares were free. People were crowding the subways the following Thursday and Friday as well, because the fares were also free.

Nathanael January 8, 2013 - 9:28 pm

No, that’s not the reason; it’s idiotic to think so.

The reason the buses were packed is that all the people who normally ride the subway were trying to ride the buses.

Nathanael January 8, 2013 - 9:29 pm

And the subways which were open were packed because *half the subways were closed*. This is not complicated stuff.

Someone January 9, 2013 - 7:58 am

Yeah, but still, most people would jump at the chance of getting free stuff.

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 11:31 am

The only reason bus fares were free is it reduces boarding times. They were doing their best to move people in the face of disaster.

On a normal day, the MTA doesn’t care about surface transit riders’ time. Of course they should be employing SBS features on every bus line to improve boarding times.

Someone January 9, 2013 - 11:38 am

With SBS, people now get on buses without even paying the receipt. The NYPD doesn’t care about ticketing people without receipts anymore.

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 11:43 am

I thought the MTA uses its own inspectors.

Anyway, effective POP is a probabilistic approach to fare collection. You don’t need to get every evader. You just need to get some of them, and the fine for getting caught should be high enough to make up for the lost revenue from the others that escape.

Someone January 9, 2013 - 3:25 pm

I know that you don’t need to get every evader. I’m just saying that the NYPD is doing next to nothing in terms of ticketing any evaders, so the loss from SBS is more than the profit.

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 3:31 pm

I thought the MTA’s inspectors handled the ticketing.

Someone January 15, 2013 - 3:55 pm

They are in partnership with the NYPD.

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 11:29 am

Heh, I would be curious to see the numbers. The bus ideologues started touting the MTA’s ability to transport people across bridges with buses as evidence of bus supremacy, but then it turned out they were only transporting about 2k people/hour.

Meanwhile, what I’d really be curious about: how many people who normally would take the subway just stayed home and waited a few more days? I bet buses barely made a dent in subway ridership.

Ray January 8, 2013 - 8:40 am

Given that they had a month to work and te scope of this panel, I am not surprised that their recommendations are limited to what Ben has discussed. What opportunity for rail expansion or corresponding decreases in car travel would fit into this panel’s charge? On balance, the existing ideas seem appropriate; those selected soundly recast as relevant to storm recovery; even though each has been discussed before. Good for them.

Surely CBTC offers capacity increases that are needed for the next few generations of riders. Gateway, Penn Station access perhaps combined with a project like Penn South and mitigation of west side rail yard vulnerability might make sense. Entry and vent doors don’t seem like a bad idea for any near sea level station and tunnel plugs seem like an idea employed elsewhere. A wholesale improvement in our bus system is long overdue. Where is the error in judgement here given the scope?

SEAN January 8, 2013 - 9:29 am

The error lies in the fact that surface transit AKA BRT won’t provide enough redundincy if the rail system has a parcial or full shutdown do to some type of disaster, weather or otherwise.

As I said the other day, BRT has it’s place in the transit landscape, but there needs to be an expantion of the rail network as well.

You want money for transit projects? Cut the defence department budget in half.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 9:53 am

Any capacity increases that are made will be minimal. Only 9 of the system’s 24 lines are above capacity, and NYC is not experiencing a rapid population growth like Beijing or Shanghai. So we wouldn’t need to have much more ATO installation in the system anytime soon.

Bolwerk January 8, 2013 - 10:10 am

Improvement of the bus system can be done through attrition and incremental improvements. Within 15 years, nearly every bus in NYC will need to be replaced. They could include things like onboard TVMs and adopt SBS practices over time. POP should be possible practically immediately, if only there were a portable metrocard reader.

The obstinacy of being against vastly superior surface rail is still astounding though – and proper surface rail is probably wildly cheaper than the Faithful’s “true BRT” wet dream.

Nathanael January 8, 2013 - 9:33 pm

Depends how you do it. If NYCDOT had the will to paint “BUS LANE” on a bunch of lanes, and if the mayor & city council were willing to bash heads at the NYPD until they actually enforced the bus lanes, you could get most of the benefits of BRT really cheap.

Yeah, I know, it seems like that is impossible. But previous mayors would have been able to do it. LaGuardia, Hylan,….

You’ve had weak city government for quite a few decades. I’m not sure why. You need a mayor and city council who are able to take control of the out-of-control NYPD.

Bolwerk January 9, 2013 - 11:41 am

Well, dedicated bus lines are cheap and well and good sometimes. Sometimes as a temporary measure until LRT can be funded. No need to make the good the enemy of the perfect.

I think there’s just the fact that Bloomberg’s third term was just a bad idea – not that his first term was a good idea. Bloomberg never, ever set out to accomplish much, and has pretty much gotten what he’s going to get, which to his credit is modest transpo improvements. Now he’s just stagnant, after having accomplished little. As for the police, Ray Kelly is stagnant too. His, and Bloomberg’s, ideas about policing are mostly mired in crack epidemic-era paranoia. Of course, Mayor Quinn will likely turn out to be a dumber brand of Bloomberg. Hopefully she won’t fall into the trap of replacing Kelly with Bratton.

Nathanael January 9, 2013 - 9:25 pm

Never elect anyone over 40. 🙂

Justin Samuels January 10, 2013 - 6:30 am

Bloomberg won’t necessarily endorse Quinn, and whoever Bloomberg endorses won’t necessarily win. Bloomberg won only 51% of the 15% of eligible New Yorkers who bothered to even vote in that election.

The biggest chance of rail expansion NYC has had in awhile is now that the mayor of NYC will be replaced!

Bolwerk January 10, 2013 - 11:46 am

Who is the transit candidate then? Lhota? I don’t see one on the Democratic side.

Quinn is leading the Dems. Chances are, in an open race, whoever wins the Dems’ primary becomes mayor.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines January 8, 2013 - 8:59 am

[…] “World Class” BRT Among Recommendations From Cuomo Sandy Commission (TransNat, SAS) […]

John-2 January 8, 2013 - 9:13 am

What the report shows is there isn’t any ‘outside the box’ idea post-Sandy that the panel suddenly came up with to directly deal with hurricane flooding which hadn’t been hashed about in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Identify the stations and lines within the Zone A flood areas and seal up vents and station entrances as well as possible. That’s your flood mitigation. The other items, even including the debatable tunnel plugs (which probably make more sense for lines where the last stations before the tunnel on either side of the river aren’t all that close to the water) are really secondary. BRT and Gateway may be desirable, but if you’re truly in a situation where you want to be proactive towards the next major storm to hit the area and realize you only have a limited amount of money to work with, those are the items that go on the ‘wish list’ while the other items are put on the ‘to do’ list and are designated for actual funding.

LLQBTT January 8, 2013 - 9:25 am

At the same time, the Rockaway Beach Branch is at the beginning of its conversion to parkland. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01.....&_r=0

Nathanael January 8, 2013 - 9:34 pm

Asinine. Well, your government remains uninterested in building a functioning city.

lawhawk January 8, 2013 - 9:29 am

As Sandy showed, the need for dealing with flooded infrastructure is a paramount concern. Workarounds are also important.

In the former, fortifying vulnerable low-lying areas is a start. Whether that means building an improved sea wall in Lower Manhattan, raising entrances several feet above the highest flood stage, changing and raising ventilation for subways, they will take time, money, and create controversy over design and cost.

Improved pumping of the tunnels and stations needs to be considered – building in cisterns to drain water away from key infrastructure could give pumps a chance to stay ahead of flooding.

Tunnel plugs are also a piece of the puzzle, but as Ben notes, the biggest problem is dealing with damage to station infrastructure.

PATH still has problems at Exchange Place where Sandy related damage probably caused the escalator malfunction that injured several people yesterday. It highlights the problems with deep tunnels/station access and the problems in the aftermath of storms. That station is far more dangerous to access because of the lack of escalators than it was when the escalators were operable. Fixing the problem would mean raising the entrance above flood levels to prevent overflow into the station.

Hardening electrical and signal systems against occasional flooding would be critical areas of improvement since those are the systems that prevent service from being restored (bypassing stations that have flood damage where necessary).

Triboro RX would provide cross borough transit. Gateway would improve redundancy on the NEC, but the bigger impediment with Amtrak/NJT service is the outdated electrical systems and the Portal Bridge, which would be raised significantly above grade (and flood levels) through the Meadowlands if and when funding is approved.

Nathanael January 8, 2013 - 9:35 pm

I don’t see any way to protect Hoboken, incidentally.

Robert LaMarca January 8, 2013 - 2:31 pm

I still cannot fathom the opposition here to tunnel plugs. It seems that you are trying to say that allowing the tunnel to flood somehow protects the station above. However voluminous, the tunnel cannot drain away all the water from .. The Ocean.

This has been mentioned before here and elsewhere. Allowing the tunnel to flood will not alleviate flooding of the station or of the surrounding neighborhood.

Pretending that it would, however is a clever way to divert the money that might be used to defend the tunnel to much larger projects like defending the privately – owned real estate in the same area.

It would seem that the tunnel plugs would be the simplest and quickest investment to protect a rather large infrastructure element. Low-hanging fruit it would seem.

Even if the stations or other areas would be protected the tunnel plug would be an excellent backstop should other barriers fail.

Someone January 8, 2013 - 8:17 pm

I was going to be a smarty pants and ask what CTBC was… So anyway, where is CBTC going to be installed after the CBTC installations on the Culver, QB, and Flushing lines are complete?

Barely a nod to transit in Cuomo’s State of the State :: Second Ave. Sagas January 10, 2013 - 9:31 am

[…] and a panel Cuomo assembled had, just days before his speech, issued a report calling for a bus network, system hardening and increased investment in transit. Instead, his 300-page pamphlet on the state mentions the MTA just once: The following measures […]

Urban Omnibus » Roundup — SPURA RFP, Simpler Signs, the Pothole Gang, Chelsea Wi-Fi, Sandy Updates, Trash Dance, and Lowering the Cost of Housing January 18, 2013 - 6:44 pm

[…] the potential of large-scale projects such as a moveable sea gate across the Verrazano Narrows. Regarding mass transit, the commission recommended a robust Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, rapid implementation of […]


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy