Home Superstorm Sandy For South Ferry, mitigation and a new signal room

For South Ferry, mitigation and a new signal room

by Benjamin Kabak
The MTA has proposed a variety of locations for an above-ground signal relay room for the South Ferry area.

The MTA has proposed a variety of locations for an above-ground signal relay room for the South Ferry area.

When last I saw the new South Ferry station, it was in tatters. I journeyed into the station this past February, nearly four months after Sandy, and it was a ghost town. Mud, dirt and leaves washed in by the floodwaters marred the station while soggy ceiling panels still lay on the floor of the totaled control room. The signal system was fried, and it was clear it would take a long time for the MTA to restore service to the station.

On Monday, we learned that the MTA is targeting mid-2016 for the station’s revival. In a presentation to the MTA Board’s Capital Program Oversight Committee, Vice President & Program Executive John O’Grady discussed the station’s immediate future and the long-term plans for protecting the signal room. Eventually, the work may stretch on for the better part of the remainder of the decade and could involve yet another fight over part of Battery Park.

During his presentation, O’Grady focused first on the immediate needs. Revenue service is expected to resume in June of 2016, and the MTA is still eying $600 million, all in Sandy recovery funds from the federal government, as the project’s budget. The work will involve essentially stripping out everything from the station and rebuilding it from the shell up. And yes, included in this work will be a renewed focus on leak mitigation, a problem that needed solving since the day the new South Ferry station opened.

As far as timing goes, the MTA plans to start the bid process in early 2014. The demolition package will be advertised in January, and the station complex work will be advertised in February. The key focus though will be on protecting the signal relay room as its importance extends well beyond the South Ferry station. Where it will end up is anyone’s guess.

The immediate problem with South Ferry, besides its vulnerability to flooding, is the above-ground land use. There isn’t much free space, and a large portion of the southern tip of Manhattan is devoted to parkland that nearby neighbors defend with their lives (and their lawyers). The MTA ran into some issues regarding tree removal during the initial construction of the new South Ferry station, and now the agency is again proposing to take some parkland for transit uses.

According to O’Grady’s presentation, the MTA will engage in interim flood remediation efforts for the South Ferry signal relay, including submarine-style doors that can effectively protect electrical equipment in the face of an incoming storm. But to ensure the signals are safe, they have to be constructed above ground. To that end, the MTA has proposed a series of locations, some of which are in Battery Park, that are protected and near enough to key switches to remain effective. To build an above-ground room with proper relay equipment could take until 2019.

For now, the relocated signal room is a plan but not a definite one. The MTA will move ahead with its underground fortifications and will stockpile spare parts in the event of another flood. One way or another, the effects of Sandy will linger well into the second half of the decade, and we’ll keep crossing our fingers that another storm doesn’t sweep through while all this work is underway.

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Walt Gekko December 17, 2013 - 12:51 am

In my view, what they should have done in this case was to expand the old loop station to fit 10 cars and even perhaps re-opened the inner loop station (as NTT cars probably can be programmed to only open doors that match the platform openings there) with it done so there were transfers from both stations between each other as well as Whitehall Street. Even if you had to make Bowling Green (including the short platform for a revived BG-SS shuttle) ADA accessible to do this, it would likely have been a better expenditure of money in this case especially given what we now know post-Sandy.

Berk32 December 17, 2013 - 9:05 am


Eric F December 17, 2013 - 10:16 am

It might have been more difficult to configure a larger loop than build the rectangular format. Also the “new” station allowed for some train storage.

What a waste of money. The new South Ferry Station was very nice.

Larry Littlefield December 17, 2013 - 12:49 pm

No need to configure anything. Just dig down and extend the existing platform north.

You’d lose the train storage, and have to keep the platform extenders. You might have to remove and replace some trees.

But the cost would be a fraction of what they are talking about. Federal money is not cost free.

Walt Gekko December 17, 2013 - 12:56 pm

Exactly Larry:

The cost to do what I would have looked at would have been far cheaper in the first place. Extending the old outer platform, rehabbing the inner loop station and having both have transfers to the Broadway line would likely have cost less than doing the new station, let alone the re-do of the new station.

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 1:41 pm

The point is going to continue to be missed. The fillers/extenders are apart of the fixed signaling system. They are a very old system at that no one maintains a business in because there is no demand anywhere in the world for this. Which raises the cost of maintenance year over year.

Essentially there is no future for such system and it’s reliability is bad now. It affects service negatively on a bi-weekly basis now. How long before THIS becomes one of those “it cost too much” banners that everyone continues to raise? Will it be when failure rate reaches a weekly rate? Or how about when it forces a full station shutdown for an entire weekday once a month?

Trying to save the money is a noble concept but some people can’t see the dollar you save today will be the same dollar if not more you’ll spend tomorrow.

John-2 December 17, 2013 - 3:35 pm

As of now, I’d say the MTA will be in need of gap filler technology pretty much in perpetuity, unless someone has an idea on how to eliminate their need on the downtown 4/5/6 platform at Union Square without spending X millions of dollars to redo the uptown side even further north than it already is, compared to the southbound tracks. So the aging design and required parts are still going to be a part of the A Division’s hardware for a long time to come.

That doesn’t mean the MTA should stay with a five-car platform at a major station (what you can get away with at 145th and Lennox you can’t at South Ferry due to the passenger load). But as far as the moving parts, the MTA is going to be stuck buying them or fabricating them for Union Square, so having to have parts for five more units at South Ferry isn’t nearly as big a determining factor as losing 50 percent of your door access points.

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 3:54 pm

Absolutely correct! However Union Square fillers have been upgraded to the tune of a very hefty price take several years back. They can recognize a 10 or 5 car train. After 9/11 the SF loop fillers received what some would call a tune up. However the extenders themselves were new the parts under the hood were not and it is basically working on the same polished off system that was put in place about a century ago.

None of this is to say Union Square has a good long term solution but it can go on for longer than SF but at some point even a long term plan will need to be developed for Union Square as the southbound platform itself is the source of much congestion as far north as 86th Street and sometimes even further than that.

Ferryboi December 17, 2013 - 1:35 am

The MTA and DOT seem to coordinate bus/rail/ferry operations pretty well at the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island. Wonder if they can do the same on the Manhattan side and put the signal relay room upstairs inside the relative new (and very large) Whitehall Terminal. I know they made provisions for office space on the upper floors of Whitehall Terminal. Maybe the MTA and DOT can coordinate to put the signal relay room upstairs, well away from any future floodwaters.

Peter December 17, 2013 - 8:37 am

Does the signal room really need to be physically proximate to the station? How close?

As for the tree battle – as I recall, it was pretty much Shelly Silver that threatened to hold up construction. He folded when a GOP member of the House at the time (Fosella), threatened to block SAS funding unless he gave in.

Silver’s district was impacted quite heavily by Sandy. Hopefully he will be more reasonable this time.

Larry Littlefield December 17, 2013 - 8:55 am

Shelly Silver doesn’t give a crap.

And what is it a new era? More likely the Municipal Art Society will object and the MTA will cut system maintenance to spend another $500 billion to put the signal room out of sight.

Bolwerk December 17, 2013 - 10:33 am

I wonder how much of this cost is because they’re afraid to rip everything out any way but piecemeal. I would think it would be relatively easy to rip out the whole complex, including the old South Ferry station, and build a new complex from scratch. It means losing service for a year or two, but it has upsides too, like perhaps making accommodations for continuing to Staten Island.

al December 17, 2013 - 8:49 pm

Take it in another direction. You wouldn’t have the Rector St Run if the passengers could move safely between cars. The R62’s are now 25-30 yrs old. They have another 20-25 years left. How about we do a midlife upgrade. Replace the car end doors with enclosed vestibule gangways.

P.S. With 3D printing viable on ceramics, plastics, and metals, the cost of MTA keeping old machines running is about to drop. If they can draw it, model it, they can make it.

Brandon December 17, 2013 - 8:40 am

2016? Dont bother buying metrocard machines for it, assuming they can hold to THAT timeline. See you in 2018.

Abba December 17, 2013 - 1:23 pm

Are the old machines in the new station still working? I feel that it should not be rebuilt.$600 million can go towards other things.Namely bringing back old bus routes.

pete December 20, 2013 - 3:14 pm

Bring back bus routes that will operate for one year and then be discontinued again.

Joe December 17, 2013 - 9:32 am

Wouldn’t the signal relay room be safer in the station? In the station it is only subject to static water loads (add pumps in the room and viola!), whereas outside it’s subject to more unpredictable wind, wave, and impact loading from debris. Why create an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful stretch of Battery Park?

Tommy P December 17, 2013 - 12:30 pm

I would argue the opposite — the wind, wave, and any impact damage is *MORE* predictable outside than below ground. They’re building with the expectation that the underground station will flood; the MTA apparently planned foolishly that the station and its expensive signal equipment wouldn’t flood even though it’s only a few hundred feet from the shore.

John-2 December 17, 2013 - 9:37 am

They might also be able to put the signal room above the turn-around area for the M15 buses on the northwest side of the terminal. That would put the signals at least 15-feet above the street and create a covering from the weather for riders waiting for the uptown buses, with the connections downstairs to the tracks run through the island between the driveways for the incoming and outgoing buses.

BoerumHillScott December 17, 2013 - 10:12 am

MTA wants the room close to the switches, which would rule out the south end of the station.

Eric F December 17, 2013 - 10:19 am

They should build a flat roofed building and stick a recreational facility on top, commensurate with the size. Maybe a 1/2 basketball court or something, to smooth it through the process.

Ray L. Fan December 17, 2013 - 1:32 pm

They can still open all 10 cars on the existing loop track – have the train make 2 stops, the usual one plus a 2nd one where the conductor’s position is at the front of the station. Would need a few extra cameras/monitors and markings in the tunnel for the 2nd stop. This will probably not slow service down since the conductor usually has to spend a couple of minutes at Chambers and/or Rector reminding people to move forward if they want to exit at South Ferry, which won’t be needed anymore.

TH December 17, 2013 - 1:49 pm

Seriously, why didn’t they think of this along time ago?

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 1:52 pm

Actually no….the conductor doesn’t have to spend a few extra minutes at Chambers reminding people to move up. That’s why there are still platform personnel at Rector Street. When it’s done at Chambers it’s being done because the train is held to schedule which is not always the case.

Point is two stops at the loop would severely effect service. The point of a terminal is to organize service levels. This works hand and hand with the schedule. You allow passengers to board and set interval times. What’s the point of making a second stop if you’re just going to close up immediately and leave? Most people have already shoved on in the front. Now you made a second stop for maybe 50 more people which is absurd. Matters are compounded if that second stop comes just a minute after another boat came in now you have a delay as a result of a boarding surge and that delay will compound it’s way all the way uptown unless the train is skipped several stations but still defeating the purpose of providing service to all stations.

ajedrez December 17, 2013 - 2:33 pm

Most of the time, they do it in between Chambers & Rector, and then when they open the doors at Rector, anybody who’s still in the back of the train rushes forward. (And 99% of the time, the entire back of the train is vacated, because anybody who isn’t already familiar with the process usually puts two and two together and realizes that the doors won’t open at SF).

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 3:58 pm

No I’m telling you because I see it first hand regularly that there are staffed platform conductors who go through the last 5 cars at Rector Street telling many people, most of the tourists to move forward.

As one person has told me, they tell a few people who repeatedly board the back section only to have to be moved at Rector. They know these few people by faces at this point. That’s sad!

But the point if the train is held due to scheduling at Chambers then most will remind customers to move forward at that point until the train is allowed to proceed to Rector.

Herb Lehman December 17, 2013 - 1:47 pm

I know there are other necessary reasons for spending $600 million on re-doing the “new” station, but as someone who uses South Ferry station regularly, I think it’s a shame that so much money is going to be spent on a station that in some ways, is functionally worse than what is being used currently.

The “new” station is so far underground that it is inconvenient for riders coming off and going to the Staten Island Ferry. It takes forever to make the connection, especially when escalators are out of order.

The only major problem with the “old” station from a commuter’s perspective, other than the fact that it fit only five cars, was the fact that there was only one way in and out. That problem was solved with the new connector to the R train that was added after Sandy.

I know I’m not the only one who prefers the old station. I’d rather the money be spent on renovating and adding new entrances/exits to the 68th Street station on the 6 line — an extremely overcrowded station that is a disaster waiting to happen.

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 2:13 pm

It may be time that everyone starts understanding where the money is coming from. First when the station was built the funds were designated as 9/11 Recovery funds. There was plans on even building the station to begin with until everyone started asking themselves how they could improve Lower Manhattan.

The money to rebuild the station comes from Sandy recovery and rebuilding funds. It’s money that the MTA didn’t have to begin with and is being provided as insurance to fix fortify what was destroyed. Not to spend on anything else. Not every locality can pull off what Chris Christie did with Arch Funds.

Michael December 17, 2013 - 2:28 pm

I do not prefer the old station over the new station, plainly I like the new station. And yes, I travel the subways regularly, and have done the “bus-ferry-subway” daily since 1990. Yes, there are more pluses and some minuses to the new station, and a few pluses and more minuses with the old station, but on balance the new station is better – in my opinion. There are several major problems with the old station, no I’m not nostalgia tripping about some imagined past.

Some folks see the situation as “either/or” – the money is spent here, or it is not spent there, etc. The situation at 68th Street is a good example, where there was discussion and debate, even involving local community residents upset by the possible changes. There are times when disasters happen, and there have been several transit-related disasters in NYC history.

Among the various incidents that have occurred in NYC, in July 1956 a major fire at the old Wanamaker Department store flooded, and destroyed the subway stations at both Astor Place and at 8th Street. Train service in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn was disrupted. There was no thought, “well since there was a fire that flooded the subways, maybe we should not fix it, why bother getting the subways working again. Yeah, the stations are filled with water, its gonna cost money to fix it, so let’s just leave it! So what folks are affected, tough noogies, etc.” Maybe it was a good thing that nobody listened the naysayers of the day.

Just keeping it real.

Herb Lehman December 17, 2013 - 4:21 pm

Mea culpa – I didn’t realize that there was a discussion in 2011 to improve 68th Street (as I just found in the archives). I started using that station regularly in 2013.

I also didn’t mean to imply that Sandy money should be re-directed to something unrelated (as my comment definitely does, now that I re-read it). My point simply was that I’m not sure reconstructing the “new” station will really have that many benefits to people who use that station on an everyday basis, now that there is an extra exit into and out of the station.

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 6:56 pm

That I understand however the station was built with the intention of improving capacity for future growth which is what improvements to the subway system should be all about. An eye towards the future instead of waiting for horror shows like the biggest one of them all. Lexington Avenue…

ajedrez December 17, 2013 - 2:39 pm

As a fellow SI commuter, I agree.

When the first station opened, I thought “This will be great, because if there’s a train already in the station, we can just pull into the other track”. Then I find out that the train is still crawling into the station because they didn’t build any tail tracks, and on top of that, you have to climb additional stairs to get up to the ferry, since it’s at a deeper level, making it at best, a break even.

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 4:07 pm

That’s another problem. Yes SI commuters would like there to be a convenient connection but it wasn’t built to provide a convenient connection and we should all know that by now just like some Ferry commuters complain that the train doesn’t get them to their boat on time. The 1 line schedule is not geared towards allowing people to connect with the next scheduled boat. Because no matter what someone would miss the boat anyway.

The station was built to provide the most reliable expandable service possible. Without the gap fillers, you don’t have 100 year old filler malfunction. You have more even boarding along a full length train as opposed to just 5 cars. More trains can be turned as two trains could occupy the station as opposed to 5 cars in a loop while the next train waits for as much as 5 minutes to enter as the one in the station waits for it’s scheduled leaving time. With being able to turn more trains service can be expanded as it currently cannot with the loop.

Larry Littlefield December 17, 2013 - 4:09 pm

Right, and there are no tail tracks because they had to move the station right up to the water’s edge because people didn’t want the “old growth” forest (on landfill) to be cut down and then replaced.

Michael December 17, 2013 - 5:01 pm

However there are MORE STAIRWAYS – not a single stairway that EVERYBODY has to climb, but stairways to the mezzanine, and to stairs directly to the streets, and escalators, and elevators, and MORE Metro-Card machines, etc. No more having to stand in certain spots on the platforms and trains just to get home. So when there’s the rush of folks coming off the ferry, and the rush of folks of coming off the trains at the same time – there’s much less fighting, cursing, and stress! Why – because there is MUCH MORE SPACE.

Right now some folks see two paths to the South Ferry local stop, one direct from the new station, and the one stairway that is behind the Nathan’s food stand in the Ferry. They forget that that stairway (currently behind the Nathan’s food stand) was the ONLY STAIRWAY. They forget that the entrance to the loop station (until the new terminal was built) was a cramped affair under a curving ramps outside the ferry terminal building with just a few turn-styles.

The burning down of the ferry terminal in 1991 was the rare chance and opportunity to envision a new multi-purpose transit facility, with the funding that would come, that took decades to realize. The attack upon the WTC was the rare chance to envision a new collection of amenities and buildings at the site, through the funding that would occur. That the flooding that occurred not only at South Ferry, and but in other parts of the city, and the funding that comes along – provide a rare chance to improve upon what existed.

We can not always plan our disasters, they do not fit into our schedules – but one can learn & grow from them, and use that chance to do something better and different than what was there. The closing of the city’s first aqueduct and the burning down of the Crystal Palace – allowed NYC to build the magnificent New York Public Library. There is a natural push from tragedy to make something good as the result.


Larry Littlefield December 17, 2013 - 9:17 pm

The old station was a pit and needed a rehab, ADA, more entrances and exits, and an extension so all 10 cars could platform. Plus perhaps the connection to Whitehall, although that was not absolutely required.

But all this could have been done faster and cheaper, at the cost of keeping the curve and the platform extenders and removing and then replacing some trees.

By extending the existing platform and building more stairways and ramps. It might have been possible to widen the platform at the ferry end as well. After all, it isn’t down far from the street.

D. Graham December 17, 2013 - 10:45 pm

All this being said….yes it would have been cheaper yet it would have made Sandy even more devastating. Why because at least the loop is a fall back option. Without the terminal being built under it not only does the Sandy flood waters dwarf the loop station, but since it also connects to Bowling Green, those waters might have backed up and overtaken the pumps for Joralemon St tube. As well as completely flooded out Montague St tube and the Whitehall St station itself. The existence of the terminal might have saved more money just by it’s sacrifice.

Walt Gekko December 20, 2013 - 12:35 am

And why I would now do the extension of old SF to accommodate 10 cars while also rehabbing the old inner loop station (since NTT (R142A/R188) cars likely can be programmed to only open the center doors at old SF inner if it did reopen) with both having a transfer to the (R). While not completely abandoning the new station, that in this scenario could serve as mainly a mini-yard as well as a “barebones” station (absolute basics) that can be used when needed. This also would revive the old Bowling Green-South Ferry shuttle (with all necessary work on the short platform at BG done for that) on weekdays while when there is enough capacity, the (6) would return to being extended to South Ferry as it used to be nights and weekends while the (5) when not running to Brooklyn would also run to South Ferry.

At this point, that may be the better scenario if the old SF outer station can be extended to accommodate 10 cars.

Beebo December 17, 2013 - 4:45 pm

Okay, so the DOT runs the Ferry, whose building is how close to the station? (very close.) And we can’t get some space in their lobby for a switch room? Bet no one asked.


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