Four years ago, when a huge winter storm socked New York City, the MTA and then-Gov. David Paterson, in the final few days of his tenure, got unlucky. For the first time in years, two subway trains — an N train in the Sea Beach line and an A train a few hundred yards outside of Howard Beach — were stranded for hours. Snow piled up; trains couldn’t move; lawsuits were filed. It was a political nightmare with the headlines to match. Since then, the MTA has tried to address bad weather events, and they have, by and large, succeeded.
The agency’s response to this worst-case scenario was to develop plans for various amounts of snow that largely maintained subway service. Generally, in blizzard conditions, all express service is curtailed so Transit can store trains underground, and service along the train lines that operate in open trenches rather than along elevated lines is curtailed. And you know what? It worked! Trains operated throughout most of the city, and no one was stranded in snowstorms. It required employees to clear elevated platforms, but the city could operate largely as normal.
And then today rolled around. It’s right now 11:30 p.m. on Monday, and the snow accumulations aren’t as severe as earlier forecasts predicted. Still, the worst of the blizzard is expected to hit while most of us are sleeping, and when we wake up in the morning, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx could have over two feet of snow on the ground while Manhattan and Staten Island may have around 18 inches. It doesn’t even really matter how much snow we get because, for some reason, Gov. Cuomo shuttered subway service at 11 p.m., and by all accounts, the decision was a unilateral one.
The MTA didn’t see this coming. After all, the city had never in 110 years closed the subways due to snow, and in fact, early on Monday, Tom Prendergast basically said that a shutdown was unnecessary. As he noted, most of the subway network is underground, and it doesn’t snow underground. Now, we learn that the subway shutdown caught the MTA off guard. Via a report in the Brooklyn Paper that’s been corroborated by other MTA sources, the agency may continue to run empty trains because the Governor thought he knew best:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to shut off the city’s subway system overnight on Monday ahead of an anticipated blizzard came as a surprise to transit workers and runs against common sense, because the trains need to move as part of keeping the tracks clear and will be running all night anyway, according to a transit insider. The governor’s 6 pm announcement that subway and bus service would be halted completely at 11 pm came as a surprise to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Incident Command Center, where workers first heard about it on the news, said the source, who lacks authorization to speak about internal matters and asked to remain anonymous.
The halting of subway service is the first ever for a snowstorm. It is ill-considered because an actual turning-off of the entire system requires moving all the cars to far-flung facilities for storage, as the agency did during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding was a concern, and rebooting from that takes ages, the insider said. Emergency personnel will be riding the trains overnight while no one else is allowed to, per the source. The closure will strand people and put lives at risk, not because the subways can’t run, but because Cuomo wants to look good, the source said…
The lack of ground transportation options makes keeping the subway open all the more important, the transit source said. “The roads being closed is all the more reason the underground lifeline should be open,” the source said.
The problem with Cuomo’s decision is that it doesn’t make sense. It’s a noble goal to keep cars off the road so that emergency response teams and plows can move through the city unimpeded. But it ignores the reality of New York City — an often inconvenient one for Cuomo — to shutter the subway. Now, New Yorkers, from everyone building cleaning crews to service employees at bars who are on duty until 4 a.m. to nurses and hospitals on duty overnight, can’t get around the city because the Governor decided it was somehow a danger for a subway system that operates largely underground to keep running through a massive but hardly unprecedented snow storm. Cuomo doesn’t want to deal with headlines placing the blame for the next stranded subway on his shoulders so instead, the entire city is effectively shut down.
A great irony in the governor’s move is that the subway itself arose from the paralysis of the Blizzard of 1888. New Yorkers needed a way to get around in a snow storm, and the subways were the perfect antidote to surface congestion. Now, after two hurricanes during which it made sense to stop subway service due to serious flooding concerns, the governor has decided that favorable headlines trump urban life. After all these years, should we expect anything else from a governor who hasn’t recognized the role transit plays in driving New York City’s existence? Sadly, I guess not.