Home MTA Politics A postmortem on a postmortem: MTA’s snow plan; LGA AirTrain’s true cost

A postmortem on a postmortem: MTA’s snow plan; LGA AirTrain’s true cost

by Benjamin Kabak

When I published my postmortems this week on the decision to halt subway service amidst the threat of snow and on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain, I didn’t think I’d be revisiting those topics any time soon. I knew they would both be in the news, but I thought we could let them rest. I was wrong.

The Snow Plan

I’ll start with the snow plan. MTA head Tom Prendergast journeyed to Albany on Thursday to discuss the state of the MTA’s budget. He was there to lobby for the capital plan, but the talk turned to the snow. Since Prendergast is in the position — as we all are — of answer to his boss, he did his best yet again to defend the MTA’s reaction, but it’s been clear that Prendergast is out there as much to protect Cuomo as anything else.

At one point during the State Senate hearings, Prendergast discussed the reasons for the closure and decided to argue for public safety. “If people were inconvenienced,” he said, “that’s far better than somebody dying.” Of course, this ignores 110 years of New York City history in which no one has ever died in a snow storm walking to or from the subway, and it is in fact, as I’ve said, safer to keep trains running in a storm than shutting them down for the simple fact that some people will have to travel and should be accorded the respect to make the decision to go out in bad weather conditions.

But that’s an argument I’ve exhausted. I want to instead talk about the MTA’s plans. I had the chance to read the MTA’s 2014-2015 Winter Operations Plan. It contemplates running service in all kinds of weather from cold temperates (Plan I) to a declared snow emergency (Plan V). This is a 360-page document designed to maintain subway service through inclimate weather while working to ensure that no one is stranded.

On Tuesday — during a planned snow emergency — here’s what should have happened: The MTA would have moved trains from outdoor yards to underground express tracks while all service ran local. If conditions warranted, the agency could “order the orderly closing of lines to prevent incapacitated trains and uncertain travel plans for passengers.” As the plan notes, “if weather becomes too extreme…the Brighton, Sea Beach, West End, Dyre, Rockaway, Culver, and Canarsie lines will experience outages so that lines can be cleared and back to full service as soon as possible.”

This wasn’t some fly-by-night plan, and the idea, as some have put forth, that the public couldn’t handle on-the-fly service changes betrays the daily reality of service changes. It is, frankly, insulting to the public. With proper communication, people can get around relatively safely, and service changes are less confusion than stranding people miles from home. Ultimately, the MTA had a plan, and Cuomo made them deviate. We should understand why, and the explanation, which may very well be a political one, should be thorough.

Early on Thursday, the Daily News reported that the MTA may explore running trains in snowstorms. It’s a funny way to put it because the MTA already has a plan to run trains through serious snow storms. Prendergast and Cuomo could certainly reconsider the plan and implement a Plan VI shutdown that’s a bit more thought-out than Monday’s decision. Ultimately, they should remember though, as Glynnis MacNicol wrote, not everyone has the choice to stay home no matter how bad the weather gets.

The Cost of the LGA AirTrain

At the same public hearing up in Albany, Prendergast got to talking about the Governor’s plan for the LaGuardia AirTrain, and, oops!, it might cost more than $450 million. Prendergast mentioned under questioning that the $450 million was at the low end of a cost range, and that the upper bounds of the project’s budget is closer to $1 billion. It made little sense at $450 million; it makes no sense at $1 billion. And does anyone believe the MTA, the Port Authority or whichever other entity the State of New York tabs to build this thing would deliver it at under half a billion dollars? I don’t.

For more on the Albany hearing and Prendergast’s answers on the AirTrain costs, check out Dana Rubinstein and Jimmy Vielkind’s coverage at Capital New York. The MTA is trying not to come across as blind-sided by Cuomo’s proposal, but it seems clear that they were.

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John-2 January 30, 2015 - 12:43 am

Early on Thursday, the Daily News reported that the MTA may explore running trains in snowstorms. It’s a funny way to put it because the MTA already has a plan to run trains through serious snow storms.

I suppose the News could have revised their headline to “Subways plan to return to snow protocols previously in use for 110 years, three months and one day” but aside from the head being too long, that wouldn’t make it sound as if Cuomo and Prendergast are doing something revolutionary by keeping all or part of the system running during winter storms.

As for AirTrain, the cost of the project has now more than doubled in the span of less than two weeks, bringing it pretty much into line with the equally dicey PATH extension to Newark Airport. Given the other new projects either in need of funds (SAS-Phase II) or facing likely future cost overruns (East Side Access), let alone maintenance and operation of what’s already built, the best strategy here is to put Cuomo’s plan back on the shelf where it came from.

BenW January 30, 2015 - 10:59 am

I don’t think it would be very polite, not to mention sanitary, to put that plan back where it came from.

Andrew January 30, 2015 - 7:03 am

Any chance you could share the Winter Operations Plan?

Benjamin Kabak January 30, 2015 - 8:08 am

Andrew: Unfortunately, I can’t share the entire document. I’m happy to answer questions to the extent I can if you have any.

SEAN January 30, 2015 - 8:40 am


I have one – why was this storm different from any other storm? OK there was a prediction of a 30″ snow fall & we had delt with 20″ storms in the past, what’s different now. BTW if DC gets more than 8″, WMATA limits Metrorail service to underground sections.

Low Headways January 30, 2015 - 11:31 am

Ben, just out of curiosity, what are the other Plan conditions in between I and V?

And anyways…jeez. That shining Cuomo ignorance is inescapable these days.

capt subway January 30, 2015 - 3:27 pm

Plan 1, for freezing temps, may be to just keep the doors closed at open air terminals and to run “long” trains (a moot issue now as trains are rarely cut anymore). Plan 2 for below freezing temps may be to turn on switch heaters, reverse & normal all switch points every 20 minutes, etc, on up to a major blizzard with sweeper & alcohol trains, snow blowers, etc. called out.

The underground train lay-up and put-in procedures are quite elaborate, with trains identified as to what intervals they will be making the following morning and which crews will go and get them.

As a motorman back in the late 1970s / early 1980s I remember reporting 2 hours early for cold weather plans to go get my #6 train, layed-up Tk M somewhere around Longwood Ave.

The TA ran exactly this plan this past Tues, i.e. Plan 5. The trains kept rolling. The only difference was, the system was closed to passengers. Total BS.

mister January 30, 2015 - 9:36 pm

I can’t remember all the conditions that trigger each plan exactly. Plan 5 is a snow emergency. Plan 4 is snow up to… 8″? Both plans call for the crewing of diesel sweepers, deicer trains and the snow throwers. I think the jet blowers are also manned. Plan 3 is less snow (maybe up to 5 inches?) Sweepers and deicers are operated. There are also other plans for ice conditions and low temps. In all plans, trains are stored on express tracks. In plans that deal with snow, ice conditions, a select number of passenger trains on each line get scrapers added on their third rail shoes.

Larry 3 January 31, 2015 - 12:26 am

Plan 4 calls for a forecast snow 5″ or more.

Plan 3 is for ice , sleet, freezing rain conditions.

Bookmark this webpage: http://stationreporter.net/weather_plans.htm

Larry Littlefield January 30, 2015 - 12:23 pm

With regard to the Airtrain, always remember that we were promised a route from JFK through Jamaica to LaGuardia and on to Long Island City in exchange for the passenger facility charge we pay on every airline ticket.

The Port Authority used that money to keep PATH fares and Hudson River Crossing tolls lower than NYC subway fares and MTA tolls during the 1990s instead.

That ended more than 15 years ago, but we’re still paying. And now we have the WTC reconstruction draining the PA as well.

Eric February 1, 2015 - 10:33 am

It’s illegal for PFCs to be used for anything other than airport service. If you have information that the PA has been illegally using PFCs to subsidize their other operations, you should talk to a reporter or to the police.

Michael B January 30, 2015 - 4:27 pm

Ok so the LGA AirTrain may not be cost effective as a rail connection alone. However, what if they put in a consolidated rental car center as they often do? What if it helps the Willets Point development? I could see the attraction of a hotel within walked distance of both the AirTrain and CityField! Might we see this AirTrain as a cost effective way to turn LGA into a great airport? Maybe it won’t make it the most transit accessible airport ever but it could turn out for the best.

Tower18 January 30, 2015 - 4:36 pm

An important question would be the value of such a rental car center. How much car rental business is done at LGA? What % of arrivals rent cars? It can’t be much.

SEAN January 30, 2015 - 5:06 pm

Michael B,

What you are describing is Miami’s intermodal center. The MIC consists of…
1. an AirTrain like system from the airport
2. rental car facility
3. Tri-rail/ Amtrak station
4. Metrorail station
5. Metrobus/ intercity bus station

mister January 30, 2015 - 10:58 pm

Ben, I’m glad that you keep writing about this issue. It was completely the wrong decision, and the fact that leadership continues to pretend it was the right call should be questioned.

There are a few key things to note though. One is the mainstream media continuing to ignore the actual facts of the event. In the Daily News article you linked, the article reported that the MTA “moved trains around”, but didn’t operate full service with empty trains. This is untrue, and in fact, it was even possible to view the trains operating on the Dyre shuttle on SubwayTime. The NY Times is also ignoring this fact.

Second, the NYDN article is pointing out that NYCT is now in the planning stages of setting in motion a plan for UNDERGROUND only service. There may also be a winter plan which calls for a full shutdown as well. The key will be to see what criterion exist to trigger these plans. An unfortunate outcome of this exercise could be that the MTA will indeed operate “underground only service” for future blizzards, and will shut down the elevated lines that have operated just fine in every major snowstorm we’ve ever had, including the 2006 record setting storm.

adirondacker12800 January 30, 2015 - 11:33 pm

they didn’t operate just fine when everybody was outraged outraged!! that the MTA let the A train get stuck for hours on end. Just a few short years ago. If there aren’t any passengers on the train it doesn’t need to be evacuated or doesn’t need to be evacuated as soon.

mister January 31, 2015 - 10:42 am

The A didn’t get stuck on an elevated line, it got stuck on an at grade portion of the Rockaway branch. Even then, it took a sequence of errors in succession to cause that train to get stuck for as long as it did. Other trains got stuck that day, and none were stranded for anywhere near as long.

adirondacker12800 January 31, 2015 - 11:31 am

they weren’t operating just fine were they? Operating “just fine” implies more or less keeping to the schedule.

Bolwerk January 31, 2015 - 11:39 am

A bus broke down somewhere. Let’s shut down the whole bus network.

SEAN January 31, 2015 - 2:02 pm

Of course you are being sarcastic, but there are enough people who in some way think like that & it’s sad.

Spendmor Wastemor January 31, 2015 - 11:44 am

If a train gets stuck for a half hour once every five years, is no worse than getting stuck in traffic or a blizzard in one’s car.

There are simple technical measures that can be taken to prevent people from getting stranded for an hour plus (and before that point they may as well cut the power and walk), at least some of which have already been done.

Of course, people have to do their jobs for the plans to work; if you have a WMATA setup where nobody does their work right, where issues are all “nobody’s fault” and the only constant is “give us more money” then no set of plans or equipment will make the system run.

Spendmor Wastemor January 31, 2015 - 11:51 am

When roads are open there are car crashes, some with crippling, disfiguring and fatal injuries!!!eeek! Shut all roads every day, except for official vehicles and AndyBoy’s parade.
If it saves only one life, it was worth it!!!!


SEAN January 31, 2015 - 2:05 pm

How else do you keep the stupid plebes at bay?

Bolwerk January 31, 2015 - 10:46 am

There probably is no plausible accumulation that would ever necessitate a full shutdown of the subway. Only flooding could do that, and hopefully we can make ourselves relatively immune to floods.

adirondacker12800 January 31, 2015 - 11:32 am

so snow drifting down through the street vents magically disappears when it goes through the grates. Okay.

Bolwerk January 31, 2015 - 11:41 am

That magic is called melting. Snow does that when temperatures exceed freezing.

Spendmor Wastemor January 31, 2015 - 11:48 am

Blizzards were handled for 100+ years, including all the lions, tigers and bears you care to imagine.

SEAN January 31, 2015 - 2:14 pm

Witch is why I asked above what’s different now regarding snow storms. One plausible answer I came up with is that the top people at the MTA are fearful of civil liability & as such they aren’t thinking rationally.

adirondacker12800 January 31, 2015 - 6:18 pm

The last time we had a storm like the one that was predicted was in 1947.

Bolwerk January 31, 2015 - 6:37 pm

Fear not, it’s not 1947 anymore.

adirondacker12800 January 31, 2015 - 9:34 pm

No it’s not and we have much more sophisticated weather forecasting which allow us to have a structured shut down instead of just running things until they get stuck and close down for a day or two.

Bolwerk February 1, 2015 - 9:52 am

Structure my sphincter. We just have a governor who wets his breeches over bad weather.

Justin Samuels February 2, 2015 - 11:51 pm

Even if the trains can run, if the weather is that severe why would businesses want to be open?

It’s much better to have a structured shutdown if conditions warrant it. The city and state shut down all transportation for Hurricane Sandy and that was a wise choice. There’s probably no way to 100% safeguard against flooding (the tunnels have ventilation) and you don’t want people out in the open when you have a disaster pending (Hurricane, Blizzard). For public safety purposes you make sure everyone stays home instead of risking their lives. If the city were going to get snow like they do in blizzards upstate (5 or 6 feet) definitely that would mandate a subway shutdown during the blizzard because you don’t want massive numbers of people trying to work in hazardous conditions.

Bolwerk February 4, 2015 - 7:12 pm

Um, not 40 or 50 inches of snow would come close to approaching the danger Sandy posed. It’s a silly comparison.

And Cuomo was probably only right for the wrong reasons on that one anyway.

adirondacker12800 February 4, 2015 - 8:29 pm

When was the last time it snowed 40 inches in New York so that you can make a comparison? it has snowed 30 inches in New York and it was a really bad idea for people to be moving about.

johndmuller February 1, 2015 - 4:38 pm

The elevated lines in fact have some advantages over the subways in the event of flooding, as they are quite high, if not necessarily dry. Some service could be maintained on the els even if the subways were threatened.

ARR January 31, 2015 - 12:48 am

It was a tough week for the MTA. We could all use a little humor.
In case you missed it, Kristen Schaal did a Daily Show report on subway “Man Spreading” a couple days ago.



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