Different results for New York and New Jersey transit highlight storm preparations

By Robbie Webber

A new study of the preparations for and recovery from Superstorm Sandy outlines why New York City’s transit system was able to resume operations so quickly. The report from the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU also points out the benefits of the city’s many transportation alternatives, which allowed residents other ways to get to work and other daily destinations following the storm.

On the other side of the Hudson River, New Jersey transit officials faced hearings at the state and federal levels to examine why much of their train cars ended up underwater and out of service for an extended period after the storm. Although NJ Transit and PATH officials tried to keep the trains safe, more than one quarter of the cars were inundated when rivers overflowed near the Meadowlands and Hoboken storage areas where they had been taken in preparation for the storm.

“It doesn’t seem to me there was a lot of thought put into this,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D, Middlesex), chairman of the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee holding hearings. “I want to find out what do they do, and what have they done, to prepare for natural disasters. New Jersey is on the Atlantic Coast, and hurricane season is every year.”

In defense of their actions, New Jersey transit officials point out that during the last major storm – Hurricane Irene –trains were safe but cut off from the rest of the system when the rail connections leading to their inland storage area were flooded. The National Weather Service had only predicted a 10 to 20 percent chance of flooding for the coastal Meadowlands during Sandy, so the risk of a tidal surge seemed small. In hearings in Washington, the NJ Transit Executive Director pointed out that when flood plain maps are overlaid on rail maps, there are few safe places in the state. However, a 2009 report by the Army Corps of Engineers had warned of just such a danger.

New York officials also took lessons from a previous storm, but one that happened in 2007. After a flash flood interrupted morning commutes, plans were drawn up to prepare for future storms. $30 million in infrastructure upgrades and emergency management preparations paid off when Sandy hit. While some routes still have not resumed, such as those to the Rockaways, most transit service was restored quickly after the storm.

New Yorkers also had considerable flexibility to change their transportation mode due to the variety of options in the city as well as transit officials’ decisions to rearrange bus routes, schedules, and priorities to facilitate bridge crossings from the outer boroughs.

The NYU report examines both the inventiveness of New York commuters, as they found new routes to work, and MTA officials as they managed the recovery process. Timelines for how each segment of the transportation system was revived, and what steps were taken to assure orderly movement, detail the multimodal nature of transportation in the city. In few other North American cities could commuters so easily switch between subways, ferries, buses, bicycles, and commuter vans following a disaster.

The report concludes with recommendations for future storm or disaster preparations as well as case studies of individual commuters and their adaption. The authors suggest that some of the recommendations might be useful to improve New Yorkers’ commutes even in non-emergency situations.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.