The next 100 years: New York State’s push to develop climate resilient transit

By Mary Ebeling

“The clear evidence of a changing climate in our nation makes more major storms like Superstorm Sandy a real and present threat.” With these words, New York Governor Cuomo recently called on the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority to look strategically at developing a climate-change ready and resilient transit system that will benefit the New York metro region. Innovative solutions developed by the MTA can potentially be implemented across the state and farther afield. As noted by the Governor, there is “a real opportunity to build a new New York State MTA that will be an example for the nation and the world.” To this end, the Governor has asked MTA to “convene a ‘transportation reinvention commission‘ to contribute to the [5-year] plan.”

New York City’s subway and mass transit service is constantly evolving. In 1914 the independently operated subway lines merged. In the 1960s, the MTA was chartered by the state legislature to run the broader metro New York transit system. In the 1990s the MetroCard began phasing out tokens. More recently, MTA added new and extended existing subway lines, and adopted new technologies to improve operations and customer satisfaction.

After the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy, MTA’s managers began assessing system needs and the MTA developed a list of projects to mitigate damage from future storms. Projects include barricades at tunnel portals, submarine-style doors for the bottom of station stairwells, and rail spurs to continue service if main lines get knocked out. The Governor has requested $4.9 billion in Federal Transit Authority assistance. This exceeds the total FTA has budgeted for resilience in the entire region affected by Sandy.

Amtrak’s tunnels under the Hudson River are another key piece of the metro region’s transit system. These tunnels, which flooded during Superstorm Sandy and sustained significant damage, are susceptible to future storm damage. This essential infrastructure, much like the subway system, is more than 100 years old and in need of substantial repair. The existing tunnels cannot support the additional trains that growing transit ridership demand, and plans to build two new tunnels were axed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The rail corridor, known as one of the busiest in the world, directly feeds into New York City’s transit system. Currently, more than 160,000 passengers a day pass through the tunnels. Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, shares the track with New Jersey Transit. Amtrak has proposed the Gateway Project to build additional tunnels connecting directly to Penn Station in Manhattan.

New York and New Jersey cannot afford to let their transit systems fail, and planning and paying for a climate-resilient system will take significant funds and time.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.