Superstorm Sandy pummeled the 2,135 miles of MTA subway and rail tracks in the New York region on Oct. 29, 2012.
The worst storm to hit the city in 150 years filled subway stations and tunnels with gallons of corrosive saltwater that did billions in damage to the city’s transit infrastructure.
The deadly storm was a reminder of the MTA’s vulnerability. It’s reshaped the agency’s approach to resiliency, forcing a more immediate assessment of global warming and the precariousness of the agency’s coastal and below-ground infrastructure.
The MTA managed to restore 80% of subway service within five days of the storm. Two weeks after the storm, most MTA services had been restored, with the exception of the Montague Street Tunnel of the N and R trains; the South Ferry 1 train station and A train service to Far Rockaway.
“Our goal was to restore as quickly as possible by making the necessary temporary repairs to provide safe service on our subways,” said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, “but obviously we knew full well that would have to go back to make more permanent repairs by hardening the system.”
It’s preparation for the inevitable. Climate change and rising sea levels mean powerful storms like Sandy, estimated to strike once every 400 years, will occur more frequently, according to experts. Projections in a Rutgers University-led study out earlier this month found that, depending on actions taken against climate change, Sandy-level storms could hit New York City between 3 times or 17 times more frequently by the end of the century. At the extreme, that means a storm like Sandy could arrive in New York City once every 20 years.
“To start, things are going to get worse and that’s because of sea level rising,” said Benjamin Horton, professor of sea level research in Rutgers’ Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences and co-author of the study, “Hurricane Sandy’s Flood Frequency Increasing From Year 1800 to 2100.”
“However, an event like Sandy occurring every 20 years is something New York City could not handle,” Horton continued.
“We have a clear choice here: Do we do nothing about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions?” Horton asked. “Or do we do something about climate change and therefore we are able to continue to work and live on the infrastructure maintained along coastlines?”
To brace for the future, the MTA has secured about $4.1 billion in resiliency funding. That money has been, or will be, dispersed toward more than 80 construction contracts to rebuild and harden the MTA’s transit network. Of those contracts, 35 have been completed; 22 are under construction and 24 will be awarded by either the end of 2016 or 2017.
Among the highest profile contracts to be awarded include the rehabilitation of the L train’s Canarsie Tunnel, with an estimated cost of $1 billion, and fortification of the Coney Island Complex, one of the largest rail yards in the country.
The contracts have focused on vulnerable assets, specifically underriver tunnels, stations near the coastline, rail yards, bus depots, subway power stations, pump rooms and signal rooms.
“Fortify is the first thought of engineers, but it’s only one of the strategies of resiliency,” said Alexandros Washburn, industry professor and founding director of the Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban Xcellence at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Second, is bend not break. Third is to consider the system itself.
“The assets are important to protect but what role do they play in the overall system?” Washburn continued. “How do you protect the network by protecting individual assets in it?”
Ortiz acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to explain what exactly “hardening” means. In some instances, it’s simply rebuilding 90-year-old infrastructure with contemporary equipment. The duct banks of the Montague Tunnel, which encase electrical components, were built with terra-cotta in the 1920s.
In other instances, it’s moving those critical subway assets above ground—at least in the most vulnerable coastal areas. As the MTA works to rebuild its South Ferry 1 train station, crews have moved the station generators to street level, in the Battery Park area. (That entire project is about 77% complete, due to be finished in June of next year.)
An ongoing resiliency project at the MTA’s St. George station of the Staten Island Railway also calls for raising important station components to street level, out of a flood’s reach.
One of the biggest challenges is sealing off street-level openings of subway stations—including stairwells, vent base hatches, elevators, escalators and manholes—because stations lack uniformity.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to these egress points,” Ortiz said. “That’s just the nature of how the subway was built at the time. Everything needs to be sized and fitted. That obviously presents a challenge but there’s no way around it. We have to do it.”
Washburn gave credit to the work the MTA has done so far.
“They are far ahead of any other transportation authority” in terms of resiliency, Washburn said. “New York gets it because we got it. We were hit so hard by Sandy.”
Though he criticized the agency for not including more projects to increase redundancy within the transit network, which Washburn considers an important element of resiliency.
“The whole point adapting to resiliency is not to get back to where you were before,” he continued. It’s to get better. The MTA should apply the test—does protecting the assets help us improve or does it just keep us where we are now?”