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September: Infrastructure
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What State Takeover Looks Like

by Senator Scott Wiener
© Frank


Securing the Subway System

by Klaus Jacob
September 10, 2021

This interview with Klaus Jacob, emeritus research professor with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Klaus | We wrote a 2008 climate change adaptation plan, and then subsequently, in 2011 – three years later, but still one year before Sandy, we wrote a report as part of a state-funded project called ClimAID in which we assessed generically a hundred-year storm and what the impact would be on the transportation system in New York City. We focused in particular on the subway but looked at other transportation systems as well.

frank | What are the most pressing concerns about the New York City subway system with regards to climate change?

What we figured out in the 2008 report, and we repeated in the 2011 report, and what manifested during Sandy, and then again with the events like the rainfall in July of this year, was that points of the system were highly vulnerable to flooding. That is not surprising for coastal storm surges, because, after all, much of the subway system is subterranean. This means that in many cases, the station's entrance is below sea level or close to sea level. So those entrances at and below sea level are susceptible to having water just pour in, in some cases in under 40 minutes.

After Sandy, the MTA started a billion-dollar program to fix the most obvious entrances to the subway system. They fixed only the pedestrian steps down into the subway, which are the obvious openings, but many other openings such as the sidewalk ventilation shafts, electrical manholes, and cable entryways for the subway, the MTA has many other divisions such as bridges and tunnels, and they installed four steel doors on the Brooklyn Tunnel. And they seem to be effective, at least for the rain that we have had since Sandy; we haven't had any new coastal storm surges since Sandy to test many of the improvements that were made.

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In 2017 we did a study that was testing theoretically, many of those newly installed barriers and manhole covers, and so on. And for the most part, they perform as designed. But, there are leakages that the MTA does not have full control over. 

Namely, as we saw in July during the heavy rainfall, the runoff from the street when the sewer system, which is under the control of the city, not the MTA, is exceeded in its capacity, the subway system becomes a default sewer system. Water runs from the streets into places that were not either modified by the MTA with the storm surge fixes after Sandy or in some instances, would require that the MTA, in preparation of heavy rainfall, would actually install certain barriers that require manpower to actually be installed to put in place. And just for ordinary rain events, that is not yet a protocol. That requires cooperation between the city and the MTA to make sure that if the city feels that if its sewer system was going to flood, the MTA would act in advance. That's operationally and administratively quite difficult to do. That will be interesting to see as we have more of these extreme rainfalls due to climate change, rather than actually an operational scheme put into place.

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That is problematic because as we have seen in the last month and two days ago, rainfall can be locally variable. You can have in one part of Manhattan basking sunshine in another, you can have a record cloudburst coming down. This is very typical for this new kind of extreme weather that comes with higher temperatures.

So I'm not sure, from where I sit, how the city and the MTA will work together to address that problem, not to speak of fixing it

Are there other gaps you feel should be prioritized either operationally or in terms of the actual physical infrastructure?

Well, on the transportation side, just two days ago, I was in the subway and while this was not the hottest state, it was very hot down there. Some of the subway stations are a real burden for sensitive people or elderly people. New York City needs to really pay attention during very hot days, to make sure that all cars have operating air conditioning.

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Would you say the money dedicated to safeguarding the transportation system after Sandy, did an adequate job of long-term thinking for climate change?

Look, this was a plan where an outside group made recommendations to the MTA. This was not an internal report. Several of the engineering people were on board. There was not that much support on the governance side — from the New York State governor on down.

If there are no funds set aside to implement these recommendations, they are just a piece of paper.

And that's exactly what it was until Sandy happened. And even then, it took another one or two years. I think the MTA finally put its climate change adaptation task force together in 2014, the second year after Sandy. We had a report published three years before Sandy! So there was a five-year delay in just forming the task group, not to speak of coming up with a financing plan and implementing that plan. 

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So yes, the vision has been stalled by financial constraints. Engineers feel what's the point of long-term planning if there is financing for a long-term vision? And that is a problem. That's not just a problem for the MTA. That is a general problem in the United States. Infrastructure funding is, you know, very limited. Right now we still have this infrastructure bill before Congress. That's not yet passed. It has, you know, several billion dollars of working in that direction. That's a nice first step, but only a first step. And even that is hung up in Congress right now. So this is a problem that is much, much broader than just an MTA or subway problem.

Do you know how the infrastructure bill as it stands now would impact New York city?

No, I mean, I know that the New York delegation in Congress is of course in strong support for it, because without it, they see no options in the future to come up with sufficient funding just on their own. Without government investment, we would need a major fare increase. The previous administration was not very supportive of the MTA looking into a major overhaul of the infrastructure. So what actions will the new governess take? There is hope in that, but there are so many other things that she has on her priority list. It will be very interesting to see where transportation, infrastructure, and the subway system range in that list of priorities.

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With the new governor, where should people be putting pressure? What options do people have locally?

Currently, in City Council, there is a piece of legislation about a comprehensive plan for New York City, which clearly has implications for the whole transportation system. If you change zoning and land use, you shift around populations in the long run, and, of course, you have to modify the transportation system accordingly to serve those shifted populations. I don't think there's enough coordination between these different silos between the state, the city, private and semi-private organizations, such as the MTA or the Port Authority of New York. 

There are hundreds of billions of dollars coming down the pipe over the decades ahead of us that I have not yet seen a comprehensive plan for any and all of those organizations.

Yeah, it's a bit overwhelming.

That's why we need a plan. And not just a technical plan, but a financial plan. And that is the toughest part because now budgets typically last an election cycle or less. Sure, we have entities in this city, like the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. They have a long tradition of making not long-term, but midterm because it's a decade of planning. For instance, when the New York City Department of Environmental Protection built the third water tunnel, that was a multi-billion dollar project and they had to fund it. How did they do it? They issued municipal bonds, and the price of those bonds, which we pay for, covered that cost. 

Is that something that you think we will see more of?

Municipal bonds are a typical financing instrument, but there has to be a political will and financial planning. And it can't just be top-down, many of these planning issues require a consensus from communities. It's a very slow and elaborate process, but there has to be real work towards a consensus and a sense of urgency.

And there is no political will right now. And there is no sense of urgency — yet.