Climate Change and the NYC Metro Area Transit System

A boat on Metro-North tracks in Ossining | Photo: MTA

In the New York City metro area, the worst of Hurricane Sandy seems to have passed, and the long work of recovery has begun. At a press conference today, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at length about the two biggest challenges facing the city, and they are also the main challenges of the entire tri-state region: restoring power and getting transit up and running. MTA subways and buses, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, NJ Transit, PATH, and other public transportation services are currently suspended, and, in consequence, many residents remain stuck in their neighborhoods. Some MTA buses are expected to start returning this evening at 5pm.

Apart from showing public transportation’s profound importance to the tri-state area’s population (and economy) — a point that Tri-State made about New Jersey in the wake of 2011’s Hurricane Irene — Hurricane Sandy has also been linked to climate change by some of our nation’s most prominent environmental activists. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, called the storm a “wake-up call.” While scientists forego declarations about the causes of the storm, since they’re impossible to make definitively, some writers are making the jump: one article on Quartz is headlined “How global warming helped transform Sandy from a hurricane into a Frankenstorm” (to be fair, the piece is much more measured than its title). Regardless of Hurricane Sandy’s “cause,” the rapid change in weather patterns is undeniable, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is clear.

Enter the New York City metro area transit system, which prevents millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the air each year. The MTA’s 2012 sustainability report reads: “Without the MTA, annual [greenhouse gas] emissions in the region would be 17 million metric tons higher each year than they are today.” And that doesn’t include NJ Transit, PATH, or privately run commuter buses, which are also integral in getting people around the region.

Many of those public transportation systems have been damaged during Hurricane Sandy, according to reports from the MTA and and other agencies. MTA CEO Joe Lhota has spoken about the substantial risks that saltwater poses to the MTA’s infrastructure, and in coming weeks, we will see just how much work is to be done. While workers are still assessing the situation (even as they begin repairs), it is clear that flooding has been extensive and that repairing the system will take some time. NJDOT Commissioner James Simpson, who also serves as the chairman of NJ Transit’s board, has said that NJ Transit’s “system has experienced unprecedented devastation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Destruction summarizes the impact to rails, rail yards, bus depot and critical operation centers.” PATH service will reportedly return in 7-10 days.

With a constant stream of reports about the transit system’s recovery, one thing is clear: New York City, New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the United States federal government must all make the necessary investments that will get our region’s public transportation up, running, and even better than it was before. A healthy transit network won’t necessarily prevent another Frankenstorm, but the region must continue shifting away from auto travel.

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