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Fix the Drains (and Trains and Bridges)—and Train the Fixers

Hope Cohen, August 2007

"How can some rain shut down the greatest city in the world?" asked the Radio Free Europe reporter—a question troubling many New Yorkers following the mighty subway washout of August 8. Reacting to the poor communications that accompanied the storm, Congressman Anthony Weiner and City Council (©Hope Cohen) Transportation Chair John Liu demanded that cell phone service be enabled in the subway system. Riders envied the trackside electronic signs of Washington, London, and Paris, and even looked longingly across the Hudson to where New Jersey Transit's 46,000 "My Transit" subscribers received up-to-the-minute transit alerts and service updates during the downpour.

But slick new technology alone would not have helped that Wednesday morning. The subway system has an extensive network of pumps in daily operation. In the best of circumstances, the pumps can handle up to about 1.5 inches of rainfall an hour, but they cannot handle the 2-3 inches that fell in a single 60-minute period that day. In a torrential rain, temporary track rivers pick up debris along the way and deposit it at low points, clogging drains that transit workers must clean manually. And it's not only the transit infrastructure that is problematic; Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials also pointed to the city's overburdened drainage network. In most of the city, storm runoff ends up in the same pipes as waste water; a major rain can overwhelm the system, leading to environmentally hazardous combined sewer overflows, as well as flooding above and below ground.

Keeping tracks clear of trash is the most fundamental way to prevent subway flooding (and fires), so more regular sweeping is an effective, if unglamorous and labor-intensive, maintenance practice. When there is a disastrous event, the recovery is also highly manual and painstaking. For example, (©Hope Cohen) after a deluge, safely restoring power and signal systems requires electrical workers to dry equipment and then inspect it. Essentially, they hand-test each segment of right-of-way before turning it back on. The human dimension in infrastructure maintenance is indispensable. All the cutting-edge technology in the world cannot substitute for people with the right skills and training, following the right procedures.

WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
While commuters could accept, to some degree, the fact that nature interfered with their morning trip, they were furious at the inadequate—and often erroneous—information available. Many sought news before venturing out and could not access the overwhelmed MTA web site. Those already underground found station agents and conductors with no better information than the riders themselves had.

Despite the widespread emphasis on technological remedies such as cell service underground, real-time electronic information signs, and service updates by text message, the truth is that the answer does not have to be high-tech. It is possible now to get riders prompt and pertinent information—if NYC Transit (and, for that matter, its sister MTA agencies)—reorganizes out of existing management silos and adopts new practices.

(©Hope Cohen)

The numbered (historically 'IRT') and lettered (historically 'BMT' and 'IND') subway lines have separate management structures. In many ways they continue to function as separate companies—even though dispatchers for all work in the same room in the same command center. Dispatchers are neither expected nor encouraged to learn and communicate that, for example, although the Christopher Street station on the '1' is out of service, riders may walk a few blocks to the West 4th Street complex, serving the 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D', 'E', 'F', 'Q', and 'V'. A change of culture and training demands to be made here.

Similarly, dispatchers seldom communicate with the command center and hierarchy responsible for station agents. Press accounts of the August 8 storm complained that station staff are equipped only with bullhorns and whiteboards to get service information to riders. While far from ideal, those could be effective communication tools—if management provided the agents with timely and accurate news to transmit.

Right now, only a small operations planning group independent of the subway and bus departments looks at NYC Transit's system universally—unbound by rivalries among the various lines and transportation modes. For example, the Daily News reported that hundreds of empty express buses could have picked up stranded straphangers, but didn't because no one told bus drivers to alter their routes. Inadequate technology is not to blame here. Transit's bus department has a sophisticated radio system, but nobody used it to broadcast the message about closed train stations. In all likelihood the subway dispatchers never communicated with the bus dispatchers—who are, admittedly, in a different command center, but still just a phone call away.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

INFRASTRUCTURE'S MOMENT IN THE SUN
Following the horrifying steam pipe explosion near Grand Central Terminal and the even more catastrophic Mississippi River bridge collapse, the widespread subway flooding on August 8 set off alarms about the state of the city's infrastructure. (There was also a notable Midtown Manhattan sidewalk cave-in the following week.)

Politicians responded with various high-tech recommendations. Liu and Weiner wanted cell phones in the subway. And, along with State Senator John Sabini and City Council Member David Yassky, Weiner renewed his call for fiber-optic stress-detection on bridges. City Council Finance Chair David Weprin and Comptroller William Thompson urged Mayor Bloomberg to establish a special commission to study the systems that make the metropolis work.

Bloomberg administration spokesman Stu Loeser responded that City Hall recently spent 18 months performing such a study in preparing PlaNYC, the strategic plan for a "sustainable" city of 2030. He went on to say, "We don't need another commission to study the problems. We need funding for the solutions and welcome any and all help in that area."

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Loeser is right. The PlaNYC effort began as a way to prepare for the housing needed by a growing city, but soon evolved into an integrated examination of land use, transportation, energy, and water. Much of the rhetoric around it has focused on environmental issues—enhancing air and water quality and reducing carbon emissions. But along with managing growth and improving the environment, PlaNYC highlights a third "key challenge": maintaining the city's aging infrastructure.

CONGESTION PRICING AND MORE
The most discussed proposal in the strategic plan is "congestion pricing"—a charge on vehicles crossing into or out of, or moving within, Manhattan south of 86th Street. Revenues would be used for a range of currently unfunded transportation priorities. The 2nd Avenue Subway is the example mentioned most frequently, but the biggest-ticket item—more than $15 billion—to be funded by congestion pricing is the cost of bringing regional transportation infrastructure to a "state of good repair." This includes roads and bridges maintained by the city’s Department of Transportation, as well as the subway's stations and essential line equipment—which includes the power, signal, and pumping systems that made news August 8.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Congestion pricing has grabbed so much of the press attention and public debate that it is easy to forget that PlaNYC includes 126 other initiatives. Along with closing the funding gap needed to bring transportation to a state-of-good-repair, recommendations include facilitating the modernization of the electric grid and an expansion of the natural-gas infrastructure.

Some of the plan's solutions are notably low-tech. With much of the city's water distribution network more than a century old, the mayor proposes to replace 80 miles of water main annually, rather than the 60 miles of current practice. In waterfront areas especially, the administration aims to increase the use of "high level storm sewers" that divert as much as half the rainfall directly into waterways, bypassing the combined sewer system. Perhaps most basically of all, the plan calls for more trees and planted areas to absorb storm water. Of course, grass and trees require maintenance too, but botanical initiatives contribute to the city both aesthetically and environmentally.

(©Hope Cohen)

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
In his first term, Mayor Bloomberg introduced 311 as a clearinghouse for immediate repair needs (pothole reports) and an outlet for New Yorkers' many frustrations (noise complaints). At the start of his second term, he used the PlaNYC process to assess the state of the physical city and map out what needs to be fixed, built, expanded, and planted in the next couple of decades.

The mayor's visionary strategic plan illustrates his intent to upgrade the city's physical infrastructure. The 311 call center's advances in data-driven management and success with interagency cooperation demonstrate his interest in upgrading the human infrastructure that runs the city. Separately, each of these is an impressive achievement. The challenge for his final 16 months as chief executive is to bring it all together—applying 311 management principles to infrastructure maintenance and operation.

WHAT’S NEXT
The 17-member Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission will issue its report by January 31, 2008. By late March, the council and state legislature must approve a plan to reduce Manhattan traffic congestion by at least 6.3 percent in order for the city to receive $354.5 million in federal transportation funds provisionally awarded this month. Although conditional on the plan including a "tolling" component, most of the grant is for bus purchases and associated improvements, rather than for implementation of a congestion charging program.

On September 17, the City Council's Transportation Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the state of the city's bridges.

 

August 2007
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PODCASTS
Hope Cohen discusses congestion pricing
Cohen discusses technology and New York's infrastructure.
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“The fact is we have a 100-year-old system, and that is a constraint. We may be dealing with meteorological conditions that are unprecedented—it certainly looks that way, in the last seven months.”
Elliot G. Sander, Executive Director & CEO, Metropolitan Transportation Authority
 
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