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New York Post

 

A Flooded-out Economy

October 30, 2012

By Nicole Gelinas

New York’s recovery agenda

On paper, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says its physical assets are worth $64.9 billion — including $18 billion worth of stuff like tracks, signals and switches. But to New York’s economy, the MTA system is priceless.

That’s something New York officials are realizing with dread as they confront stations, tunnels and tracks flooded with corrosive water.

To understand how much subway and rail lines matter, you didn’t have to wait for Sandy. Sunday morning, before the storm hit, Gov. Cuomo announced the MTA would shut down by 7 p.m. — only the second time ever for weather reasons (the first was Hurricane Irene, last year).

One by one, Manhattan’s stores and restaurants turned out the lights. Tourist haunts like the Rockefeller rink were shuttered by dusk.

When workers and visitors can’t get there from the boroughs and the ’burbs, Manhattan is nothing more than a dead island.

Last year, after Irene, subways and rail lines were back up quickly. Not now.

As Cuomo noted yesterday, transit veterans "have never seen damage like this before."

MTA chief Joe Lhota gave the rundown: seven subway tubes flooded. Downtown stations flooded, with water at South Ferry up to the ceiling.

The problem isn’t just the water — it’s that water can damage sensitive equipment that, in some cases, is so old it’s hard to quickly replace. And the oldest part of the subway dates back 108 years.

As for commuter rail: Tracks were flooded and are littered with debris, including a boat. On the New Haven line, trees have knocked down power lines. On the Hudson line, two diesel locomotives flooded — something that’s never happened before.

And for cars, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel flooded badly, too.

How long will it take to fix all this — and how much will it cost?

There’s no way to know. To get an idea, remember that Irene caused $65 million in shutdown, repair and overtime costs, plus lost revenue — including $21 million to fix a small Metro-North line, Port Jervis.

Repairs this time could run hundreds of millions, possibly (probably?) more.

While the feds typically pay for 75 percent of repair costs, 25 percent of a lot of money is still a lot of money. The MTA was already struggling to find money for capital.

Plus, every day the system stays shuttered, the MTA loses $9 million in fares.

The bigger catastrophe is to the economy — and state and local budgets. When people can’t get to work or to play, they don’t buy stuff and don’t pay taxes.

The city collects $17 million a day in sales-tax revenue. Lots of missed restaurant meals or souvenir purchases are gone forever.

Those trains and subways might as well be carrying cash to City Hall — and now they’re stalled.

So it’s good that New York is already scrambling to get some semblance of transit up. Buses are dry, and drivers are ready to go. Cuomo said bus riders should see a full schedule by today.

If subways stay down, the MTA will have to use buses to replace subways, too.

The MTA and the city could run convoys of buses to replace subway lines. But for it to work, the city would have to keep traffic lanes clear. That likely means restricting car traffic into Manhattan, as the city did after 9/11, as well as keeping a few major thoroughfares throughout the five boroughs open to buses only.

And it has to work. People will grow more frustrated at an unpredictable schedule than at no schedule.

Longer term, the storm points up how vulnerable Gotham is to weather. "We have . . . old infrastructure and old systems" but yet "a 100-year flood every two years," Cuomo said yesterday. "If there is another situation like this, we [must be] more prepared and protected."

True. It’s fashionable for so-called "urban thinkers" to muse loftily about how physical infrastructure doesn’t matter anymore — that it’s all about "human capital" or "info-structure" or whatever phrase is trending.

This is comforting, because mysterious "human" infrastructure doesn’t require much in the way of competent government. People just show up and do brilliant things.

That only works until the "human capital" can’t get anywhere.

Then everyone remembers (or should) that greasy, dirty stuff still matters — and if we can’t do that right, Manhattan won’t matter to the "human capital," anyway.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/flooded_out_economy_bpuhTm0RF9lPScevhzFAFN

 

 
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