MTA Thinks About Flood Barriers for Subway Entrances – Next City
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MTA Thinks About Flood Barriers for Subway Entrances

Credit: MTA

In the hours before Hurricane Sandy washed up on New York City shores, the MTA, which run’s the city’s subway system, had only one main weapon against the coming inundation: plywood.

Robert Sullivan starts off his feature for the New York Times magazine on surviving the next Sandy:

A good place to see how and why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority just barely survived Sandy last fall is the entrance to a tunnel at 148th Street and Lenox Avenue, in East Harlem, where, just before the storm hit, a crew of carpenters built a plywood dam 8½ feet tall by about 55 feet wide. That ad hoc, low-tech, last-minute construction held the New York Harbor at bay and not only saved the city hundreds of millions of dollars, but also made it possible for the subway to come back to life as quickly as it did.

But when the next storm hits, the MTA wants something a little more sophisticated, the Daily News’s Pete Donohue reported on Thursday.

According to Donohue’s sources, the MTA commissioned a study of best practices abroad — he name-checks Tokyo, Hong Kong and Copenhagen — and is putting the finishing touches on a multibillion-dollar “reconstruction, repair and resiliency program” that will involve “submarine” doors at subway entrances, or “flood gates or slate-and-frame removable barriers to keep water from rushing in and destroying the signal, communications and power systems inside.”

“Flood doors or gates at station entrances generally are permanent,” Donohue wrote. “Doors would remain open until needed. Gates would roll down or slide horizontally.”

Protecting the system against damage is especially crucial in New York’s case, due to the city’s unique inability to rebuild at anything resembling reasonable prices. Transit construction costs here are head and shoulders above what cities in other countries pay for similar projects, and the high cost of rebuilding was laid bare when the MTA released cost estimates for repairing the flooded South Ferry station, at the very southern tip of Manhattan.

South Ferry, one of the newest stations in the system, opened in 2009 after the MTA spent $545 million on construction. It replaced an aged station with curved tracks that didn’t even allow passengers in half of a train’s given cars to use the platform. The station “was excavated out of bedrock below the existing tangle of Lower Manhattan infrastructure.”

But the cost to repair it after Sandy reached $600 million, despite the fact that the damage was primarily to the station’s electrical systems, not its structural shell. And that was just a small part of the total $4.75 billion in damage inflicted on the MTA’s subway and commuter rail lines. (To say nothing of the time required to fix it all — the Montague Street Tunnel that carries the R train beneath the East River, for example, is currently in the midst of a 14-month shutdown.)

When viewed against those costs, a few billion to protect the system against future storms doesn’t seem so bad.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

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