Subway Flooding: Yes, It’s Gotten Worse

As someone who’s been riding the subways for more than 30 years, and commuting on them for about 20 years, I’ve been asking myself recently, “Did the subways always collapse completely every time it rains?” I don’t remember the magnitude of disruption that we’ve seen today, or several times this year, happening very often if at all years ago.

This morning, every single line in the city (great screen shot of the MTA’s site, courtesy nyhamsterhouse) was disrupted by an intense, but not unprecedented storm. Newsday is reporting that 1.5″ rain was falling per hour overnight (from the National Weather Service). And the entire subway system is flooded out and not working.

So I spent some time this morning searching back through the New York Times archives, and I found that my memory is accurate. System-wide disruptions caused by rain are much more frequent, and more severe, than they used to be. Storms like today’s and worse have happened in the past with much less effect.

(Warning: Most of the links below will work only if you’re a Times Select customer; if you really want one of these articles let me know and I’ll mail it to you.)

Service has been disrupted by flooding at least one other time this year (on March 3), badly enough to warrant a story in the Times. Disruptions that bad have happened at least once in 2006 (6/2), once in 2005 (10/13), and twice in 2004 (9/8 and 9/18).

Before that, you have to go back to August of 1999, when floods closed down nearly every line in the city. A month later, the remnants of Hurricane Floyd swept through and there was no serious effect on the subways. Between 1981 (as far as the Times archive goes back) and 1998, there were seven times that flooding disrupted the subways bad enough to make news in the Times, and except for the December 1992 Noreaster that knocked out generators powering the signalling system, there were no system-wide disruptions caused by storms.

There certainly were storms. For instance, a Noreaster in October 1996 dumped 4.35″ of rain in Central Park in less than a day, but only the west side IRT had service problems. In August 1993 a storm knocked out the west side IRT and the A in midtown, but no other problems are noted. In April 1983, “More rain fell yesterday in New York City than on any day in April since 1874,” but the 3.68″ of rain caused no subway problems. In July of 1982, the 2/3 north of 96th was suspended for 30 minutes during a storm of 2.32 inches. In January of 1982, 2.72 inches of rain fell, and the Times thought it significant to report that, “flooding at the Coney Island open-air yards caused 15-minute delays for IND subway trains starting from there, with hand-operated signals replacing automatic signals for about five hours, until 11:15 A.M.”

So what’s happening?

A report in April 2006 blamed the disruptions in 2004 on poor maintenance and communication. The Times said,

drains were clogged by trash and mud and that subway workers were slow to respond. Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, the authority’s division for subways and buses, said ”several adjustments” had been made since the 2004 flood, including increased track and drain cleaning.’

A later report said that discarded free newspapers had clogged the drains. The MTA often blames the city sewer system, but that only applies in some areas, such as the west side, which is why those trains have always been affected by flooding.

But a 2004 story by the Times focuses on old pipes that are too small to keep up with the flow of water, and other infrastructure problems. Ten years earlier the MTA said, plain and simple, that older pumps were the problem and that they were replacing them.

Here’s the bottom line: The flooding problems are worse because the MTA is not keeping up with basic infrastructure work. And a large part of the reason for that is that state and federal funding for large capital projects has almost entirely disappeared; most new construction work has to be funded by borrowing money, which is expensive, and is building up a massive load of debt that will cause fare hikes and maintenance problems for years to come. If you don’t like this situation write Albany and your federal representatives and demand better funding for the subways. Drivers bash the city’s infrastructure to hell every year and don’t pay a cent. Let them pay higher tolls and congestion charges and whatever else is necessary to keep New York City’s lifeline running.

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