Expert: NY Subways Need Investment

A little rain never hurt anyone. Unless you're the New York City subway system. After downpours dropped nearly two inches of rain on the city early Wednesday morning, millions of residents struggled to get to work, as every line in the system (which transports 5 million riders per day) was affected by shutdowns or delays.

"Water flows to its lowest level and there's no place for the water to go," says Charles Seaton of New York City Transit. "If the streets are flooded, then so is the subway." That's because water flows into station drains before being pumped into the city storm-drain system. When faced with torrential rains, the system can't move the excess water quickly enough. Seaton says the only thing the transit authority can do is pump as much water as drains can hold and wait for the problem to subside.

Still, grumbling New Yorkers were asking how it is that a rain storm can bring the city that never sleeps to a grinding halt. NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Allison C. de Cerreno, director of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, about the problem. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: New York City was nearly paralyzed Wednesday morning because rain shut down or delayed the subways. How does this happen in America's largest city?
Allison C. de Cerreno:
No matter how much you prepare you can't be ready for all weather systems. The second piece is that it's indicative of an overall infrastructure issue and needing to invest in that. I also think that there is an informational piece in terms of getting information out to the people. There appeared to be quite a bit of confusion this morning. People boarded trains without realizing that they might get stuck on the way and not realizing that subways were out. Had people known that there were problems, people might not have been boarding trains.

Do infrastructure problems like this threaten New York's status as a world economic center?
New York stands to lose being seen as a first-world, first-class city. There are some serious pieces to that. Part of it is how often it happens. A few weeks ago we had the [steampipe explosion] at 41st Street and three years ago the entire [electrical] grid went out, although that was the entire Northeast. There was a period in the late '80s where there were a number of problems with the commuter line. It was not uncommon to find a lot of people stuck at the station because there were fires on the commuter tracks. It became a wake-up call to make more investments. We don't want to get back to that place where things were falling down. What today brings home a bit is that we have to make these improvements before we get to that point again.

What does a failure like this say about public transportation across the United States?
There's a broad issue of needing to put more into the infrastructure across the board. Certainly at the federal level there has been less attention to transportation infrastructure than is needed. If you don't have investment, vision or guidance from the federal level, it's hard for states or local governments to fill that void on their own.

The New York system is at or over capacity. It's not just the subways, but also our roads and highways--really, the entire network. Unfortunately, you're probably going to see more issues where infrastructure is a problem. It's not just New York. We saw it with Minneapolis last week. And it's even more complicated here because we have such a large and old system.

What could public-transportation systems do to prevent shutdowns like this?
Certainly, I think there are more investments that need to be made. But no matter how good a system you have, no matter how advanced or well working it is, there's always going to be something you didn't expect. And that's where the information infrastructure comes into play. The physical infrastructure is worrisome. Even if you bring it up to 21st-century standards, you still don't have the information system you need [to adequately let passengers know what's happening].

What type of communication would help in a situation like this?
We could use announcements at the outer stations, before people even got on the train. I came into Grand Central, and there were no announcements about what was and wasn't working. And there should've been. For those people who have never taken buses there was confusion about what to take or where to take them. Announcements like that could have made things better.

Where would you like to see things go from here for the New York transportation system?
That's a hard one because Metropolitan Transportation Authority is dealing with so many things at once. They're well aware of the problems, but they're also trying to make improvements for their customers, expand their lines, all while running 24 hours each day. Today's events highlight the need for better information. No matter what you do, there's always going to be something unexpected and the response to the unexpected is very important. It's not clear that that response was as good as it could have been.