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Calls for overhaul of New York Subway after Sandy

Posted by on Nov 9, 2012 in All news, Management, New Technology, North America, Rail, Safety, Security, Services, Sustainability |

 A New York Subway tunnel after the storm

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City last week it was the second time in just over a year – following Hurricane Irene in August 2011 — that the city’s Subway system had been shut down by flooding.

‘New York has a hundred-year flood every two years now’ said New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo to Barack Obama when the President halted his election campaign to tour areas devastated by Sandy. “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”

We already know that to mitigate the future effects of climate change there will need to be massive expansion of public transport services, to reduce carbon emissions from private vehicles. New York’s experience has shown that investment in adaptation to climate change is also unpostponable.

A New York State Energy Research and Development (NYSERDA) report commissioned by New York state in 2011 correctly predicted that “a 100-year flood with a 4-foot rise in sea level … would flood a large fraction of Manhattan subways, including virtually all of the tunnels crossing into the Bronx beneath the Harlem River and the tunnels under the East River”. 

The report strongly urged policy makers not only to erect sea walls, pumping stations and floodgates, but also to plan for infrastructure to be “relocated to higher elevation areas, outside of the future floodplain, with some tunnel structures being fitted with engineered flood protection”.

Alternative models have been suggested. Professor Kenneth Button of George Mason University proposes a system similar to the Dutch flood protection model, which sees “large-scale flood gates, as well as a series of low-lying drainage canals and pumping stations”.

Another suggestion is a water discharge tunnel, as in Tokyo, where it functions as a diversion for floodwater during typhoon season, and cost $3 billion.

Lucius Riccio, New York City’s former Transportation Commissioner and now at Columbia University, argues such changes would be an “engineering feat equal to the scale and creativity of the original construction (of the system itself)”, but that “our engineers are up to it, if given the resources and the free hand.”


However, as the NYSERDA report warns, losses from “expected climate hazards are estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year now, increasing to billions of dollars per year by mid-century”. The report estimates that it would cost four times more to neglect the challenge than to tackle it — but warns that preventative measures “must be in place before irreparable flood damage occurs”.



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