MTA Deserves High Marks For Returning Service As Quickly As Possible

Damage wrought to Manhattan’s South Ferry train station, which was completely submerged from the storm surge. Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

THE COMMUTE: It is not too often that I compliment the MTA for a job well done. Regular readers of this column know most of my commentary toward the MTA usually is negative, but not this time. First, they did a tremendous job protecting the equipment from flooding by moving subways and buses to higher ground before the storm, as well as other protective measures to prevent damage to rolling stock and equipment. Then they worked ‘round the clock to remove standing water, clear debris, and check every foot of the system to ensure it was safe for service to return. That certainly was a monumental task. I just hope everyone doesn’t forget the storm in six months when elected officials start crying about MTA overtime. Overtime is not a bad thing in times such as these.

I spent nearly 25 years working for the MTA and saw firsthand what many of the problems were. However, this is not the time to discuss them. Suffice it to say that my co-workers would often compare the MTA, specifically New York City Transit, to a dysfunctional family. Squabbling between departments hinder many tasks from being completed efficiently. Those are during normal times, but not when there is a crisis. During those times, the MTA usually excels.

I’m not sure if there is any other agency that works better in times of crisis than MTA New York City Transit. I saw it after 9/11, when I was still working for them. All the inter-departmental haggling and between layers of bureaucracy came to a halt. Everyone just came together to get whatever job that needed to be done completed. Employees stopped worrying if a certain action would cause management to get angry with them and file disciplinary procedures against them, but rather did what needed to be done instead. The dysfunctional family came together to function as efficiently as possible under trying circumstances. Few realize the role the MTA played after 9/11.

The MTA was truly prepared for this storm, having previously set up procedures on how to deal with hurricanes. Those procedures were followed so that everything could be completed in an orderly and timely fashion.

While the MTA was correct in suspending subway service by 7:00 p.m. on Sunday evening, October 28, my only criticism was that I think the MTA should have retained some limited bus service for another 12 to 18 hours to enable health care workers to get to their jobs. Before Hurricane Irene, there were stories of health care workers walking five miles to get to their jobs or having to arrive as much as 18 hours before their shifts, causing them unnecessary hardship.

After the storm, bus service resumed as quickly as possible, as did whatever partial subway service could be returned. Eighty percent of subway service was said to be operational as of November 3. Partial Q service from Kings Highway to Atlantic Avenue returned Sunday. That’s better than nothing. I’ve read some of the comments on other posts where riders accused the MTA of not caring about Brooklyn or the Q train. Such criticism is premature when you do not know the reasons why service was not restored. It will still be quite some time for every line to return to normal. The 14th Street-Canarsie tunnel flooded from floor to ceiling.

I took the B49 on Saturday to Sheepshead Bay and only had to wait a few minutes for a bus, which was fairly empty. I wasn’t so fortunate on my return trip, having to walk most of the way home, after hearing that the bus I just missed was packed. My friend had to wait an hour for the B4 to return home from his job in Bay Ridge. Others have complained of buses never coming, especially the replacement subway shuttles. Normally I would criticize the MTA for such erratic service, but this time they are forgiven.

Some think the MTA severely underestimated the demand for those shuttles. I do not believe that is the case. There aren’t hundreds or 1,000 buses just sitting around to provide replacement service for every tunnel that was flooded. Buses for those shuttles had to come from other lines, limiting service on those routes. Even if there were enough buses, you also have to have the operators to drive them and I am sure many were not able to get to their job locations with so many automobiles flooded. Others may even be homeless. One shouldn’t jump to conclusions why service has been less than what we are used to expect.

Bus drivers deserve special credit because they had to be extra careful at each intersection where there were no traffic signals because of the massive power outages. The situation became so dangerous in Lower Manhattan where power had not been restored that the MTA had to shut down bus service after dark even after it had resumed.

A big bravo to MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, NYCT President Thomas Prendergast and all the MTA workers who participated for a job well done. The next time you criticize civil service workers, calling them a bunch of lazy bums who don’t work, better to think twice. Sometimes there are reasons why something is not done, which may not be readily apparent.

Thanks, also, to Ned for his excellent coverage and for providing up to date information regarding what services are available. I’m just hoping that this really is “the hundred year storm” and not the new norm. You’ll have to excuse me now as I have to clear more debris out my basement.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.