Summer storms have been a wake-up call against climate change for US subways
NEW YORK – When the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped record rains on the east coast this month, the stairs in the New York subway tunnels turned into waterfalls and the train tracks turned into canals.
In Philadelphia, a commuter line along the Schuylkill River was washed away for miles and the country’s busiest rail line, the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, connecting Boston to Washington, was closed for a whole day.
Almost a decade after Super Storm Sandy sparked billions of dollars in investments in coastal flood protection along the east coast – some of which remain unfinished – Hurricane Ida and other storms this summer were a stark reminder that more needs to be done – and quickly – as climate change brings stronger and more unpredictable weather conditions to a region with some of the country’s oldest and busiest public transport systems, according to experts and public transport managers.
“Now is the time for us to make sure our transit system is prepared,” said Sanjay Seth, manager of Boston’s “climate resilience” program. “There are a lot of things we have to do over the next 10 years, and we have to do it right. It doesn’t have to be built twice.”
In New York City, where some 75 million gallons (285 million liters) of water was pumped from the subway during Ida, ambitious solutions were proposed, such as building canals across the city.
But relatively easy, short-term fixes to the transit system could also be made in the meantime, suggests Janno Lieber, acting CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Installing curbs at subway entrances, for example, could prevent water from cascading down tunnels, as seen in countless viral videos this summer.
More than 400 metro entrances could be affected by extreme rains due to climate change in the coming decades, according to projections by the Regional Plan Association, a think tank that plans to come up with the idea of a canal system.
“The metro system is not a submarine. It cannot be made waterproof,” Lieber said. “We just have to limit the speed at which it can enter the system.”
In Boston, efforts to combat climate change have primarily focused on the Blue Line, which runs under Boston Harbor and straddles the coastline north of the city.
This summer’s storms were the first real test of some of the more recent measures to protect the vulnerable line.
Flood barriers at a key downtown waterfront stop were first activated when Tropical Storm Henri made landfall in New England in August. No major damage was reported at the station.
Officials then seek federal funds to build a levee to prevent flooding at another crucial Blue Line subway stop, said Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The agency has also budgeted for the modernization of the port tunnel pumps and is considering building a berm around a large swamp along the Blue Line, he said.
In Philadelphia, some flood protection measures implemented in the wake of Super Storm Sandy have proven successful this summer, while others have failed.
Signal huts that house critical control equipment were erected after Sandy along the badly affected Manayunk / Norristown commuter line, but they were not high enough to avoid damage during Ida, said Bob Lund, director. Deputy General of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
On the plus side, shoreline “shielding” efforts prevented damaging erosion during what was the region’s largest flooding since the mid-1800s. This spurred plans to continue shielding more stretches. along the river with concrete blocks reinforced with cables, Lund said.
If anything, he said, this year’s storms have shown that flood projections have not kept pace with environmental change.
“We are seeing more frequent storms and higher water level events,” Lund said. “We need to be even more conservative than our own projections show.”
In Washington, where the flood-prone Cleveland Park station was closed twice during Hurricane Ida, transit officials began to develop a climate resilience plan to identify vulnerabilities and prioritize investments, a said Sherrie Ly, spokesperson for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
This is in addition to the work that WMATA has undertaken over the past two decades to mitigate flood risks, she said, such as elevating ventilation shafts, upgrading drainage systems and improving installation of dozens of high-capacity pumping stations.
Overall, the east coast’s transit systems have taken laudable steps such as developing climate change plans and hiring experts, said Jesse Keenan, associate professor at the University. Tulane in New Orleans and co-author of a recent study examining climate change risks for T.
But it’s an open question whether they plan ambitiously enough, he said, pointing to Washington, where the metro lines along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in Maryland and Virginia are particularly vulnerable.
Similar concerns remain in other cities around the world that have experienced severe flooding this year.
In China, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to hold authorities to account after 14 people were killed and hundreds more trapped in a flooded subway line in Zhengzhou in July. But there are no concrete proposals yet on what could be done to prevent the deadly flooding in the metro.
In London, efforts to tackle Victorian-era sewage and drainage systems are too piecemeal to curb city-wide flood fights, says Bob Ward, climate change expert at the London School of Economics.
The city experienced a monsoon-like soak in July that resulted in metro stations being closed.
“There just isn’t the level of urgency required,” Ward said. “We know these rains are going to get worse and the floods are going to get worse, unless we significantly increase our investments.”
Other cities, meanwhile, have moved faster to consolidate their infrastructure.
Tokyo completed an underground system to divert flood waters in 2006 with chambers large enough to accommodate a space shuttle or the Statue of Liberty.
Copenhagen’s underground City Circle Line, which was completed in 2019, features heavy flood gates, elevated entrances and other climate change adaptations.
How to pay for more ambitious climate change projects remains another major question mark for cities on the east coast, said Michael Martello, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the Boston study with Keenan. .
Despite an injection of federal stimulus dollars during the pandemic, the Boston T and other transit agencies still face staggering budget deficits as ridership has not returned to pre-pandemic levels .
Stunning images from this summer’s flooding briefly gave impetus to efforts to pass President Joe Biden’s $ 3.5 trillion infrastructure plan. But this gigantic spending bill, which includes money for climate change preparedness, is still being negotiated in Congress.
“It’s great to have these plans,” Martello said. “But has to be built and funded somehow.”
Marcelo reported from Boston. Associated Press reporter Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.