As public transit ridership hits all-time highs, agencies are worried about the effects of erratic weather patterns and the increasing number of extreme weather events on an aging transit infrastructure.

The nasty system of storms that ripped through Connecticut two weeks ago is a perfect example. Metro-North trains on the New Haven Line began sliding on a slimy substance left by crushed, wet leaves on the tracks. The condition, known as “slippery rail,” caused severe congestion that delayed commuters for hours. In addition, 20 trees either knocked out power on the tracks or blocked the paths of other trains.

The delays are often unavoidable, said Howard Permut, the rail agency’s president. Metro-North spends more and more money each year placing emergency maintenance crews along the line, but when workers traveling to a site are caught in traffic backups on I-95, repair work on the line can be delayed for hours.

“Sometimes you just can’t do it. The systems get overwhelmed,” Permut said in an interview.

Metro-North budgeted $5.88 million to dedicate 128,980 hours of overtime to weather emergencies in 2012. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates Metro-North, along with the New York City Subway System and other transit systems, budgeted a total of $13.47 million for 329,080 hours.

Tracks flooded

Rail tracks at a Metro-North station were flooded after a recent storm.

Numbers for previous years weren’t available, but Permut said weather-related costs overall are rising. In July, trees came down on all of Metro-North’s lines in four separate incidents within a two-week span. In early August, an 85-foot black locust tree fell on power lines over train tracks in Greenwich during a raging windstorm, causing the entire town to lose power and forcing Metro-North to cancel service on some lines and use diesel-operated trains. (Amtrak’s Acela trains were also affected.)

According to Metro-North records, the rail agency’s cost per passenger increased by 29 cents from 2010 to 2011, due in part to overtime during weather emergencies. Tropical Storm Irene was a major contributor; the MTA filed insurance claims totaling $65 million after the storm, including $27 million in claims for Metro-North. And due to the harsh winter of early 2011, 13 percent more rail employees were injured compared with the previous year.

At the same time, Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said he wasn’t seeing an upward trend in costs related to weather emergencies for the state.

“Last year’s winter was nonexistent,” Nursick said. “We saved millions of dollars and we were able to use the money to purchase some new trucks.” But the previous winter “we got pounded,” he said.

The DOT decides on a “winter budget” for clearing snow off state roads each year based on the previous 10-year storm average. That budget usually runs around $30 million, Nursick said. Two years ago, the state exceeded that amount by about $6 million. Last winter, costs were down by a similar amount.

“Frankly, Mother Nature has a way of evening things out from year to year,” Nursick said.

Nursick added that increased development, rather than more weather events, may be increasing areas’ susceptibility to flooding. The linear mileage of town roads has grown from 16,852 in 2000 to 17,297 in 2010, according to a DOT inventory. That figure does not include 11,000 miles of state roads. And parking lots, which are not tracked, also play a big role.

“When you have lots of big-box stores, lots of parking lots, more impermeable surfaces popping up all over the state, that water’s got to go somewhere, and it’s not going under the ground,” Nursick said.

Whatever the reason for flooding, it creates huge problems for transit agencies. In preparation for Tropical Storm Irene last year, Metro-North crews worked thousands of extra hours removing rail cars from flood-prone areas, such as the train station in New Haven.

Nursick said the DOT and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection are just beginning conversations about new design standards for future roads and for transit infrastructure — keeping rising sea levels in mind.

In New York City, officials have appointed a panel to study the issue and make recommendations. The city’s subway system was spared during Tropical Storm Irene, but if the storm surge had been 1 foot higher, subway tunnels could have flooded, according to research by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and the Mirror. Click here to listen to a radio version of the story.

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