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Interview with Adam Lisberg, MTA

Interviewee: Adam Lisberg, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Director of External Communications
Interviewer: Ned Crowley
2/19/2013

Q:            Alright, so first just to kind of warm up:  What do you think the main problems that arose right after Hurricane Sandy were?

A:            We had eight subway tunnels and two vehicular tunnels that were flooded, which made it hard for the MTA to fulfill its job of just of moving 8.5 million people around the region every day.  And that was, I think, the prime focus for millions of people throughout the region.  How can I get to work?  How can I get home?  If the areas that were directly flooded and otherwise devastated, of course, that was presumably, if your home was flooded that was your first problem but for millions of others, it was, alright, I was not directly flooded out.  I live in Manhattan, I’m sorry, I live in Brooklyn, I work in Manhattan, how am I going to get to work?  How am I going to get paid?  And so, getting the system back up and running was our prime job and by far the most important job, the most critical achievement, the most critical question for a lot of people who rely on us.

Q:            And do you think that people everywhere experienced that problem equally or that there was some areas where –

A:            No, there were parts of the city where, parts of the region where if you were able to, where train service was, commuter train service was restored relatively quickly and parts where the subway system still worked but it was those connections under the East River and largely the East River, a few other bodies of water as well that created real connectivity problems that reminded us that New York is a collection of islands, by and large.  So, if you were coming in from the Bronx it relatively easy to catch a subway from your home in the Bronx to your job in Manhattan.  However, in Brooklyn with all the tunnels flooded, we had to set up these massive bus bridges, which we’d never done anything like that in the history of the MTA and they connected, we took 330 buses leaving from three points in Brooklyn near a collection of subway lines and people waited in line and got on buses that ran limited stop service up into Midtown Manhattan.  It wasn’t pretty.  There were long lines.  There were delays.  But people were able to get into work and have some semblance of a commute.  So, in our planning, looking forward, a number of the ideas that have been harder, how to make those connections more robust, more redundant and, you know, we have some short term ideas on how to study ways to prevent flooding to an extent in our system but we’re recognizing that we’re entering an area of more and more frequent extreme weather events and as part of that, we need to think about larger issues of the transportation network.  Hold on one second, I need to close the door here because somebody is being really loud.

Q:            Okay.

A:            Sorry about that.

Q:            That’s alright.  Can you tell me a little bit more about how the MTA prepared for the storm?

A:            The, we had been aware of the potential for extreme weather for several years.  I’m blanking on this, it was ’07 or ’09 that there were a series of storms that, they weren’t hurricanes but typical nor’easters that drop so much water on the system that we had sporadic flooding in low lying areas.  And as part of the effort to prevent against that, we raised the staircases to subway stations in some low lying areas and we added – raised the street level grading air shafts over subways in some areas to try to buy us a couple of extra feet that we could survive flooding.  But that was not aimed at hurricane style flooding.  We learned however, we did develop a hurricane plan after Katrina recognizing that New York was in fact vulnerable to hurricanes that talked about the need for each of our operating agencies to put their trains someplace where they could be on high ground to — what are the procedures involved in stopping service.

I guess when we take a step back that one of the first things to recognize was that perhaps it is best to stop service sometimes.  To not just push to always keep running trains, which is, you know, the mindset of people who run trains for a living.  But to say we need to take a step back and see what’s a better way to operate.  And the other factor, so that hurricane plan was revised and refined over the years through drills and things like that.  And then there was a blizzard in December of 2010 that caught the whole city by surprise.  And during that we had a number of trains that were stranded with people on board.  We kept running service when in retrospect we shouldn’t have and we had to figure out ways to get to trains with people stranded on them.  And that sort of made clear to us that we need to, that moving trains no matter what the weather isn’t the goal.  That there are times when it makes more sense to shut the system down and wait for a storm to pass.  And so, you saw all of those different factors coming into play as we prepared for Sandy.

In 2011 we had for the first time in our history done a proactive shut down to prepare for Irene.  And Irene sort of sputtered out right as it hit New York.  You know, the irony is New York City and [unintelligible 8:33] prepared very well for Irene.  Upstate did not do as much preparation and the worst damage ended up coming upstate not down here.  But that was in some ways a good dry run for us to how to shut down the system and how to get it going again.  And this time around, it turned out to be a very good thing that we did it because we did not lose a single subway car, not in an entire fleet.  I don’t believe we lost any buses either.  We had some areas that were underwater.  We had, you known, control buildings flood, some of the bridges in the outlying areas, we had a bus depot that was flooded.  We had a rail shop for Staten Island Rapid Transit, the train line out there, the building was flooded.  And that huge boat that came ashore on Staten Island had gone another 50 feet or so it would probably be sitting in the middle of the shop.  But we got lucky in many ways but we also prepared very well.

Q:            So, what worked well about the preparedness plan and what didn’t work well?  Were there things that you learned during Sandy that you would sort of bring into the plan for the next time around?

A:            I haven’t seen the full after action reports on what happened and formal recommendations of that.  I know, I mean, you know, what did not go well?  Obviously we had subway tunnels that flooded and the goals should be to not have subway tunnels flood.  And in fact, the governor’s 2100 commission, which looked at infrastructure issues around the state related to extreme weather, they have – it explicitly calls for the system, the subway system to be flood proofed.  That’s the goal.  Now, what’s the best way to reach that?  We’re studying it, we want to know that but we don’t know yet.  There have been various proposals out there for things like inflatable bladders that you could just put at the entrance to a tunnel, pump it full of air and it will act like a giant plug to keep water out of the low points in the tunnels.  Would that really work in a subway system?  We don’t know.

It taught us the vulnerability of our signaling system and our electronics because when water went into these low lying areas, it’s salt water, it’s not just the rain water that we’re used to from storms and it’s very corrosive and once it strikes anything metal, which is basically what our signals and our control systems and our surveillance systems and everything else is made out of, it’s toast.  It’s corrosive no matter how much you wash it, no matter how much you try to get the salt out of the connectors, they’re going to keep corroding and you’re going to have increased rates of failure going forward.   So, it sounds almost too pat to say this but what we learned is we need more strategies for keeping water out of our tunnels.

And then you take a look at something like the South Ferry Subway Station, which was built for $540 million and opened in 2009 or 2010 and it flooded floor to ceiling like a fish tank.  So, how do we prevent against that in the future and how do we make it more resilient?  Could that mean relocating signal equipment on the lowest levels up to a higher level?  Possibly.  Could it mean that you build infrastructure at lower levels that is able to be removed in advance of the storm and plugged back in later to protect it?  It’s another idea.  I don’t have any real solid answers for you yet because we’re still investigating this stuff.  We can’t, it’s too early for us to say this is what we’re going to do.  But that’s what we’re aiming towards, and as hard and fast as we can.

Q:            Right.  So, the storm affected a large number of [unintelligible 12:45], it wasn’t just the city, but –

A:            A large number of what?

Q:            [Crosstalk 12:49] jurisdictions, cities, towns, you know, also moved up the scale.  We had New York State getting involved with the federal government being involved and it implicated a large number of agencies and departments across all those jurisdictions.  So, how much coordination between jurisdictions and across agencies occurred that the MTA was involved in?

A:            It was a very detailed and very, I guess I could call it an interdisciplinary effort here because – oh shoot, can you hold on just one minute?

Q:            Sure.

A:            Alright, sorry about that.  If you look back – first of all everything we did was coordinated with the governor’s office, as it should have been, because the governor’s office is the one who is responsible for making sure all the state agencies are operating on the same page.  To give just one example, as the storm was approaching and wind speeds were getting absolutely out of control, the MTA was thinking about its bridges like the RFK Bridge and the Verrazano Bridge.  We have seven bridges all together and we were – each of them has their own standards for what kind of wind speeds promote what kind of, offer what kinds of restrictions, for example does the – at a certain point do you ban trucks and other large vehicles but still allow cars and at other levels do you say no cars whatsoever.  At the same time, we’re thinking about connectivity within our network.  That if this bridge connecting these areas is closed for weather, does it make it more vital to try to keep another bridge open.  But we’re not necessarily thinking about how that interacts with bridges operated by other agencies.  Like the Port Authority or like the New York State Thruway, which operates the Tappan Zee Bridge.

By working through the governor’s office, we were able to keep all of those concerns in one place and all of those efforts focused together.  In addition, the – within the MTA we were extremely, we work extremely closely together.  We’re all, even though Metro North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road, New York City Transit, MTA Bridges and Tunnels are separate operating agencies, there were multiple phone calls a day where the then Chairman of the MTA convened everyone from all of the agencies plus lots of other support areas and operations that cover the entire MTA to be on a single phone call to see what everyone else is doing and people can see some obvious areas of shared interests or alternately can ward off potential conflict before they begin.  So, I think – and speaking as someone who sat in on those phone calls and was actively involved in understanding what was happening moment to moment, I think it was an extraordinary degree of cooperation both within the MTA’s operating agencies and between the MTA and other areas of government.

Q:            And what do you make of the mayor’s handling of the storm in New York City specifically, Mayor Bloomberg’s handing the storm?

A:            You know, we’re a state agency and he’s the mayor of the city so I don’t even want to get into discussing his performance because anything I say, good or bad, is going to seem colored by the fact that I work for the state and I’d rather leave that unsaid.

Q:            Okay, that’s fair.  Now, there are, you know, people after the storm started talking about inequality that played out, inequality based on neighborhood, class, race, gender, do you see any of this in sort of the response to the storm or the effects of the storm around the city?

A:            I did not.  I will tell you, the only complaint that I remember hearing that seemed at all out of proportion to the number of people we serve was about the G Train.  Because we were very conscious in our – in how quickly we restored service and where we sent the pump trains first that we needed to get the maximum number of people moving again.  We didn’t necessarily look at socioeconomic backgrounds or relative levels of need in the neighborhoods we served.  It was how many people ride, for example, the four and five trains from Brooklyn into Manhattan.  There are more people who ride the Lexington Avenue line everyday than ride the entire system, subway system in Chicago and Washington DC combined.  So, clearly getting that moving again from Brooklyn to Manhattan was a priority and what, the storm struck on a Monday night and by Saturday morning we had it running again, which was incredible timing.  And we brought more and more lines online.  Are you familiar with the service restoration maps that we put up on our website?

Q:            Yes, yeah.

A:            Yeah, so you know, you could see sometimes multiple times in a day as the map was updated to reflect more and more service coming back.  And it was based entirely on how many people we could restore service to at what kind of speed.  Now, there were some lines, for example, the L line was out for longer because it’s tunnel is under a relatively wide spot in the East River and it took on a lot of water that took a lot of time to pump out and cost a lot of signal damage.  And it was, which caused a hardship for people who rely only on the L line.  Now, there are some parallel service along the M and along the J and in other areas.  But some of those routes also need the G to connect to them and so they weren’t able to do that.  That’s, so that created some difficulty, which we certainly acknowledge.  But to get back to my initial point about the G, it is a very low ridership line relative to all the others.  However, an awful lot of the digerati live on it and people who are very fluent in social media and know how to get their voices heard in the media environment in New York.  And it was a constant source of political pressure.  Why don’t you have the G up yet?  Why isn’t the G running?  The answer is that we’re serving the lines, we’re dealing with the lines that serve more people first.  So, it wasn’t really an issue of socioeconomic status if that’s what you’re getting at, but that was the only example I can think of in which pressure to restore service was sort of out, was somewhat incongruous with the needs as we saw them.

Q:            Okay, you said a little bit earlier – I only have two more, one and a half more questions.  You said a little bit earlier that planning, let’s see, right when you’re looking forward to preparing the MTA for future weather events that kind of have the implication that we’re expecting more and more frequent extreme weather, so do you connect that to climate change in anyway?  And if so, do you see the MTA sort of being expanded to, you know, build into mass transit [unintelligible 21:19] green jobs or sustainable future for New York?

A:            You know, that kind of larger policy direction we’re leaving to the state government since our efforts going forward are all being coordinated through them.  I mean, the weather climate change as we’ve come to understand it is the cause is not really an issue of concern to the MTA, you know, rising carbon levels in the atmosphere are caused by human activity and if that is leading to a more unstable and a more unpredictable weather pattern, there are lots of very smart people working in our sustainability areas who have their own personal opinions on that but I don’t think the MTA as a whole has bothered to take a position on that because our job is moving people and preserving our ability to move people in the future no matter what the weather is.  So, you know, larger questions about cause and climate science, that’s for somebody else to worry about.  We’re worried about what climate science says is going to happen to our system and how we can protect it.

Q:            Okay, so the follow-up to that question, Governor Cuomo in his state of the state, which I know was a little while back now, he talked about his green bank initiative that will promise state matching funds for private investment in sustainable technologies and green jobs and clean energy and these sorts of things.  Do you think any of this money will make its way into public transportation funding?

A:            You know again, it’s not my place to say what I hope the governor’s budget will do for my agency.

Q:            Right.  Okay, very good.  So, are there any questions that I didn’t ask that you think I ought to kind of – or any other comments you’d like to make?

A:            Yeah, offhand I can’t think of any other than that, you know, one of the questions that we have faced occasionally here is why didn’t the MTA prepare against this.  You know, it’s no secret that the South Ferry Subway Station was built in an area that is listed on the flood zone and the MTA has other facilities that are located in what are known to be low lying areas.  And the part of the answer is that knowing that these risks exist in finding both A) the political will to spend billions of dollars preventing against a hazard or against a risk that has never actually happened and B) figuring out the best way to do it, is a long and difficult process.  The MTA has $60 billion in unmet needs just to bring its entire system into a state of good repair.  Every five years we do a new capital program that in the past has been in the $20 odd billion range and that includes everything from rebuilding stations and replacing rails to building mega projects like our East Side Access Station under Grand Central or the Second Avenue Subway.

So, there are an awful lot of competing needs and until Sandy struck, those needs, the need to harden against climate change could seem abstract, you know, with the exception of the hardening efforts in low lying areas that happen, you know, after the storms in 2007, which I talked about earlier and aren’t connected to hurricanes per say, you know the – we have very limited dollars and we need to keep the existing system running.  How do you spend money on that versus on protecting against a flood that nobody alive has ever seen?  It’s a complicated question and there is no easy answer.  But it certainly, it would not be fair to say that the MTA had ignored this problem.  We have people who work on sustainability full-time and they’re very well versed in what the issues are.  But being aware of them and being able to develop best strategies and paying for enormous levels of capital work are two different things.

Q:            Right, exactly.  Well, those are all my questions for you Adam.

A:            Okay, call back any time if you need it.

Q:            Thank you very much.  Yeah, thank you very much for talking, it’s very informative and I’ll send you a copy of the transcript as soon as I have it.  Usually that takes about a week to a week and a half.

A:            Okay.

Q:            And if everything is good, then we’re all set.

A:            Terrific.

Q:            Thanks for taking the time and have a good afternoon.

A:            You too.

Q:            Bye.

A:            Bye now.

[End of recording]

Download transcript here. 

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