New York City, MTA ramp up storm management dialogue

BY SourceMedia | MUNICIPAL | 09/17/21 11:44 AM EDT By Paul Burton

Tropical Storm Ida?s damage in New York exposed vulnerabilities to the city itself and the mass transit system that serves it.

While the federal and state governments have funding and other remedies in the works, local concerns range from frayed infrastructure to better communication in the face of a new quick-strike phenomenon, flash flooding.

And hurricane season is far from over.

?Our city should have been able to anticipate and prepare for the heavy rainfall,? City Council transportation committee chairman Ydanis Rodriguez said at an oversight hearing on Tuesday. At separate meetings over three days this past week, the council and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority discussed resilience and response to the Sept. 1 storm at length.

The annual Climate Week NYC kicks off on Monday, featuring international leaders from business, government and civil society to emphasize climate awareness. It will involve more than 500 events across the city and worldwide.

Problems from Ida included clogged city sewer systems and porous subway entrances.

MTA officials estimated that they pumped 75 million gallons of water out of their system due to Ida?s record 3.15 inches of rain in less than an hour. The storm poured more than seven inches of rain into Central Park.

Storm costs, according to authority officials, could reach $100 million. While city officials have yet to peg a full cost from Ida, they expect it to run into tens of billions.

Of the 13 people who died in the city, 11 drowned in basement apartments, prompting concerns about building codes and illegal occupancies.

?We are in the middle of a climate reckoning, which projects we need to do,? said bond analyst Natalie Cohen, president of National Municipal News. ?Clearly not just New York City and not just the MTA.?

Bond rating agencies have cited coastline location and related exposure to rising sea levels and intensifying storms as credit risks.

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the watchdog Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, suggested the authority and the city collaborate on ?joint priority? capital projects and fast-track them.

?The MTA ? and the city ? must also look at their capital programs in the context of resiliency and reprioritize their projects as necessary,? Daglian said at the council hearing. ?The storms ? Henri, Ida and whatever comes next ? are a clear indication that new solutions must be found.?

While the city?s 10-year capital strategy totals $133.7 billion, the MTA has a $51.5 billion capital program to cover 2020 through 2024.

The MTA this coming week intends to sell roughly $850 million of Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority payroll mobility tax senior lien bonds in four subseries ? a mix of new money and refunding ? with sizing of the subseries undetermined as of Friday.

"With a strong credit and a large base of investors comfortable with TBTA, we expect robust demand for these bonds, but in our view, there is little incremental tightening left in TBTA bonds," said John Ceffalio, senior municipal research analyst for CreditSights. Ceffalio expects that investors who need New York triple-exempt bonds will drive the demand.

MTA interim chairman Janno Lieber acknowledged ongoing discussions with city First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan on flash-flood management.

?As part of this exploration of the flash-flooding issue, we will be looking at both the subway and the at-ground systems,? Lieber said after the authority?s board meeting on Wednesday. Lieber, though, said any discussions of joint capital funding for projects were premature.

Lieber said the MTA?s pending 20-year capital-needs assessment, which helps guide its capital program, will reflect the need for greater resilience. The next plan will cover 2025 to 2029.

?Our communication with the MTA on the drainage side probably wasn?t so good over the last couple of years, but when Janno came in about three months ago, the first thing he did was reach out to us and say he wanted to re-establish the task force that we have for drainage,? said Vincent Sapienza, the city?s Department of Environmental Protection commissioner.

DEP?s responsibilities including drinking water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems.

?In some cases, flooding on local streets, overland flooding, is getting into subway entrances. Those are things that we?re working at, seeing what we can address,? Sapienza added. ?In other cases, it?s things that MTA needs to do to tighten up some of the drainage in their spaces, but we are now again having active conversations and they are good conversations.?

DEP?s sewer-pipe system, designed and constructed decades ago, totals 7,500 miles. The department?s capital budget includes $2.3 billion for drainage improvements to 278 properties. That includes a major project in southeast Queens, which sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

New York?s U.S. senators, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are calling for $33 million from Washington to upgrade weather warning systems across the state and country.

About $3 million of that amount, Schumer said, would upgrade hyper-local and real-time weather-monitoring technology in New York. The University at Albany hosts the state?s severe weather warning system, a web-like scattering of 126 observation stations called a mesonet.

The city could also be in store for extra climate-related funding through passage of a federal infrastructure and budget-reconciliation bills now through Congress.

At the state level, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that construction began on the $107 million living breakwaters project off the city?s southernmost point, the south shore of Staten Island. The 2,400 linear feet of breakwaters will consist of eight partially submerged enhanced stone and eco-concrete structures, intended to reduce storm-wave risk and combat long-term beach erosion.

Council member Robert Holden, who represents central Queens, called many of the city?s problems self-inflicted.

?We?ve seen overdevelopment for decades,? he said. ?We tell our developers, ?well, our sewer system?s not going to take this,? and the city always comes back [and says] ?oh, it?s fine.? And it?s not fine.?

Holden said the proliferation of illegal apartments, paved-over properties to create parking spaces ? illegal but sparingly enforced ? and ?community driveways,? below-grade alleys behind residential streets often linked to garages converted to apartments, all severely test sewer systems.

Ida has prompted MTA unit Metro-North Railroad to re-examine its capital priorities, said its president, Catherine Rinaldi.

?We?re going to have to focus more based on this storm,? she said. ?This storm was not water coming up from the river. This storm was water coming down from the hill.?

Metro-North has allocated significant resources to its tree-cutting program the past several years.

?This has been a special area of focus on the New Haven line where we have the catenary [overhead] wire,? Rinaldi said. Projects after Hurricane Sandy included the elevation of substations.

Transit advocate Murray Bodin of Hartsdale, in Westchester County, called for a more forceful and unified preparation for the next megastorm.

?You?re going to have to make a hard decision. The next time a storm like this is anticipated, you?re going to have to close the city. Everything stops. Everybody stays in place. If you?re in a low-lying apartment, go to an upper floor.

?You had the lesson this time.?

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