3 questions for NYC’s subway agency on how climate change threatens the system

Record rainfall and scorching heat present unique challenges to the largest U.S. transit system.

The New York City subway system has flooded several times recently.
The New York City subway system has flooded several times recently. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Andrew Burton/Reuters)

When New York City received a record-high rainfall of 6 to 8 inches on Sept. 29, much of the city’s mass transit system ground to a halt. Service on about half of all subway lines and several suburban commuter train lines was at least partially suspended. Social media was filled with videos of water gushing into subway stations and along train tracks.

This is just a taste of what the future holds for the country’s largest transit system due to climate change, according to a new report issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the agency that runs New York’s subways, buses and railroads.

Last week, the MTA released a 20-year needs assessment, which laid out all the upgrades it says are needed to keep the trains running on time. Many of those involve modernizing aging infrastructure, including making stations accessible to wheelchair users.

But climate change figures heavily in the document.

A commuter at the Bowery subway station on Manhattan's Lower East Side following heavy rains on Sept. 29.
A commuter at the Bowery subway station on Manhattan's Lower East Side following heavy rains on Sept. 29. (Stefan Jeremiah/AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Over the next two decades, climate change projections indicate that the New York region will experience more frequent and intense coastal storms, more than twice the current number of torrential rainfall events, and triple the current number of extreme heat days over 90 degrees,” the authority noted. “Meanwhile, sea levels will rise approximately 2.5 feet by the 2050s and almost 5 feet by the 2080s.”

Those changes threaten to damage and disrupt the transit system. More than 400 miles of New York City's subway tracks are below ground level and vulnerable to flooding, while more than half of the Metro-North train line that runs along the Hudson River is already at risk from coastal storm surges.

All of these tracks must be prepared for more frequent flooding — for example, the MTA wants to elevate or waterproof its signaling systems so that they don’t malfunction.

“This detailed evaluation tells the whole story, laying bare the urgent need for renewal and improvement of the system’s existing infrastructure and to prepare for climate change,” MTA Chair Janno Lieber said in a statement.

Service was shut down for days after Superstorm Sandy flooded subway tunnels.
Service was shut down for days after Hurricane Sandy flooded subway tunnels in 2012. (Angelo Merendino/Corbis via Getty Images) (Angelo Merendino via Getty Images)

Recommended reading

Bloomberg: MTA unveils a plan to fix NYC’s aging transit system

The Hill: MTA unveils plan to fix aging transit system in NYC

Jamie Torres-Springer is president of MTA Construction & Development, which manages the agency’s capital projects. Yahoo News interviewed Torres-Springer by phone about increasingly extreme weather, how it could affect New York’s iconic rail system, and how the MTA hopes to prepare for it.

Has the subway always flooded in very heavy rainfall, or has it become more common in recent years?

There have definitely been extreme heavy rainfall events historically, but due to climate change, those events and extreme flooding have become more common: We saw the events of Sept. 29. We had heavy rainfall in April that impacted the system, and there was Hurricane Ida in 2021.

How is the MTA responding to that growing problem?

We’ve created a new climate planning division, building on a lot of work that’s happened over the last few years — particularly since [2012’s Hurricane] Sandy, when this part of the country really awoke to the risks related to these climate-change-driven events.

We're looking at multiple hazards, multiple risks. So, when we talk about Hurricane Sandy, that was a coastal storm surge that was basically by a direct hit from a hurricane that coincided with high tide in most of New York City. We are expecting to see more coastal storms like that. As coastal storms combine with sea-level rise, we're going to see much more regular inundation of low-lying areas, and we have a lot of infrastructure in low-lying areas. We particularly have yards, shops, in addition to stations. In response to that vulnerability, we’ve invested $7.6 billion in resiliency since 2013.

We’re very, very pleased that our system was back in service in 10 hours on Sept. 29, which was really a big accomplishment and a result of all the work we’ve done.

Besides heavier rainfall and bigger storm surges, how else is climate change affecting the New York transit system?

A passenger in a subway station in New York City on Aug. 5, 2005, when the high was 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
A passenger in a subway station in New York City on Aug. 5, 2005, when the high was 95 degrees Fahrenheit. (Michael Nagle/Getty Images) (Michael Nagle via Getty Images)

The other big hazard we're concerned about is high heat.

We have roughly 6 million different component assets in our system. A lot of them are old, but even the ones that are newer are very sensitive components.

Much of our system can get stressed and stop working properly under certain high heat conditions, and so we’re very focused on making sure that all those components are adapted, whether there’s a cooling system that supports them or we’re just buying and installing things that are more resistant to high heat — everything from track, to the substations that power the system, to the communications system, to our signals and our switches, even the subway cars.

The customer-facing environment in stations is a concern. The most important and impactful thing we can do is run reliable service, because it minimizes the amount of time that people are standing on the platforms.