Jan 27 10:26 AM

Transit fights to keep head above the snow

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

This week’s nor'easter may not have been the two-foot monster weather forecasters had promised a day earlier, but it was enough to bring America’s largest public transit system to a standstill. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) halted all subway service at 11 p.m. Monday. By Tuesday morning the subways were being brought back online one by one, but on a delayed schedule.

This time around, the stoppage was a precautionary measure; while the subway stations were empty, MTA employees were hard at work de-icing cars and rails so that normal operations could resume in due time. The storm is a short-term irritation for the MTA, not a long-term threat.

But the same can’t be said of extreme weather events writ large. As anthropogenic climate change increases the likelihood of year-round extreme weather events — including enormous snowstorms — public transit in the United States is struggling to keep up.

For the MTA in particular, the risks include flash floods such as those that paralyzed the subway system during and after Superstorm Sandy. Additionally, during the heat waves of the near future, “dangerously hot” subway platforms may be unfit for human life, according to a panel on the transit system convened by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The MTA is working to address some of those threats through the $16 billion “Fix and Fortify” program it began implementing following Sandy. But the current efforts made to protect against flooding are nowhere near sufficient according to Klaus Jacob, a Columbia University scientist who has consulted with the MTA on their resiliency efforts. In an email to Al Jazeera, Jacob said, "the funds currently available are a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to fix the problems."

"But doing as little as we do, will cost in the long run more than investing a few billion in needed modifications,” he said. "If we don't spend these billions, we will lose tens of billions in the decades to come."

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