North­east hopes mass tran­sit ready for snow

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Dalvin Brown

A sur­pris­ing pre-win­ter snow­storm hit the North­east re­cently and brought mass tran­sit in some of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lated ar­eas to its knees.

In New York, Port Au­thor­ity Bus Ter­mi­nal, the main gate­way for in­ter­state buses into Man­hat­tan, was so crowded with com­muters that it com­pletely shut down. Across the East River in New Jersey, Ne­wark’s Penn Sta­tion was wall-towall with ex­hausted straphang­ers who faced scat­tered de­lays.

In Philadel­phia, SEPTA, the re­gional trans­porta­tion au­thor­ity, and Am­trak ex­pe­ri­enced can­cel­la­tions through­out the day and night as trees took down train power lines.

With an El Niño-pre­dicted win­ter sea­son ahead, are mass tran­sit sys­tems in the North­east­ern sec­tion of the U.S. pre­pared to han­dle the snow?

Here’s what tran­sit ex­perts had to say:

New York City

“The city’s sub­ways were built as a re­sponse to a snow­storm, so they’re largely re­silient dur­ing snow events,” said Danny Pearl­stein, pol­icy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor at the Rid­ers Al­liance, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that fights for re­li­able pub­lic trans­porta­tion. “The prob­lem with the last storm was that the fore­casts were off.”

The New York City sub­way sys­tem is over 100 years old and was built as a re­sponse to the Great Bliz­zard of 1888, a storm that par­a­lyzed the East Coast from the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay to Maine. The storm buried the un­pre­pared city with drifts that were over 45 inches high, ac­cord­ing to Na­tional Weather Ser­vice.

Though noth­ing nearly that sig­nif­i­cant is pre­dicted this cold weather sea­son, Pearl­stein said the Big Ap­ple’s pub­lic tran­sit can use some up­grades above ground to pre­pare for the com­ing win­ter months.

“Our pri­mary con­cern is that we build a bus net­work with all the fea­tures of a 21st-cen­tury bus sys­tem,” Pearl­stein said. He said that only one out of every five bus stops has a shel­ter to pro­tect com­muters from wind, rain and snow. “We aren’t ex­pect­ing ser­vice to be per­fect, but we ex­pect it to be safe and re­li­able.”


As in other cities, the first snow of the sea­son led to a night­mare com­mute. Buses slid and got stuck, pas­sen­gers had to walk in the slush, and trains were sub­ject to de­lays up to 90 min­utes, ac­cord­ing to NBC 10.

In a state­ment, SEPTA said 32 of its bus routes were di­rectly im­pacted by the storm.

De­spite the pre-win­ter blind­side, an avid SEPTA bus rider and tran­sit ex­pert said Philadel­phia is “at least 90 per­cent pre­pared” to tackle in­clement win­ter weather.

“As long as you’re along a sub­way route, there’s a 90 per­cent chance you’ll get where you need to go dur­ing a snow­storm in Philadel­phia,” said Mar­cus McKnight, who has over six years of tran­sit ex­pe­ri­ence, work­ing in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties for south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia trans­porta­tion au­thor­ity.

Peo­ple who live or work on side streets will likely have a more dif­fi­cult time getting to their des­ti­na­tions, McKnight said.


The na­tion’s capital has made strides to im­prove its pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem af­ter years of deep­en­ing con­cerns over safety and re­li­a­bil­ity.

WMATA, the tri-ju­ris­dic­tional govern­ment agency that op­er­ates the tran­sit ser­vice, in­stalled thou­sands of elec­tri­cal in­su­la­tors to re­duce fires, new rail­road ties to help keep tracks prop­erly in place, and if a rush-hour trip is de­layed by 15 min­utes or more, the ride is free.

De­spite the im­prove­ments, tran­sit en­thu­si­asts say that the sys­tem can quickly be­come un­re­li­able when faced with weather dis­tur­bances.

“I don’t think there’s any­thing re­mark­able about how D.C. per­forms in the snow. It’s bad in the rain, it’s bad when it snows, and it’s bad just about any other time,” said the founder of Un­suck D.C. Metro, an anony­mous blog and Twit­ter ac­count that tracks the Metro’s prob­lems. “De­spite bil­lions in in­vest­ment over the past 10 years, ser­vice seems to just be getting worse.”

D.C.’s sub­way rid­er­ship has been on the de­cline for about a decade, the trans­porta­tion ad­vo­cate said.

The rail­road sys­tem in D.C. will shut down if snow­fall ap­proaches 8 inches, WMATA said in a state­ment, and bus ser­vice is lim­ited to ma­jor roads only. Dur­ing light snow, most ser­vices should op­er­ate nor­mally.


In 2015, Bos­ton broke its sea­sonal snow­fall record with 108.6 inches, lead­ing to what ex­perts called “one of the big­gest tran­sit fail­ures in re­cent his­tory.”

There was a se­ries of bliz­zards and snow­storms for sev­eral weeks in a row, com­pletely wip­ing out the T, Bos­ton’s sub­way ser­vice. Since then, Mas­sachusetts has in­vested over $100 mil­lion to­ward snow-proof­ing the tran­sit sys­tem.

“In ad­vance of this win­ter, we’re dou­bling down on our ef­forts to high­light the key re­sources that al­low us to get the most ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about ser­vice out to our cus­tomers so they can make in­formed de­ci­sions,” Tran­sit Au­thor­ity Gen­eral Man­ager Luis Manuel Ramirez said last year.

In prepa­ra­tion for snow, Bos­ton has trimmed trees along rail­road cor­ri­dors, in­stalled new rails, and ex­panded snow clear­ing and snow re­moval con­tracts.

“It’s com­mend­able that the state com­mit­ted this money to in­vest in re­siliency mea­sures,” said Tim Lawrence, VP of op­er­a­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Tran­sit Mat­ters, a pub­lic trans­porta­tion ad­vo­cacy group. “But there’s one on­go­ing prob­lem.”

Bos­ton’s Blue sub­way line runs along the beach at sea level and un­der the Bos­ton Har­bor, Lawrence said. “Be­ing right on the har­bor, snow can cause higher-than- nor­mal tides which can lead to flood­ing in some of the sta­tions. We are try­ing to push the Com­mon­wealth to think about that.”

“No mat­ter where you are, when you get a record amount of snow, things are go­ing to break,” Lawrence said. “We’ve learned that what­ever prob­lems ex­ist be­fore it snows will re­ally be high­lighted when there’s a bliz­zard.”


A rail com­muter in Tar­ry­town, N.Y., takes the stairs on the way to New York City dur­ing a Nov. 15 snow­fall.

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