Since they began to realize how much the subway system had been damaged by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy, leaders have been making statements like this one from Governor Cuomo: "We will rebuild the subway system and it will be better than before." Tonight Stephen Smith scoffed at that claim, but I think it's important to take it seriously, and to think about what it could mean.
It is often said that the Chinese word for "crisis" is spelled with the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." It's also been pointed out that this is a crock, so let me give you a better metaphor, one that a friend once learned from a plumber: if you have a small leak in a pipe in a wall, it's better to wait for it to bust than to fix it right away.
The reason is that either way you need to tear out the wall. You might as well wait until it ruins the wall by itself. Obviously this is not always the best course of action; the busted pipe could ruin some valuable papers or equipment, but it seems relevant to our current situation.
We don't know the full extent of the damage to New York's transit system. We know that the Cranberry Street (A/C) tunnel is still flooded, and that the Rutgers Street (F) and Steinway (7) tunnels are not in great shape. We know that almost all of the PATH system was heavily flooded. We also know that there have been washouts along the Northeast Corridor between Newark and Secaucus, and in other parts of the commuter rail system.
Let's look at this as an opportunity, like a really long Fastrack: if you could rip out a section of the subway or commuter rail system and replace it, with 90% federal funding, what would you improve? Obviously, some parts, like Hoboken Terminal, were recently renovated and it's just be nice to have them back the way they were. Others, like the South Ferry station, are brand new and have never worked very well, and we'd just like them working. But some parts were kind of old and decrepit to begin with.
We've already missed our opportunity to connect the PATH system with the #6 Lexington Avenue line after the attack on the World Trade Center. Last year we missed the opportunity to use emergency powers to electrify the Port Jervis line or rebuild the Erie Main Line. Here are some other ideas:
The PATH train tunnels are very narrow and twisty. This constrains the Port Authority to use short, narrow train cars. Could the tunnels be widened and the curves smoothed out, to the point where they could handle bigger cars?
Many signals will probably need to be replaced. Why not replace them with signals compatible with the new Communications-based Train Control system that the MTA is planning on installing at some point anyway? This is particularly relevant in the Steinway Tunnel, which is supposed to host the next line to receive CBTC. The Port Authority had already planned to install CBTC and Automatic Train Control in the PATH system by 2015; could that happen sooner?
Some of the stations were in really bad shape, like the G train station at 21st Street/Van Alst. It'd be nice to see them rebuilt.
What improvements would you like to see?