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Crumbling Systems

by Courtney Gross and Gail Robinson, Aug 13, 2007
 

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From the a steam pipe explosion in Midtown Manhattan to the paralysis of the city's subway system last week, New York's underlying structure seems more fragile than ever. Experts and government officials wonder whether the city's older systems can possibly meet the 21st century demands of a changing climate, new technology and increased population.

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These concerns are particularly sharp in a centuries-old metropolis like New York City, but the deadly collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis has given rise to worries about the crumbling state of transportation and utilities throughout the country. One commentator wrote that the United States that once tamed a vast wilderness put men on the moon and built the Panama Canal has become "the can't do nation."

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Last year, a devastating blackout in Queens spurred increased scrutiny of New York's infrastructure. The steam explosion and the subway flooding here, along with renewed focus on the thousands of bridges within the five boroughs, make it clear that decrepit and outmoded systems still threaten quality of life, the city's economy and the health and safety of millions of people. The following article examines the conditions of a city infrastructure that is another year older and, some say, drawing ever closer to its expiration date. (This feature includes some material from last summer's story, The Aging City.)

. Subways
. Bridges
. Roads
. Steam
. Electricity
. Sewers
. Water
. Solving The Problem

Subways: After the Deluge

Infrastructure Reports

Over the past several years, Gotham Gazette has published a number of articles on New York's infrastructure, its problems and efforts to fix it. Here is a sampling:

. The Aging City: The Queens blackout focuses attention on old systems throughout New York.

. Keeping the City Running: The many systems that make the city go.

. Loving the City's Infrastructure -- and Explaining How It Works: A discussion with Kate Ascher, author of "The Works: Anatomy of a City."

. Drought: Keeping New York supplied with water

. Water: Its route from an upstate stream to your kitchen.

. The Sewer System: How it works -- and doesn't work.

. Electricity: How does it get to your home?

. After The Blackout: Experts discuss the 2003 power failure.

. Steam: Heating and cooling Manhattan buildings.

. Learning from the Subway Fire: The very old equipment that makes the trains run.

. How the Subway System Shaped New York: A century of mass transit.

And be sure to play Gotham Gazette's Breakdown game and save the city from "kaput."

Lights have gone out, platforms have flooded and control rooms have burned. But most upsetting to subway riders has been the almost total disruption of service three times in the last seven months because of rain.

For several days, war stories of Wednesday's subway catastrophe floated through cubicles, boardrooms and deli lines throughout the city. The tales resemble those from September 2004 when the subway was shut down during the morning rush hour, also because of heavy rainfall.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has described such incidents as "an act of God." It now blames the National Weather Service for not giving ample warning; climate change for bringing severe and erratic weather; and city officials for not doing more to fix the aging sewer system (see below). But city officials and straphangers see the debacle as another example of the aging system's inability to handle unexpected problems.

The subway system's pumps tend to buckle and clog when rain pours down at a rate faster than an inch and half an hour. Last week's storm brought nearly two inches in one hour in Central Park.

In some areas of the city, the pumps have not been updated or improved for as many as 75 years. Though the pumps are supposed to redirect water to the city's storm water sewer system, when rainfall pours as it did last Wednesday, the sewer system gets overwhelmed, water spills into stations and sewage can run in the streets, forcing the authority to shut down power and the subways.

One report on the September 2004 flooding from the authority's Office of the Inspector General, an independent oversight arm, faulted the pumps and the valves linking the city's sewer system and the authority's pumping stations (which the authority did not know existed and had not maintained for decades). Another pointed to litter in stations, which can get swept into the pumps during storms and clog them. Along with technical and mechanical failures, the reports also cited poor communication throughout the 2004 flood.

The inspector general recommended several improvements. These included treating litter as a safety hazard instead of a quality of life issue and developing regular inspection and maintenance for the subway systems connections to the city sewer system.

A spokesman for New York City Transit said the authority could not give specifics on which of the recommendations had been implemented. In general, the authority has ordered extra portable pumps, cleared drains before storms, put work crews in place when heavy rain is forecast and brought in more dispatchers at stations to help customers.

Other technological improvements, spokesman Charles Seaton said, have been ongoing. New advisory screens have trickled into stations over the last several years, and the authority added service alerts on its web site. That web site, however, was down during much of Wednesday's emergency.

Despite any improvements, most New Yorkers who had been through the 2004 flooding had a sense of deja vu last week . They were left scrambling for other transportation and given little information about the subway breakdown. The New York Times' blog City Room garnered nearly 1,000 comments from irate commuters, blasting the authority not only for its inability to keep the subways running following a rainstorm, but also for not letting them know where to go or even which lines were down.

The subway system's woes extend beyond flooding. This became glaringly apparent on January 23, 2005 when a fire destroyed a signal relay room at the Chambers Street station in lower Manhattan. While many control rooms had been modernized to improve their resistance to fires, the one at Chambers Street had not.

The system showed the most acute signs of wear and tear in the 1970s and 1980s when track fires, delays and other breakdowns seemed a daily occurrence. No one denies that things have improved since then as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has spent some $26 billion to repair and improve the system.

According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC, which calls for expanding and improving the subway system, the last major subway expansion was in the early 1930s, and much of that technology is still used to transport its 5 million daily passengers. To help bring the subways up to date the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has adopted an $11.3 billion capital program for New York City Transit, including money for signals and communications, subway cars and stations.

The problem comes in paying for all this. Bloomberg anticipates using some money from congestion pricing fees. To help improve the subways and the state's voters approved a transportation bond act in 2005. But that will not erase the expected $800 million deficit the MTA predicts for 2008.

While the authority does have a capital budget, a report (in pdf format) by the Citizens Budget Commission said the agency used some of that money to cover routine maintenance. This means that money was not spent to modernize, improve and maintain the subways. Meanwhile, the city and state have reduced subsidies for mass transit and shifted an increasing share of operating costs to passengers.

Spending taxpayer dollars to upgrade a system can be a hard political sell. "The problem is that the least sexy stuff you do in this business is state-of-good-repair stuff," David Gunn, a former MTA executive told New York Magazine. "No politician wants to cut a ribbon on a rebuilt toilet."

After last week's incident, and two less severe but similar shutdowns earlier this year, the political tide may be shifting. Spitzer has demanded an investigation into the flooding within 30 days, while Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Transportation Committee Chair John Liu and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum addressed a letter to the authority demanding answers on the authority's aging pump system.

They may not like the answer they get. City and MTA officials contend it would cost far too much to overhaul the entire sewer system to keep the subways running when the hard rains come.

Bridges: Avoiding Disaster in a City of Islands

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on August had particular resonance with New Yorkers. Living in a city where all but one of the five boroughs is on an island, few New Yorkers can avoid regularly using the city's bridges and tunnels.

Built in 1967, the Minnesota bridge was frequently described as old. But all four of New York's East River crossings have carried traffic for many more years, The oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, went into service in 1883; the newest, the Manhattan, has logged 98 years. Many of the spans carry more traffic than anticipated. Former city transportation commissioner Sam Schwartz has said that the Queensboro Bridge, for example, intended for 110,000 vehicles a day, actually carries 150,000. And along with the cars and trucks, heavy subways trains use some New York bridges.

New York City has more than 2,000 bridges and tunnels. Of them 787 are run by the New York City Department of Transportation. Others, including the Verrazano-Narrow Bridges, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Throgs Neck Bridge, fall under the purview of a unit of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, while the Port Authority runs several crossings linking New York and New Jersey, such as the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel.

Following the collapse in Minnesota, the city government hastened to reassure New Yorkers the bridges it operates are safe. A return to maintenance, neglected during the tough fiscal times of the 1970s and 1980s, has reduced the number of bridges the department considers to be in poor conditions from 40 in 1997 to three today. (Most of the bridges are rated fair, according to a 2006 transportation department report.) Two of the "poor" bridges are small -- a pedestrian bridge over the FDR Drive and a bridge over Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The third, though, is the Brooklyn Bridge, which carries almost 140,000 vehicles on an average weekday.

City officials issued reassurances that the historic bridge is not in danger of collapse. The major problems exist not with the span itself, the Department of Transportation said, but with the ramps leading to the bridge, and rehabilitation work will begin in three years. "The poor rating for the Brooklyn Bridge mean that there's only components of the bridge that are in poor condition," Lori Ardito, the first deputy transportation commissioner told reporters.

But despite the city government's assurances New Yorkers have reason for concern. After the Minnesota disaster, the MTA banned oversized vehicles from the Throgs Neck Bridge. While saying the bridge remained safe for motorists officials said they had found "advanced wear and tear."

Some may remember the emergency closing of the Williamsburg Bridge for several months for repairs in 1988. Nets under the Gowanus Expressway catch falling chunks of concrete from above. The Port Authority finds constant problems with its 79-year old Goethals Bridge linking Staten Island to New Jersey and would like to replace it. A 1999 study noted "structural and seismic deficiencies" in the 106-year-old Willis Avenue Bridge across the Harlem River. Construction on a new crossing will likely start this year, according to New York Magazine. Until then, "we're making it as safe as we can," Ardito has said.

In PlaNYC, its proposal for a "greater greener" city released this spring, the Bloomberg administration said the city must increase its efforts to maintain aging bridges. The city has "done a better job," since 1988, the report said, "but with more traffic every year, the city's bridges require significant periodic upgrade and replacement."

In the state as a whole, some 2,110 -- or 12.1 percent -- bridges have been classified as "structurally deficient," although actual conditions at the crossings vary widely. In general, a structurally deficient bridge cannot carry the load for which it was designed. As alarming as this may sound, Matthew Wald explained in the Times, "in many cases, this means nothing because bridges are generally designed for higher loads than the traffic imposes."

Following a round of inspections this month, Governor Eliot Spitzer pronounced the bridges safe." As of now, there are no reasons to believe that there are any problems [that] rise to the level of structural concern," he said.

Roads: Potholes and Other Problems

In some instances, New York City's aging streets -- paved with cobblestones and lined with centuries old structures --- offer charm and character. But many others are simply irritating.

According to Federal Highway Administration data, 45 percent of the metropolitan area's roads and highways could be considered poor, meaning it has the 10th worst roads of all urban areas with half a million people or more. The city offers a more upbeat view, but even by its accounting about 30 percent of city "lane miles" are not in good repair.

The city repaired 180, 000 potholes last year and although the pothole problem does not seem as severe as in the past -- the result of better maintenance, milder weather or less attention from the tabloids -- anyone who drive or bikes through city streets knows that gaping holes pockmark the city's pavement.

Along with bridge repairs, street maintenance was a casualty of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s as "the city's resurfacing efforts virtually stopped," according to PlaNYC 2030. Whatever repairs were done, were done poorly, the report said: "New layers of asphalt were simply laid over the damaged, older sections and sealed up. Each new layer caused the road level to rise closer to the curb. To avoid having streets at the same level as sidewalks, repairs were simply avoided."

In the late 1980s, the city stepped up its resurfacing efforts. But the repairs tapered off starting in 1992, and as a result, the number of city streets considered "in good repair" has begun to decrease.

Steam: An Explosion's Aftermath

For more than a century, steam has run discreetly underneath Manhattan streets, heating and cooling institutions like the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim and the Chrysler Building. It wasn't until July 18 at 5:56 p.m. that most New Yorkers ever thought about vapors estimated at 350 degrees Fahrenheit flowing beneath their feet.

On that July day a steam geyser engulfed Midtown Manhattan and created a large crater in the middle of a busy intersection yards away from Grand Central Terminal. The explosion left one man in an induced coma with third degree burns over 80 percent of his body, a woman dead of a heart attack and merchants in the area of 41st Street and Lexington Avenue with an estimated $1.3 million in lost business.

At a hearing last week, City Council members blasted Consolidated Edison, which operates the steam system. Senior Senior Vice President of Central Operations William Longhi bore the brunt of the council's comments, since the utility's CEO, Kevin Burke, skipped the session. Longhi refused to offer any explanation of why a steam pipe would spontaneously explode in midtown Manhattan, saying he wanted to avoid speculation.

Longhi confirmed that the explosion did not occur at a pipe intersection or a flange (where two pipes are sealed together), but at a pipe straightaway. Beyond that Longhi said Con Edison is investigating the cause and hopes to issue a public report in three months. The company also plans to have the area back to normal by mid-October.

This did not satisfy council members who criticized Con Edison for July's steam blast, its steam inspection practices and its ability to effectively and safely manage its facilities.

"It seems to me you have a warped culture at Con Edison," said Councilmember Eric Gioia. "It's a company when the lights go out no one gets fired. People get electrocuted and no one gets fired."

Immediately following the blast, Bloomberg characterized the event as a "failure of our infrastructure." But that failure, which has sparked lawsuits from several victims, also points toward the vulnerability of a system that is more than a century old.

The pipe that exploded was installed in 1924, Con Edison representatives said. While council members and engineering experts have questioned the age of the city's steam system, Con Edison refused to define the pipes as failing or old, and said it has no plan to replace the system.

"There has to be a plan in place to replace them over time," said Councilmember Jessica Lappin. "They are not going to last forever."

Although some steam industry experts told the council that it was extremely unusual to replace steam systems and that the systems scattered around the country are reliable, some said infrastructure installed during the Coolidge administration can be susceptible to potentially disastrous breakdowns.

"This may be a warning sign for this very old network of pipe that we have," Anil Agrawal, a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York, told The Washington Post. "We should not be looking at this incident as an isolated one."

In 1989 the city did see a similar occurrence. A steam pipe exploded near Gramercy Park, killing three and injuring dozens. The explosion was caused by a water hammer, which occurs when steam collides with water and rapidly cools. That blast also released a large amount of asbestos, which Con Edison initially concealed from the public.

Following the recent blast, Con Edison and inspectors from the city's departments of health and environmental protection tested the area for asbestos. They found the toxin was not in the air, but was in several pieces of debris.

With the largest steam network in the country, New York City could be vulnerable to similar explosions in the future. But according to PlaNYC, Bloomberg is encouraging steam's use, because it is considered one of the cleaner heating and cooling technologies.

Electricity: Blackout Fears

More than a year after a blackout in Queens left approximately 100,000 residents in the dark for nearly 10 days, a clear explanation as to why it occurred has not emerged.

"It's not a supply problem," Con Ed spokesperson told the Daily News at the time of the blackout. "It's an isolated equipment problem."

With equipment that dates back to the 1940s, some question whether these incidents can remain "isolated." The area of Queens left in the dark last summer had a long history of problems, accumulating more failures than any other of the utility's 57 underground networks throughout the city within a two year period.

In 1999, as many as 200,000 people in the northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood lost power for more than 19 hours. At that time, the Public Service Commission put much of the blame on aging or inadequate equipment.

"Six years later, an estimated 100,000 residents in Queens were plunged into darkness for nearly identical reasons -- inadequately maintained feeder cables that were vulnerable to heat and power overloads, an inability to identify equipment that was likely to fail, a failure to comprehend the magnitude of the problem, inadequate communication with the public, and a failure to restore power promptly," said then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer last year.

Since last summer, several studies have tried to get to the cause of the problem. In a 600-page tome released three months after the outages, Con Edison stated some of the feeder failures were from an undetermined cause, while others were attributed to the fires.

Advocacy groups and the state utility oversight agency, the Public Service Commission, remain unsatisfied by Con Edison's explanations.

In a report released in February, the Public Service Commission blamed the outage on a systemic failure by the utility to routinely conduct oversight and maintenance. In addition, the report charged that the company failed to communicate effectively with its customers and measure the blackout's magnitude.

For its part, the State Assembly released a report in January that faulted the deregulation of utility companies, which allowed Con Edison to monopolize the electric market in New York City, and charged that the state failed to put pressure on the utility to make improvements. "Con Edison continues to rely upon an aging and inefficiently maintained network grid that was not sufficiently upgraded to meet growing load, and similar power outages will continue to be experienced in its service territory if network upgrades, improved maintenance and new technologies are not quickly incorporated," the report said.

Much of the Co Ed's equipment is far older than industry standards consider reliable. In Brooklyn one paper-insulated cable is 78 years old. "Anything over 50 years becomes highly susceptible to breakdowns," said Pat Impollonia, an energy conservation engineer at Cornell University.

Con Edison has acknowledged that it uses outmoded equipment. It notes, however, that it has invested billions over the last 10 years to upgrade the system and plans to put $5.3 billion more into cables, substations, transformers and other equipment in the next several years.

"We have to make sure that the company's energy infrastructure is sufficiently strong and flexible so that it can supply future energy needs, " Con Ed Chairman Kevin Burke has said.

But accomplishing that will be neither quick nor cheap. The Independent Review Board that Con Ed set up to investigate the 1999 power outage said, "Given Con Ed's size it will take years to realize a significant benefit system-wide from changing equipment."

Sewers: Overflows When It Rains

During the blackout in August 2003, backup generators at several sewage plants didn't work, and some 30 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the East River.

It doesn't take a blackout for this to happen, however; untreated sewage ends up in the city's waterways almost every time it rains. This is the result of an overburdened network of pipes that handle both rainwater and sewage. In dry weather, the mixture flowing through the city sewage system is treated and released. But rain can quickly fill the pipes beyond capacity; in some areas it takes as little as 0.1 inches to do so. When this happens, sewage is dumped without being treated.

A total of 27 billion gallons of rainwater mixed with sewage enters the city's waterways each year through these so-called combined sewage overflows. Overflows contribute to the notorious smells of the Flushing River, Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, and regularly result in city beach closings. In 2003, the swimming leg of the New York City Triathlon was called off because there was too much sewage in the Hudson after a night of rain. The sewage overflow has other serious environmental impacts, such as the threat to the Jamaica Bay marshes.

When a storm like last week's occurs, the additional water being pumped from subways can overload the city's sewers even more. That capacity, Bloomberg said, may need to be overhauled.

Some cities have two separate systems for rainwater and sewage, but everyone agrees that completely replacing New York's system would be prohibitively expensive. There is disagreement, however, about how best to reduce the impact sewage overflows have on the local environment.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection is spending $2.1 billion on various improvements centered around the construction of two huge storage tanks -- one in Flushing and one in Jamaica Bay -- that will hold excess rainwater until storms end and the excess can be run back through the treatment system.

The city says this will reduce sewage overflows, but critics are skeptical. They say that New York's sewer system is far behind other cities, like Chicago, and city must take a more aggressive approach.

Water: Delivery Problems

New York City prides itself on the quality of its water -- in fact the Bloomberg administration has undertaken a campaign to persuade fans of Poland Spring and Dasani that what comes out of the tap here beats bottled water anytime. Recently, the federal Environmental Protection Agency determined that the bulk of the city's water from upstate remained so clean it did not need filtration.

The system that brings water to us, though, is a bit more dicey. New York City relies on two tunnels from upstate, one dating from 1917, the other from 1936, for all of its drinking water. Neither of these has been closely examined since they opened, largely because inspections and repairs would require shutting the tunnels and interrupting the city's water supply. So, Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates has said, ""A disaster could happen at any moment, a disaster of epic proportions."

A third tunnel is under construction. The city broke ground on the project in 1970 -- when John Lindsay was still mayor. Current estimates are that the project will cost $6 billion and be completed in 2012 -- more than 40 years after work began.

Once the water reaches the city thousand of miles of aging and pipes carry it to millions of faucets. More than 1,000 of the 6,700 miles of pipe were installed more than a century ago, according to PlaNYC. These are the pipes that occasionally burst, shutting streets and damaging property. Currently the city replaces about 60 miles of pipe a year, meaning the system would not be fully modernized for 100 years (when one expects the whole process would have to start all over again). PlaNYC calls for increasing that to 80 miles of pipe a year.

Looking for Solutions

Experts generally agree that the nation as a whole has neglected the mundane but important work of repairing its aging roads, bridges and pipes. While the specifics of the recent breakdown incidents vary, "ultimately the issue is the same, Hope Cohen of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development has written. "Pipes and bridges, cables and roads, substations and subways require unglamorous maintenance year after year, just to provide the level of service they were mean to provide."

With many competing demands for funds, politicians have tended to neglect that kind of grunt work. In the past two weeks, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has become a kind of poster child for that attitude. He vetoed a bill that, among other things, would have raised the state gasoline tax to pay for transportation improvements, such as repairs to the I-35W bridge. Pawlenty called the hike "an unnecessary and onerous burden."

Pawlenty hardly stood alone though, Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in the Boston Globe: "Like the heirs to an old mansion who elect not to pay for its upkeep, our president, governors and mayors have been in lockstep, tacitly allowing us to squander an extraordinary legacy of inventiveness, industry, and investment bequeathed to us by our forebears."

Following the Minneapolis collapse, editorial writers and politicians said this must change. The news from the upper Mississippi constituted a "wake-up call" many said. At the local state and national level, politicians weighed in with proposals to confront the issue.

Bloomberg's PlaNYC, released in April, already dealt with a number of these issues. Among other things, it calls for completing a new water tunnel, upgrading water mains and using funds from congestion pricing fees to pay for transit and road repairs.

On the other side of City Hall, council members are looking to address city's aging infrastructure as well. Finance Committee Chair David Weprin has announced he will introduce legislation urging Bloomberg to establish an infrastructure commission aimed at identifying areas in need of repair.

The commission would examine the city's roads, subways, bridges, tunnels, electric system and other utilities, and eventually set budget priorities for the upcoming years. "Everyone always talks about paying down the debt and preserving for the future," said Weprin's director of communications, Austin Shafran. "I don't know what is more for the future than infrastructure."

In Albany, Spitzer wants the state Department of Transportation to come up with a five-year plan, including repairs and improvements to highways and bridges, to present to the legislature next spring. Some in state government, though, say New York is not properly spending the money for repairs that it does have. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas Libous, a Republican from Binghamton, said Tuesday that Albany used hundreds of millions of dollars money from a trust fund for road repairs for routine items such as snow removal. He has proposed a bill that would bar the money from being used for anything except repairs.

Whatever the fate of local and state efforts, a national plan to deal with crumbling transportation already seems locked in Washington politics. Senator Charles Schumer has said he will introduce legislation to double funding for bridge maintenance from $5 billion to $10 billion. He criticized Washington for funding new projects in sparsely populated states (remember the Bridge to Nowhere), while "highways and bridges in New York and other older areas have been allowed to degrade."

Another Democrat, James Oberstar of Minnesota who chairs the House transportation committee, proposed a temporary increase in taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel and/or imported oil to improve the country's bridges. Over three years, he calculated, raising the gasoline and diesel tax by 5 cents a gallon (from the current levels of 18.4 and 24.4 cents respectively) would bring in $25 billion.

President George W. Bush promptly rejected that idea. Congress should look at how it spends the money the government already receives, he said, before increasing taxes, "which could affect economic growth."

Democrats reacted angrily to the president's statement, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charging that the president had neglected the nation's infrastructure needs "while turning surpluses into deficits."

The outburst of political bickering provides only one reason to be skeptical about the new call -- in City Hall, Albany and Washington -- for repairs and maintenance. "Each time there is one of these tragedies, politicians briefly declaim the need for a major and sustained investment in the nation's aging infrastructure," the New York Times said in an editorial. But the paper, added, "that enthusiasm quickly flags."

 




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