Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 2, 2015.

CALL IT THE WINTER of Boston’s discontent. Slammed with an unprecedented seven feet of snow over a 22-day period, from January 26 to February 16, Boston’s infrastructure and civic capabilities have been stretched to the limit, and in some cases beyond. As snow continued to fall at record rates, Bostonians quickly learned that one of the city’s most critical assets—its public transportation system—is also among its most fragile.

More In a Flash

I learned that lesson the hard way one bitterly cold afternoon in early February, waiting at a train station near my office at NFPA headquarters to catch the subway home. A recent heavy snowfall, followed by frigid temperatures, had slowed the entire subway system to a crawl, then to nothing at all. I waited on the wind-blown train platform for two hours, my hands and feet freezing, before I gave up and called a taxi. Three hours after I began my journey—a trip that usually takes an hour—and $87 poorer, I was home, and already dreading the next day’s commute.

The timing of my ordeal was perfect. For the past three weeks I’d been deep into researching the idea of resiliency for this issue’s cover story. I had talked with experts about how resiliency works and how it can be achieved, and as I stood shivering on that platform, doubting my own resilience, it occurred to me that resiliency was a component critically absent from Boston’s transit system.

According to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), each day roughly 1.3 million people in metro Boston utilize its network of subways, buses, ferries, and commuter trains. The MBTA is the nation’s fifth-largest public transportation system and an economic imperative, according to lawmakers. But the system’s antiquated equipment has been no match for the winter of 2015, and the MBTA and its passengers have suffered a host of calamities stemming from failed train engines, frozen rail switches, and tracks made impassable by snow and ice. There were three days where the sputtering system halted all service. When the system was “operating,” many rail lines had fewer than half the usual number of trains.

As a result, commuters have faced interminable waits for trains, while others have been forced to evacuate trains stuck between stations and walk along the tracks to safety. One branch of the subway’s Red Line, one of the main arteries of the system, was out of operation for so long that Peter Pan buses were brought in to transport commuters between stations.

On February 11, Beverly Scott, the general manager of the MBTA, resigned with a year remaining on her contract. On February 16—three weeks after the problems began—the MBTA announced it would take at least another month before full service was restored.

New York’s MTA:
The Power of Resiliency

Disruption does not always equal collapse. In 2012, following Hurricane Sandy—arguably a much more devastating event than Boston’s snowstorms—New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) had 80 percent of its immense subway system back up and running within five days. That was one of the findings in “Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy,” a 2012 report written by researchers at New York University. The MTA’s massive resiliency efforts are detailed as part of this issue’s cover story, and as I reported that story I kept coming back to this question: Why is New York City’s transit system so resilient, while Boston’s is not?

Stephen Flynn, the founding director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, broadly defines resilience as the capacity to withstand and adapt to disruptive events and to respond to and recover from those events when they happen. “The starting point for resiliency is to ask what assets you need to protect, and which critical values and functions need to be preserved in the face of risk,” Flynn said. Once that’s done, it takes investment to make it happen, Flynn added.

Over the past decade, flooding has disrupted New York’s subways several times. In 2007, flash flooding from a powerful storm halted subway service during the rush-hour commute, exposing the system’s vulnerabilities to weather. In response, a task force was formed to examine the issues, and by 2009 the MTA had completed more than $30 million in mitigation projects, including modernizing pumps throughout the system. “The MTA also developed operational strategies, including plans for pre-deploying portable pumps and personnel when storm conditions threaten to flood,” the NYU report said.

When Sandy hit, the MTA mobilized its plan. As a result, no buses or trains were damaged in the storm, and the millions of gallons of water that had flooded the system were pumped out quickly, enabling the MTA to restore most of the city’s subway service within days, the report said.

Facing another known weather-related risk, cold and snow, Boston’s MBTA has not made similar investments. According to The Boston Globe, 85 percent of train breakdowns during the February snowstorms were the result of propulsion system failures, specifically the failures of the MBTA trains’ antiquated direct current traction motors, which can easily fail when exposed to moisture—inevitable in several feet of snow. The norm for modern transit systems across the country is alternating current motors, which are more resilient to weather, the Globe reported. In Boston, most of the trains along the system’s Red, Orange, and Green lines are between 27 and 36 years old. By contrast, the average New York City subway car is 19 years old, according to the Globe.

The lack of investment is most glaring in the MBTA’s own internal reports, which by 2013 had listed more than $3 billion in deferred maintenance costs, according to a report by the Pioneer Institute, an independent public policy research organization. Each budget year, the MBTA budget office receives a list of infrastructure projects and ranks each item in priority on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most critical and generally involving safety, health, or cost/benefit issues.

“In fiscal year 2010, 201 projects were submitted for review and only 15 were funded,” according to the Pioneer Institute report. “Even more troubling, 91 percent of critical safety issues (submissions that scored a 10 in safety) went unfunded and thus unaddressed.”

If there are any positives to be gleaned from the battering Boston has taken this winter, it might be this: there is a growing sentiment that things must change.

In her resignation letter, Beverly Scott, the outgoing MBTA head, pledged to the MBTA board that she would remain “fully engaged” over the final 60 days of her employment. “During this period I will place priority attention on working with our team,” she wrote, “to return … services to normalcy following these unprecedented weather conditions (and) develop the first cut of an emergency enhancement and resiliency plan.”

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.