NJ Transit – Railroading in the age of Sea Level Rise

Satellite image of New York Metro region at night
Satellite view of New York metropolitan region at night

The New York Metropolitan region is cut in half by the Hudson River which runs north-south through the region’s center (see satellite view above). Of the region’s +20 million residents, 1.6 million commute into Manhattan, the region’s core, from surrounding districts. Of those, about 400,000 must cross the Hudson every week day from New Jersey, the west side of the river, by rail, road, or ferry. When Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic October 2012, the cross-Hudson mass transit pathways were knocked completely out of commission for more than a week. Repairs to flood damaged tunnels continue to this day.

New York’s subway system (MTA), and the PATH rail system that carries about 60% of New Jersey’s Manhattan-bound commuters, were back in business within 2 to 3 weeks. By comparison, the New Jersey transit system struggled for 3 months to get back on its wheels. Why? According to a post-Sandy investigation by WNYC (NY Public Radio), the NJ Transit officials had no plan to deal with the storm surge caused by Sandy because they failed to appreciate the effect global warming is having on storm size. In the days leading up to Sandy, the National Weather Service repeatedly warned of storm tides of up to 15 feet. Yet NJ Transit officials paid no attention.

Believing they knew from past experience how to keep their equipment dry, the NJ Transit officials decided to park much of their rolling stock in two rail yards that forecasters had predicted would flood: the Meadowlands maintenance yard and the Hoboken yard (see map below). The storm surge flooded both yards, seriously damaging about 70 locomotives and 260 rail cars, roughly a third of the corporation’s fleet. Compare that to New York’s MTA which  lost only about 20 of its 8,000 rail cars during the same storm, even though all of its Lower Manhattan subway tunnels south of 34th Street were flooded.

Map showing areas of NYC and NJ flooded by Sandy
Areas flooded by Sandy. NJT train yard locations marked in red. Image: nichiusa.org

The Meadowlands yard is a 78-acre site in Kearny surrounded by wetlands where the Passaic River joins the Hackensack River — a natural flood plain. The yard contains the corporation’s maintenance facilities, indoor equipment storage buildings, training center, and the transit system’s operations center. The storm surge flooded the yard to a depth of 8 feet, damaging everything it touched.

Photo of NJ Transit Meadowlands Rail yard
NJ Transit Meadowlands rail yard looking east. Manhattan skyline in the distance. Image: Google

Asked to explain NJ Transit’s storm preparations at a State Assembly committee hearing some months later, Jim Weinstein, the corporation’s executive director at the time, said: “I can tell you decisions on where to keep our locomotives were sound, based on all the information we had at the time . . . The facts are the weather models we evaluated at the time had an 80 to 90 percent chance the rail yards would stay dry. Our decisions were informed by the fact that neither of those rail yards had ever flooded. It is entirely wrong to characterize them as flood-prone.”

An article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled ‘Protecting New Jersey from Sea Level Rise: the future of the Meadowlands’ has this to say: “If emissions continue to rise through the end of the century, sea level is projected to rise more than 6 feet by 2100. In this scenario, the same areas of northern New Jersey and New York City that we’re flooded by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge would be inundated more than 26 times per year, or every other week on average.” And that statement has nothing to say about what future storms coupled with rising sea level will do in the interim.

Northern New Jersey is a heavily urbanized/industrialized region dependent on a fantastically complex network of roads and railways. The number of elevated sections, bridges, underpasses and overpasses are too many to count. Three of the state’s largest city’s, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, as well as Newark International Airport, are all located on or surrounded by low-lying, flood prone real estate. And then there’s the Meadowlands, now only a remnant of its previous size. The Meadowlands, a stretch of wetlands, shows just how low-lying the region really is, and how difficult, perhaps impossible, it’s going to be to protect it from the encroaching sea.

Satellite view of New Jersey metro region
Satellite view of New Jersey Metro region. Image: Google

The following snapshot shows a portion of the Meadowlands as seen from the I-95 Highway which bisects the feature from north to south. The NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst is on the right. The tall structure to the left of the transmission tower is part of the draw bridge which allows trains to cross the Hackensack River. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in the distance on the left. The water directly to the right of the rails, and only a few feet lower than the rail bed, is part of the Hackensack River. The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded the Meadowlands including all the rail lines crossing it.

Photo of NJ Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit Rail line
View of Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst

Another view of the New Jersey Meadowlands looking east across marsh water and beyond it, the Hackensack River (center).

Photo of New Jersey Meadowlands seen from
New Jersey Meadowlands looking east from I-95 Highway. Manhattan skyline in distance

 

New flood gates will keep NYC road tunnels dry next time the city’s streets are under water

New York City was struck by hurricane Sandy six years ago. Since then, while the city has updated its flood-risk maps, it hasn’t taken any concrete steps to prevent storm surges from entering the city. That’s not surprising; the city is rimmed by more than 580 miles of coastline, most of it at risk from storm surge.

Map of NYC flood-zones. Image from NYC Mayor’s Office
NYC flood-zones. Image from Mayor’s Office

Instead, city planners have focused on upgrading critical systems, such as: ‘hardening’ electrical systems; relocating backup generators; flood proofing subway openings; designating more emergency shelters for flood victims. Resilience is a word the city planners like to use these days. In other words, let the seas rise, we’ll deal with the water when it comes.

the most impressive example of this approach so far has been a $64 million project (now complete) to install flood gates on two of the city’s four road tunnels, namely: the 9,117 ft. Hugh L. Carey (Brooklyn-Battery) tunnel under the East River, and the 6,414 ft. Queens-Midtown tunnel, also under the East River. Both suffered serious damage during the Sandy flooding, the Hugh L. Carey tunnel, especially  so. The portals of both tunnels are located within zone-1 (first zone to flood).

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Map showing location of tunnel flood gates

Eight steel flood gates have been installed, two at each tunnel end. The gates were manufactured by Walz & Krenzer, Inc., of Oxford CT. (“Watertight Closures for the Marine industry since 1939”), one of about 50 U.S. companies involved in the flood-control equipment business.
Each gate weighs 44,600 pounds (about 20 tons), and measures 29 ft. wide by 14 ft. high by 22 inches thick.

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MTA Photo

The gate swings on two massive hinges. When parked in its open position, the free end rests on jacks.  Assuming  a two man crew, a machine such as a forklift is needed to help close it. In the event of a storm, the crew will first remove steel cover-plates from  a trough that stretches across the mouth of the portal. Once the gate is closed, the crew will latch it to the face of the portal and to attachments within the trough. Compression seals around the gate’s inner edge will make it watertight.

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MTA photo

The only way to see these gates up close is to drive through the tunnels. You’ll get only a second or two of observation. Considering New York’s frantic traffic, stopping to gaze at the thing is something no prudent driver should attempt.

It’s just as difficult to get a good look at the gates while on foot. Barriers of one sort or another along the streets surrounding tunnel entrances inhibit pedestrians from peering over walls. The Morris Street footbridge will eventually provide a platform from which to observe the Hugh L. Carey flood gates at the tunnel’s Manhattan end, but that bridge is being renovated and will not be available for use this year.