A changing climate, political and otherwise, in Sandy's wake

Written By Ross Capon

Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been shattered or seriously upset by the superstorm of which Hurricane Sandy was the key element. We can sympathize with an exhausted Gov. Christie (R-NJ) who said yesterday on Fox & Friends, "I've got 2.4 million people out of power. I've got devastation on the shore. I've got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don't know me."

Image: New Jersey Transit
Image: New Jersey Transit

For those of us lucky enough to have escaped harm from Sandy, it is not too early to ask what this horrific event means and how it affects our advocacy.

Many of us have believed for some time that climate change is a serious issue and that it is exacerbated by a transportation system that emits too much carbon. The media has done a fair job of reporting this, though the need to show “balance” even when the science is not “balanced” sometimes gets in the way. One element in any plan to reduce carbon emissions of course is to expand trains and public transportation.

But we have also known that climate change references are a turn-off for some audiences. That may be changing. Chris Core is a “non-staff member” at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Consider the main part of his minute-long commentary today on Washington's WTOP News Radio. (You can hear it all here.)

After noting how lucky the Washington DC area was to miss the brunt of Sandy, Core said, “All of these over-the-top weather events of the past couple of years—snowmageddon, the derecho, Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, the record hot summers, the violent thunderstorms—any one of them alone might just be a natural occurrence but, taken as a whole, they’re disturbing. These are the kind of events Al Gore predicted in his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Some people scoffed at Gore’s thesis. I found it interesting but frankly too terrible to relate to. But now, well, maybe we should all re-watch his movie, just in case these weird weather oddities are a warning. Keeping an open mind is a Core value.”

He isn’t the only erstwhile skeptic to be thinking this way. So it may be time to become bolder in citing mitigation of climate change as one of the benefits of developing a more comprehensive passenger rail network.

A related, but different, issue is what can be done to harden transportation systems against extreme weather events. We’ll leave to others the discussion about a gated barrier to protect the entire New York City. But consider this passage from Roxanne Palmer’sarticle in the International Business Times:

…to truly protect against the risk of flooded subway tunnels, [Klaus] Jacob [a Columbia University researcher who specializes in climate change and disaster preparedness in New York City] thinks the city needs a much more comprehensive overhaul. Sidewalk ventilation grates in low-lying areas would have to be done away with completely and replaced by forced-air vents. Those vents would require the construction of fan plants to push the air through the tunnels. In certain tunnel entrances, the MTA could install specially engineered gates that would expand like balloons to seal them off. (However, such gates aren't actually available yet and would have to be designed, Jacob says.)

Such preventative measures come with a high price tag, though, and would certainly mean the state legislature loosening its purse strings and straphangers swallowing steep fare hikes – not an especially likely scenario.

But if we had already spent $10 billion or $5 billion, we could potentially prevent a $50 billion loss,” Jacob says.

So, we have two advocacy-related outcomes.

First, people may be prepared to accept climate change as one reason to increase the capacity and coverage of the nation’s transit and train networks--passenger and freight.

Second, chances are somewhat improved that hardening of rail systems to protect against future storms like Sandy are now on public officials’ radar screen. But see Sean Jeans-Gail’s comments below for a reminder of the challenges of getting rail projects funded.

-- Ross Capon, with Malcolm Kenton

Meanwhile, rail services in the Northeast are slowly coming back to life. Amtrak updates are here.

The following rail services are running normally: Boston’s MBTA, Shoreline East in Connecticut, SEPTA, PATCO (Philadelphia-Lindenwold), MARC and Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

NJT’s River Line began 30-minute headway service at 3 PM Thursday between Trenton and Camden’s Walter Rand Transportation Center. Metro North, Long Island Rail Road and New York City subways are running limited service.

Other than the River Line, New Jersey Transit light rail and commuter rail service is suspended “until further notice.” Crews are still assessing damage.

It will take significant, emergency federal, state and private investment just to restore transportation services to pre-storm levels. Already, the U.S. DOT has announced the quick-release of $13 million for road repairs in New York and Rhode Island. Public transit advocates are calling for similar funds to be released to transit systems. President Obama yesterday told Gov. Christie that “we will follow up to make sure you get all the help you need until you rebuild.” We would like to read that as a determination to circumvent outmoded funding structures that otherwise will slow down emergency aid for transit. Congress can fix this, of course, but Congress is not scheduled to return until mid-November, so transit systems may have to work without the tools available to their road and air counterparts for at least the coming month.

Beyond the short term, much more will be needed to fortify and adjust these networks to be able to withstand the more frequent occurrences of devastating weather events that scientists are predicting in the coming decades. Congress will also need to address the inequalities in the way passenger rail is funded, bringing funding more in line with roads and air subsidies.

-- Sean Jeans-Gail