MTA’s lack of climate change plan causes challenges for Columbia University students



An entrance to the 1/2/3 lines at Penn Station

The New York City subway’s 1/2/3 trains are pivotal to the city’s transportation network, connecting commuters from Brooklyn to the Bronx. But in the past two months, all three have experienced major flood-related shutdowns.

On Aug. 29th, a 123-year-old water main burst under the Times Square Subway Station and disrupted the three lines for eight hours, including the morning rush.

A month later, on Sept. 29, all three lines were once again felled by flooding, this time from intense rain.

Columbia University students and faculty depend on these lines, as the 1 train stops right in front of campus on West 116th Street.

“It was not fun, but it was nice we could all be in the horrible mess together,” said Brad Byrne, a graduate student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

An audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, coincidentally released on Sept. 29, found the MTA has not taken sufficient steps to protect its transportation infrastructure from climate change, something that was on full display as about half of all the city’s train lines were disrupted by this fall’s floods.

“The MTA has not implemented one of the most important recommendations of the Report – the  development of a climate change adaptation master plan,” the audit stated.

“Without an adequate investment in adaptation measures, climate change will have even greater adverse effects on the MTA’s vital infrastructure, operations, and revenue streams,” the audit’s authors wrote.

This fall’s subway disruptions came despite $2.6 billion having been invested in subway flood prevention since super storm Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Sept. 29 set rainfall records, with Midtown Manhattan recording 6.09 inches of rain and preliminary information from John F. Kennedy Airport showing it received the most ever in a single day. The numbers underscore concerns about climate change in New York City, which has experienced an average increase of about 0.8 inches of precipitation per decade. That’s 20 times the average global increase, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The numbers mean subway flooding isn’t entirely unexpected. Nevertheless, it had a major impact on Columbia’s commuters this fall.

Byrne said he was in class when the 1-line went down. He and several classmates tried to wait it out by having lunch, but the situation worsened.

The group was forced to walk half of a mile in pouring rain to the 110th Street Cathedral Parkway station to catch the C line. Then they transferred to the J, which largely runs above ground, to cross into Brooklyn.

“It was taking forever, with the delays, and water was everywhere in the stations,” said Byrne. “It took me two hours to get home. Usually, it only takes forty minutes.”

Byrne said it was the second time this academic year that he had trouble with his commute. He was also late to class when the Times Square water main broke, he said.

Lauren Watson, another journalism student who lives in Brooklyn, had a class that ended at 11:30 a.m., just as the 1-line was suspended. She waited nine hours for service to resume.

Tao Long, a computer science PhD student, is a teaching assistant for Advanced Web Design Studio, on Fridays from noon to 2pm. The MTA shutdown forced the class to meet partly via Zoom on Sept. 29.

Long first heard from a student who couldn’t make it at 9 a.m. Over the next three hours, four more students reached out, citing the train shutdown.

Another TA also said four students in her section couldn’t make it to class.

Only one of Long’s students across two sections showed up in-person that day. That’s a problem because the studio students are still in the early stages of learning the iterative design process. That makes speaking in front of other people about their design rationale crucial, Long said.

In an emailed statement, MTA spokesman Lucas Bejarono said the organizations $7.6 billion investment in coastal resiliency preserved Sept. 29 service at the MTA’s Coney Island Yard that includes the B, D, F, N, and Q lines.

The MTA is “moving ahead with new capital work in response to recent heavy rainfall events, including surveying 150 stations vulnerable to heavy rainfall and are beginning a program of capital investments,” Bejarano said.