Monday, January 25, 2016
Digging Out: Transportation Resilience and the Blizzard of 2016
The concept of “resilience” is an important topic in transportation circles these days, and we’ve just had a big-time, real-world test of how we are doing in that department. Resilience is a broad term for how well you plan, design, build, and operate your transportation system to withstand the rigors of climate change and extreme weather events.
At this writing it’s only been about 36 hours since the snow stopped falling in the Blizzard of 2016 and the recovery has just begun, but it’s not too early to make a few observations on what seems to have worked well and what not so well so far.
In general, state and local transportation agencies – and all their sister agencies – appear to have done a very good job and to have significantly improved their planning and crisis management skills. It looks to me like all the post-Sandy organizational work has made a real difference, and the affected cities, states, and independent agencies seem to be on top of the situation.
Perhaps the most dramatic event of the Blizzard has been the flooding at the Jersey Shore. Communities which have still not fully recovered from Sandy were once again subject to flooded streets and homes, despite significant and even vigorous preparation. This episode underscores the challenge that sea level rise and periodic flooding poses for the Eastern Seaboard, especially on the barrier islands.
Transit agencies are still trying to figure out the best way to respond to events like the Blizzard of 2016. Buses, trollies, and commuter railroads are largely hostage to the elements and can’t get back in service until the snow is cleared. But what about underground transit? The Washington Metro elected to shut down for all of Saturday and Sunday, largely to shelter rolling stock in the tunnels. On Monday they are resuming service on underground routes only. In Philadelphia, SEPTA kept service going on the Broad Street and Market/Frankford lines, which are in tunnel or elevated, throughout the storm. Which is the better solution? I’m sure all the affected agencies had a lively recollection of the events in Boston last winter, in which the T shuddered to a halt in a bad storm, stranding commuter rail passengers in the snow. Hopefully we will see some “after action” analysis from the agencies after they are fully back in business.
Props to Amtrak for keeping the Northeast Corridor running (although with reduced schedules) throughout the event.
The absolute worst performance of the Blizzard was the stranding of more than 500 vehicles for more than 24 hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the western portion of the state. Similar incidents happened on I-77 in West Virginia and I-75 in Kentucky (good summary story here). Folks, this is simply unacceptable. These were major system failures that were nearly catastrophic. State DOT commissioners would be well advised to do some serious analysis and planning to ensure that this never happens (or never happens again in the case of those three states) on their watch.