Climate Change Is a Key Obstacle for New York City’s Transit System

The News

Transit officials in New York on Wednesday released a list of the system’s most pressing needs that ranks contending with climate change among the top priorities for the subway and bus network, which was paralyzed last week by a torrential storm.

Engineers said that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should buy thousands of new rail cars and buses, modernize the subway’s outdated signal system and fix the crumbling tunnels and facilities at Grand Central Terminal.

The priorities are contained in the 20-Year Needs Assessment, an unfunded list that is released every decade by the M.T.A., the state agency that runs the city’s transit system. The report is among the authority’s most far-reaching analyses of future maintenance needs and potential expansion projects.

Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, said the report aimed to be as comprehensive as possible in identifying the M.T.A.’s most crucial concerns. “This detailed evaluation tells the whole story, laying bare the urgent need for renewal and improvement of the system’s existing infrastructure and to prepare for climate change,” Mr. Lieber said in a statement.

Transit advocates praised the report as a tool for helping the authority meet shifting needs and keep up with ridership demand that has been rebounding from pandemic-era lows. But some critics said the assessment lacks key details, such as how much the proposed improvements would cost.

And while identifying the system’s needs, the report failed to show how some of them should be addressed, Thomas P. DiNapoli, the state comptroller, said in an email. “It does not address what projects will reduce the need for repairs or improve service or increase the transit system’s resilience,” he said.

Last week a rainstorm snarled the transit system in New York City, sending many passengers scrambling to reach their destinations. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Why It Matters

New York City’s century-old mass transit system is in dire need of wear-and-tear upgrades while it also contends with a climate crisis that it was not built to withstand.

The M.T.A.’s report is meant to help the authority and the lawmakers who allocate its $19 billion annual operating budget to determine where to concentrate funding.

It has been released as the state prepares to start a first-in-the-nation congestion pricing program, designed to collect billions of dollars to fund mass transit while discouraging drivers from piling into Midtown Manhattan. The congestion pricing program will help fund the authority’s current capital expansion plan.

The assessment was also released just days after New York was hit with a storm that shut down half the subway system and brought much of the city to a standstill. The rain’s devastating impact highlighted the growing influence of man-made climate change on a rapidly warming planet.

To address climate change, the M.T.A. said its goals include electrifying nearly 6,000 buses and installing more energy-saving technology in its facilities.


The transit system famously never stops running and moves millions of people every day. It requires a huge amount of resources.

The M.T.A.’s current $54.8 billion capital plan runs from 2020 through next year, and some of the work that the newly released assessment mentions has already begun.

Some of those projects include a plan to build the Second Avenue subway line into East Harlem and to upgrade Penn Station as well as making the system more accessible for people with disabilities by building more elevators and ramps.

The report has been released just as the M.T.A. has averted a fiscal crisis and achieved solvency for the first time in recent memory. Before this year’s budget was passed, the transit system had faced a funding disaster brought on by the pandemic. But lawmakers approved an increase in the payroll tax, which is expected to generate about $1.1 billion for the authority.

What’s Next

The authority will use the findings of the report to build out future plans to expand and update the transit network.

Some of the needs detailed include replacing about 5,500 rail cars, roughly 6,000 buses and all of its 493 elevators.

Transit officials said they hope the report will tell lawmakers and the public alike where the city’s mass transit needs investment.

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