Irene update: Why New Yorkers face a rough commute Monday

New York's public transit was shut down ahead of tropical storm Irene. That may have saved trains and buses from damage, but flooding and downed trees mean the whole system has to be inspected.

Reuters/Courtesy of MTA/Handout
Metropolitan Transit Authority personnel pump out a flooded area of the 148th Street Yard in New York on Sunday after Hurricane Irene moved through Manhattan. It may be days before New York's public transportation systems return to full operation.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers Sunday “you're going to have a tough commute in the morning," he wasn’t kidding.

Tropical storm Irene may have been downgraded from hurricane status, and the mandatory evacuation order was lifted by mid-afternoon Sunday. But the prospect for a quick return to normal for the region’s public transit system relied upon by hundreds of thousands of commuters remains less than slim.

“Transit workers were still waiting for winds to die down before they could inspect the entire system,” the New York Times reported. “But an initial survey revealed flooded subway tracks, powerless commuter rail networks and fallen trees and branches that had rendered some rail routes impassable.”

“The New Haven line of the Metro-North Railroad had no power because of downed wires along its route,” the newspaper reported on its website. “Parts of the Metro-North track along the surging Hudson River were flooded. Subway lines in parts of Brooklyn were also inundated. Bus service remained suspended.”

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Meanwhile, major airports in the region remained closed, and airline officials said they didn’t expect to begin operating until late Monday or Tuesday.

For the most part, roads, bridges, and tunnels in and around New York are in good shape, although with public transit out of commission that may only mean heavier-than-usual traffic on city streets as commuters drive to work.

A look at the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s web site tells the story.

“MTA crews are reporting widespread impacts following Hurricane Irene, including track and yard flooding, downed trees and power outages across our region,” the MTA reports. “Low-lying yards and depots where trains and buses were removed were flooded. It will take time to get equipment back into position and personnel in place. In some parts of our system, especially heavily flooded areas outside of New York City, restoration of service may be a lengthier process.”

In retrospect, says New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shutting down the transit system ahead of the storm was the right decision, even though Irene turned out to have less impact than some had predicted.

“It allowed us to get a lot of the equipment off the tracks and in safe condition, so when we start the system up again it will be accelerated” Gov. Cuomo told the cable channel NY1 Sunday.

Still, Cuomo acknowledges, “We haven’t really done a thorough damage assessment yet.

“We need to look at the tunnels and see to what extent there’s been flooding, and we need to examine some of the railroad bridges,” he said. “So until we do a full damage assessment, it’s really too early to say.”

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