New York City’s MTA Adaptations to Climate Change – A Categorical Imperative

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) commissioned this report, “MTA Adaptations to Climate Change: A Categorical Imperative,” to provide a risk-based framework for adapting MTA facilities to climate change impacts.  The assessment covers the entire MTA region, which includes New York City, 12 counties in southeastern New York, and two counties in southwestern Connecticut. Specifically, the report identifies steps for completing a vulnerability assessment; develops climate change scenarios for the region; conducts an initial survey of key vulnerabilities of MTA assets and operations by agency and type of hazard; and offers recommendations for ways that the MTA can assess critical infrastructure, plan for, and implement climate change adaptation projects.

The first section provides a general overview of adaptation and climate risk management strategies, and recommends that MTA adopt a general adaptation policy to guide the adaptation efforts of the agency. The report recommends that the policy include a mandate to develop a set of general performance standards for MTA facilities and operations; an agency-wide vulnerability assessment of the MTA’s physical assets and operations; as well as an engineering-based feasibility assessment of remediation options with estimates of the economic, environmental, and social costs and benefits associated with various risk reduction measures. The report also recommends that any MTA adaptation plan be integrated into the fiscal planning process to ensure implementation of different solutions over different time horizons, including preparation of long-range capital spending plans.

The second section outlines steps that MTA can follow to effectively integrate climate change adaptation into its programs. These steps include:

  • identifying MTA facilities and programs subject to climate risk;
  • identifying the main climate change impacts to MTA facilities and programs;
  • applying future climate change scenarios by time slice;
  • characterizing adaptation options, including management and operations adaptations;
  • identifying options for infrastructure investments and policy change;
  • conducting initial feasibility screening;
  • linking to capital replacement and rehabilitation cycles;
  • evaluating options using a cost-benefit analysis and examining potential environmental impacts;
  • monitoring, reassessing, and updating adaptation strategies to respond to developments in climate science; and
  • examining climate related insurance issues.

The third section of the report reviews various climate change scenarios and details the challenges of conducting a vulnerability assessment for the MTA region. This section draws on previous climate forecasts developed by New York City (MTA’s August 8, 2007 storm report; NYC DEP Climate Change Program Assessment and Action Plan, Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, 2006 and 2007, and Metropolitan East Coast Regional Assessment, 2001), and uses several key examples to present the overall climate forecast results at multiple time horizons. Sea-level rise forecasts are based on global IPCC 2007 data, and the report draws the connection between sea-level rise and increases in storm surges in the New York City metro area. Section 3 also stresses the need for multiple, time-dependent decision paths to manage adaptations to climate change (short, medium and long term).

The fourth section identifies key vulnerabilities of MTA assets and operations by MTA agency and by type of climate hazard.  Key vulnerabilities identified include flooding of underground facilities, power failures, impacts to rolling stock, and winds on elevated facilities. The report notes that the vulnerability assessment was merely cursory and based upon ad hoc input from the various MTA operational agencies and affiliates and from centralized management. The report stresses that a thorough engineering and management assessment is needed in future adaptation plans.

This section also details temporary fixes that can be used to reduce the short-term vulnerability of the system, such as:

  • Raising curbs at ventilation grates and subway entrances
  • Increasing pumping station capacity, providing mobile pumping capacity and increasing storm sewer capacity
  • Sealing tunnels
  • Cleaning streets and sewers before storm events to avoid clogging
  • Adjusting street grades and slopes to minimize runoff or encouraging permeable surfacing
  • Modifying building codes and other regulations to provide incentives for construction techniques that minimize run off.

It also details additional data or studies that would be needed to develop longer term strategies. For the mid-to-longer-term, one strategy option involves investigating the costs and feasibility of eliminating ventilation grates to subways in flood-prone areas and the consequences of such a “partially closed system;” for a more long-term solution, the report recommends investigating the costs and benefits of storm surge barriers or routing new or expanded routes above ground.

The fifth section provides summary findings and recommendations. This section recommends that MTA:

  • Develop an adaptation policy to be in place by mid- 2009;
  • Establish an adaptation priority task force by mid-2009;
  • Establish a Climate Adaptation Resilience Evaluation by 2009;
  • Compile a climate data base by the end of 2010;
  • Complete a thorough quantitative vulnerability and risk assessment vis-à-vis climate hazards of its various operating member agencies and of its centralized insurance program by 2012;
  • Develop a strategic climate change adaptation master plan by 2015;
  • Develop a framework pre-disaster-plan for post-disaster-redevelopment by 2015; by mid-2009,
  • Assemble a designated internal Adaptation Team;
  • Develop checklists for mitigation projects detailing how the project will enhance or hinder adaptation for short- and long-term horizons, and for how it enhances or hinders mitigation and energy conservation efforts and improves environmental performance;
  • Pursue and promote a path towards sustainability in the face of climate change.

Since the report was released, MTA has increased its efforts to protect or adapt its vulnerable infrastructure and make modifications to operations that will restore service to normal faster after an extreme event. These changes include custom-made entrance and vent covers to protect floodwaters from entering the subway system, and suspending service and moving trains to upland or protected areas during storm events. Many additional upgrades have been planned and implemented as a result of lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. With over $1.5 billion awarded to MTA from the Federal Transit Administration’s competitive resilience grant program (funded through its Emergency Relief program), MTA is undertaking major resiliency projects, such as:

  • Protecting electrical substations throughout system, and acquiring four new mobile substations for use in emergency response ($112 million);
  • Protecting and sealing tunnel portals at vulnerable locations ($43 million);
  • Multiple flood protection measures at four vulnerable rail yards ($617 million); and
  • Improving railroad power and signal resiliency on Metro-North Railroad Hudson River Line ($37.5 million), among other projects.


This Adaptation Clearinghouse entry was prepared with support from the Federal Highway Administration. This entry was last updated on January 26, 2016.


Publication Date: October 2008

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Klaus Jacob
  • Cynthia Rosenzweig
  • Radley Horton
  • David Major
  • Vivien Gornitz

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Resource Types:

  • Assessment
  • Assessment guide
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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