Is mass transportation in the Northeast prepared for snowstorms? Experts weigh in.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Mans Hand holding Cash while Refueling Vehicle
a red fire hydrant covered in snow: Lyod Graham waits for the bus during a snowstorm in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

A surprising pre-winter snowstorm hit the Northeast last week and brought mass transit in some of the nation’s most populated areas to its knees.

In New York, Port Authority Bus Terminal, the main gateway for interstate buses into Manhattan, was so crowded with commuters that it completely shut down. Across the East River in New Jersey, Newark’s Penn Station was wall-to-wall with exhausted straphangers who faced scattered delays. 

In Philadelphia, SEPTA, the regional transportation authority, and Amtrak experienced cancellations throughout the day and night as trees took down train power lines.

With an El Niño-predicted winter season ahead, are mass transit systems in the Northeastern section of the U.S. prepared to handle the snow?

Here’s what transit experts had to say: 

New York City

“The city’s subways were built as a response to a snowstorm, so they’re largely resilient during snow events,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at the Riders Alliance, an organization that fights for reliable public transportation. “The problem with the last storm was that the forecasts were off.” 

The New York City subway system is over 100 years old and was built as a response to the Great Blizzard of 1888, a storm that paralyzed the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. The storm buried the unprepared city with drifts that were over 45 inches high, according to National Weather Service.

Though nothing nearly that significant is predicted this cold weather season, Pearlstein said the Big Apple’s public transit can use some upgrades above ground to prepare for the coming winter months.

“Our primary concern is that we build a bus network with all the features of a 21st-century bus system,” Pearlstein said. He said that only one out of every five bus stops has a shelter to protect commuters from wind, rain and snow. “We aren’t expecting service to be perfect, but we expect it to be safe and reliable.”

Hey Bus Riders, did you have to wait in the snow without a shelter for your bus? ❄️?

Send us your pics of your shelterless bus stop. Tell Mayor Bill #deBusio that ALL New Yorkers should have bus shelters. pic.twitter.com/XlOvUPpybH

Philadelphia

Like other cities, the first snow of the season led to a nightmare commute. Buses slid and got stuck, passengers had to walk in the slush, and trains were subject to delays up to 90 minutes, according to NBC 10. 

In a statement, SEPTA said 32 of its bus routes were directly impacted by the storm.

Despite the pre-winter blindside, an avid SEPTA bus rider and transit expert said Philadelphia is “at least 90 percent prepared” to tackle inclement winter weather. 

“As long as you’re along a subway route, there’s a 90 percent chance you’ll get where you need to go during a snowstorm in Philadelphia,” said Marcus McKnight, who has over six years of transit experience, working in various capacities for Southeastern Pennsylvania transportation authority.

People who live or work on side streets will likely have a more difficult time getting to their destinations, McKnight said.

Washington

The nation’s capital has made strides to improve its public transportation system after years of deepening concerns over safety and reliability.

WMATA, the tri-jurisdictional government agency that operates the transit service, installed thousands of electrical insulators to reduce fires, new railroad ties to help keep tracks properly in place, and if a rush hour trip is delayed by 15 minutes or more, the ride is free of charge. 

Despite the improvements, transit enthusiasts say that the system can quickly become unreliable when faced with weather disturbances.

“I don’t think there’s anything remarkable about how D.C. performs in the snow. It’s bad in the rain, it’s bad when it snows, and it’s bad just about any other time,” said the founder of Unsuck D.C. Metro, an anonymous blog and Twitter account that tracks the Metro’s problems. “Despite billions in investment over the past ten years, service seems to just be getting worse.”

D.C.’s subway ridership has been on the decline for about a decade, the transportation advocate said.

The railroad system in D.C. will shut down if snowfall approaches 8 inches, WMATA said in a statement, and bus service is limited to major roads only. During light snow, most services should operate normally. 

Boston

In 2015, Boston broke its seasonal snowfall record with 108.6 inches, leading to what experts called “one of the biggest transit failures in recent history.”

There was a series of blizzards and snowstorms for several weeks in a row, completely wiping out the T, Boston’s subway service. Since then, Massachusetts has invested over $100 million toward snow-proofing the transit system. 

“In advance of this winter, we’re doubling down on our efforts to highlight the key resources that allow us to get the most accurate information about service out to our customers so they can make informed decisions,” Transit Authority General Manager Luis Manuel Ramirez said in a statement last year.

Boston bus snow – Twitter Search

In preparation for snow, Boston has trimmed trees along railroad corridors, installed new rails, and expanded snow clearing and snow removal contracts. 

“It’s commendable that the state committed this money to invest in resiliency measures,” said Tim Lawrence, VP of operations and communications director for Transit Matters, a public transportation advocacy group. “But there’s one ongoing problem.”

Boston’s Blue subway line runs along the beach at sea level and under the Boston Harbor, Lawrence said. “Being right on the harbor, snow can cause higher than normal tides which can lead to flooding in some of the stations. We are trying to push the Commonwealth to think about that.”

“No matter where you are, when you get a record amount of snow, things are going to break,” Lawrence said. “We’ve learned that whatever problems exist before it snows will really be highlighted when there’s a blizzard.”

Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown

Slide 1 of 48: State police Post 1 Master Trooper Jay Thomas scrapes snow and ice off of a cruiser's windshield on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Slide 2 of 48: Icicles form on a four-way stop sign at the intersection in downtown Evansville, Ind., Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
Slide 3 of 48: A footprint in the snow is seen on the walking path along the A. W. Willis bridge in Memphis, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, during Wednesday's winter weather.
Slide 4 of 48: Traffic moves along on the A. W. Willis bridge in Memphis, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, during Wednesday's winter weather.
Slide 5 of 48: A cat sits in a window watching the snow fall as a winter storm hits the area in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018.
Slide 6 of 48: Law enforcement officers inspect the site where a tour bus carrying passengers overturned just after midday, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, in DeSoto County, Miss. The crash came as a winter storm has been raking parts of the South.
Slide 7 of 48: Ice accumulated on trees from the overnight storm in Forest Park, Ohio, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 8 of 48: Snow falls on the White House, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Washington.
Slide 9 of 48: A commuter shields herself from the snow while walking to the office in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 10 of 48: Richard Burst clears snow from his driveway Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 in St. Louis. "All I really need to accomplish are two lanes for my car," he said.
Slide 11 of 48: Lyod Graham waits for the bus during a snowstorm in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 12 of 48: A man throws salt on a road beside Saint John Paul II Seminary, during this season's first snowfall in Washington, D.C., Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 13 of 48: Kandice Kiser scrapes ice from her windshield before heading to work at a local bakery in Indianapolis, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. "My fiancé threw away our old scraper because our dog threw up on it," Kiser said, as she scraped the windshield with an open/closed sign.
Slide 14 of 48: "The snow is just beautiful, " said Xioqing Qin, who walks to work in the snow passing a mural painted on the exterior wall of the Atomic Cowboy bar and restaurant on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in St. Louis.
Slide 15 of 48: Joe Harrison, a volunteer dog walker, gives Haley a wintry outdoor walk on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in the walking park at the Humane Society of Missouri's Maryland Heights center. A pre-winter storm moved across the eastern half of the country Thursday, slamming parts of the South and lower Midwest on the way.
Slide 16 of 48: A delivery man makes his way through wintry weather in Mt. Holly, N.J., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. New Jerseyans are dealing with their first taste of wintry weather this season. A mix of rain, sleet and snow started falling late Thursday morning in southern areas and was expected to soon move across the state.
Slide 17 of 48: Area residents awoke to ice covered roads and foliage in Bloomington, Ind. Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. An ice storm hitting parts of Indiana has shut down schools and left hazardous conditions on roadways.
Slide 18 of 48: Lewis Dameron, left and Paul James, of Montgomery County General Services, shovel the steps and parking lot of a county property on North Franklin Street in downtown, Christiansburg, Va., Thursday, Nov. 15 2018. A pre-winter storm moved across the eastern half of the country Thursday, slamming parts of the South and lower Midwest on the way.
Slide 19 of 48: A young buck forages for food during a snow storm, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Marple Township, Pa. Pennsylvanians are dealing with their first taste of wintry weather this season. A mix of rain, sleet and snow had started falling across some areas of the state by late Thursday morning.
Slide 20 of 48: A woman waits to cross Clifton and Dixmyth Ludlow Avenues Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, as the rain the rain continues to fall. An overnight ice storm caused downed power lines and trees. According to Duke Energy, 102,267 customers were without power in the region Thursday morning.
Slide 21 of 48: Pedestrians make their way through wintry weather in Mt. Holly, N.J., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. A mix of rain, sleet and snow started falling late Thursday morning in southern areas and was expected to soon move across the state.
Slide 22 of 48: A police officer and others help push a car that was unable to gain traction on the snowy roads in Mt. Holly, N.J. on Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 23 of 48: Traffic navigates its way along Main Street in the Village of Wappingers Falls, N.Y. as snow begins to accumulate on Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 24 of 48: A U.S. Capitol Police Officer patrols the Capitol plaza as snow falls on Nov.15, 2018, in Washington.
Slide 25 of 48: A Metro-North commuter takes the stairs to the New York City bound platform at the train station in Tarrytown, N.Y. during a steady snowfall Nov. 15, 2108.
Slide 26 of 48: Commuters wait for the Hudson Link in Tarrytown, N.Y. which is operating on a delay during a steady snowfall for the evening commute Nov. 15, 2108.
Slide 27 of 48: A PennDOT truck plows Rt. 61 in North Manheim Township, Pa., on Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 28 of 48: An autumn snow storm caused a white-out in downtown Scranton, Pa., on Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 29 of 48: Kassie Mattoon clears snow from her car as she heads home from work in Totowa, N.J.
Slide 30 of 48: Pedestrians walk through snow in Manhattan on Nov. 15, 2018, in New York.
Slide 31 of 48: A couple walks along the railroad tracks into the Westwood N.J. Transit train station as the first snowfall of the year hits New Jersey and the Northeast on Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 32 of 48: It's a virtual free for all as evening commuters try to navigate icy, snow covered roads in Yonkers, N.Y. on Nov. 15, 2018.
Slide 33 of 48: Pedestrians walk through a wintery mix of snow, rain and ice during the evening commute in Manhattan, Nov. 15, 2018 in New York City. New York experienced its first storm of the winter Thursday with over an inch of snow falling during the afternoon. A mix or rain and ice caused major backups along roadways and led to the cancellation of hundreds of buses.
Slide 34 of 48: A ground crew member walks through the snow at the Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov. 15, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey.
Slide 35 of 48: Passengers try to rebook after their flights were cancelled due to a snow storm on Nov. 15, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The early season storm caused flight cancellations in much of the northeast.
Slide 36 of 48: Gwen Genno of Essex, Vermont, takes a moment to clear snow from her car at the Richmond Park and Ride, Nov. 16, 2018, as a winter storm settled into Vermont, promising upwards of a foot of snow in some areas.
Slide 37 of 48: Justin Barrows of Burlington parked his motorcycle Thursday night, only to wake up Friday morning, Nov. 16, 2018, to find it covered in. "The season's over," he chuckled, as he warmed it up to move it to it's winter storage space as a winter storm moved into Vermont, promising up to a foot of snow or more in some areas.
Slide 38 of 48: Jit Subba and his son Budda help push a relative's car out of their driveway in Burlington, Vt. Nov. 16, 2018, as a winter storm moved into Vermont, promising up to a foot of snow or more in some areas.
Slide 39 of 48: Charmaine Vincent shovels out her driveway in Burlington, Vt. Nov. 16, 2018, as a winter storm moved into Vermont, promising up to a foot of snow or more in some areas.
Slide 40 of 48: Bill Turner clears show in Pittsfield, Mass, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.
Slide 41 of 48: A store owner shovels the sidewalk outside her business on the Parkway in Katonah, N.Y on Nov. 16, 2018.
Slide 42 of 48: Northbound traffic passes by as a car that went off Interstate 684 at the Goldens Bridge exit during last nights snowstorm waits to be towed on Nov. 16, 2018.
Slide 43 of 48: Jennifer Tanner holds a hot cup of coffee while walking in the snow, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 in Pittsfield, Mass.
Slide 44 of 48: A resident clears away snow from a vehicle in Blakely, Pa., on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. The first snowstorm of the season caused havoc around Pennsylvania, downing trees and power lines and causing a travel nightmare, including for some drivers who were stuck for 12 hours on a snowy interstate.
Slide 45 of 48: Chris Brown clears snow from the entrance of the Trinity Parish House in Lenox, Mass., Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. The first snowstorm of the season caused minor delays in Western Massachusetts.
Slide 46 of 48: Workers from the town of Bedford clear snow from sidewalks in downtown Katonah, N.Y. during a light snowfall on Nov. 16, 2018.
Slide 47 of 48: A flamingo lawn ornament is covered with slushy snow after an overnight storm in East Derry, N.H., Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Southern New Hampshire received about five inches of snow before turning to rain later in the day.
Slide 48 of 48: Lime Bikes sit in snow in front of the Yonkers Train Station in Yonkers, Nov. 16, 2018.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is mass transportation in the Northeast prepared for snowstorms? Experts weigh in.

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