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Officials defend first-ever transit shutdown for snow

Bill de Blasio: 'It is not business as usual'

Subways and buses limped back into service Tuesday after state officials made a call for a first-ever total mass transit shutdown before a blizzard that turned out to be much lighter than expected.

Trains and snow-chained buses Wednesday are back on their regular weekday schedule.

But in the morning after the storm, trains and buses crept back into service at 9 a.m. following the 11 p.m. shutdown Monday evening. Transit ran on a limited Sunday schedule at noon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday morning at a post-storm news conference.

Public got wind of the transit shutdown at a 4:45 p.m. news conference, about a half-hour after MTA CEO and chairman Tom Prendergast made the recommendation to halt the system, according to Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa.

The shutdown seemed to be news to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who Tuesday said he found out about the city’s subways and buses without much of a heads up.
“We did not get a lot of advance notice,” de Blasio said, later adding, “we found out just as it was being announced.”

Still, de Blasio defended the transit shutdown as a measure of caution to prevent above-ground subway lines from being paralyzed in the storm.

“All of these decisions were being taken in an atmosphere in which the consistent message we were getting from the weather service, and from all the meteorologists was two feet or even more, and very fast accumulation,” de Blasio said. “In that atmosphere, everyone was trying to make quick decisions and the right decisions.”

DeRosa said Cuomo on Monday announced the decision “as soon as possible” following a 4 p.m. weather report.

“Our office has been in constant communication with the mayor's office on all decisions regarding the storm, beginning Sunday afternoon and going late into the night last night and again first thing this morning,” she said. “We understand that a 4:45 p.m. announcement of a closing at 11 p.m. is relatively short notice but we wanted to get the best, most timely information before we made the decision and the public clearly got the message.”

Subways and buses were expected to stay in service through the storm as officials considered travel bans on city streets and major roads in the state. At a noon news conference Monday, Metro-North and LIRR were the only pieces of the transit system expected to close at 11 p.m., though Cuomo noted that “more dramatic action” was possible if the afternoon forecast had predicted a heavier storm.

For subways, the MTA's plan was to run local service so trains could be stored on express tracks; buses were going to be pulled on a route-by-route basis depending on the size of the storm. Riders felt the suspension showed too much caution during a storm that was nowhere near as bad in the city as predicted.

Courtney Blake, 33, of Harlem, was glad to see trains running on Tuesday while heading to work at a bank that decided against closing.

“To me, everybody's out,” Blake said of subways' Sunday schedule. “It's a regular day.”

Robert Phillips, a 32-year-old Harlem resident studying at Columbia, said perhaps officials went too far considering the ultimate amount of snowfall.

“When you realize that this morning, to us, was completely OK, I think it was too extreme,” Phillips said.

Cuomo said the transit suspension helped put subways and buses in better shape for Tuesday.

“The decision to err on the side of caution, especially given the information we had at the time put us in a position where the system would come online faster this morning,” Cuomo said.

Stephen Morello, counsel to MTA’s Prendergast, said passenger safety weighed on the decision to shut down transit because running subways would limit the flexibility to deal with emergencies or reach riders who are injured or sick. There was also a logistical concern about the system’s rail control center running a unique schedule at the same time workers and equipment were being carried around.

“To schedule those limited operations around the maintenance stuff that’s going on, whether it’s routine maintenance work or other work that’s to put us in shape to be able to rebound as quickly as possible—that’s complicated,” Morello said.

Prendergast had said Tuesday that he expected to keep subways and buses running through the night. He defended the full suspension Tuesday at the news conference with Cuomo, noting that a 2010 storm caused above-ground trains and hundreds of buses to get stuck, trapping passengers.

“That informed us very well going forward, that to close portions of the system, protect the equipment and shovel out quicker is the better way to go,” Prendergast said.

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said the subway and bus closure was a “very strong step.” He called for an MTA review to determine how much of the public was aware of the closures, aid to stranded riders, protocols during snow storms and how the decision was reached.

“To its credit, the MTA has treated these crises as an opportunity for improvement,” Russianoff said. “That should happen here.”

(with Matthew Chayes)


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