MTA Chief Joe Lhota Wants to Look to Europe and Asia for Infrastructure Inspiration

What, me worry? Not if we build the right stuff. (MTA/Flickr)

MTA chairman and CEO Joe Lhota has thrown his support behind Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for stronger infrastructure to protect New York City from future natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

This may not be surprising—after all, the governor is Mr. Lhota’s boss—but their unanimity on the matter will lend extra support to the idea of improving the city’s defenses against future floods and rising sea levels. That support is especially important when Mayor Bloomberg has so far dismissed calls for strengthened infrastructure around the city.

“We’re going to have to evaluate what can be done to prevent it, because quite honestly, Lower Manhattan, the actual track is only 20 feet away from the entrance way, it’s not that deep down there,” Mr. Lhota told reporters at a briefing earlier today. “So we need to evaluate it. As the Governor said, we need to look at everything. And I think we need to look at what other cities have done, both in Europe where they’ve dealt with rising tides, as well as in Asia, where they’ve dealt with rising tides.”

Europe and Asia—sound familiar?

Mr. Lhota stressed that this is not just a matter of protecting the subways, but also the entire city. ” This is gonna need to be a concerted effort,” he said. “It’s not just the subways. There’s a lot of property downtown. We all have to come together and figure out what to do with it.”

That Mr. Lhota has now taken such a public position on the matter is important, because as the governor said on Thursday night, he thinks it will be the MTA’s responsibility to fund and maintain any new storm infrastructure. This sounded like a joke at the time, but in some ways, it makes sense. The MTA is, after all, an agency whose primary role is maintaining infrastructure, and while it is most often thought of it terms of transportation, is a bridge or tunnel really that different from a sea gate or damn?

This might more naturally seem to be a job for the Port Authority, but Governor Cuomo is not solely in charge of the Port Authority—he shares that power with the governor of New Jersey—so were Governor Cuomo seeking to exercise unilateral control over a new maritime infrastructure system, the way to go about it might well be through the MTA.

Also, the agency has a history of building great public works. After all, one of its predecessors was the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, now MTA Bridges and Tunnels. That was one of the domains of none other than Robert Moses. So the MTA certainly has the capabilities.

And ultimately, it is their assets they have to figure out a way to protect, to make sure those subways and vehicular tunnels, as well as homes and business, never flood again.

They could use the work, as Mr. Lhota made clear today. “When you think about the subway system, when you think about the fact that it was opened in 1904, it’s 108 years old, it opened in Lower Manhattan, it was designed, believe it or not, in the 19th Century,” Mr. Lhota said. “They never expected the water would come up as far as it did.”

In other words, it is time to start thinking about these things, even if our forebears did not.

MTA Chief Joe Lhota Wants to Look to Europe and Asia for Infrastructure Inspiration