Tuesday, September 2, 2008

$25 Million (Or More) Roosevelt Island Tram Modernization Project - An Unnecessary Bureaucratic Bungle or Prudent Long-Term Safety Measure?

Roosevelt Island Tram image from J Blough

The September 11 RIOC Board of Directors meeting will be addressing two of the most important issues facing the future of Roosevelt Island - the Roosevelt Island Tram Modernization Project and the acquisition of site control for the southern tip of Southpoint Park by supporters of the Louis Kahn/FDR memorial boondoggle. According to RIOC, the first two Agenda items for the 9/11 Board of Directors Meeting are:
  1. Conditional Designation of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute for Development of the FDR Four Freedoms Park (Board Action Required)
  2. Authorization to Enter into Grant Disbursement Agreement for the Aerial Tramway Modernization Project (Board Action Required)
The August 30 issue of the Main Street WIRE published an excellent editorial detailing the background of why this Tram Modernization is being sought and reasons why it should be rejected by the RIOC Board of Directors. The editorial is being reprinted in full below as is RIOC President Steve Shane's reply. It is a long but worthwhile read to understand why the Roosevelt Island Tram may be shut down for six to nine months in 2009. Here is the editorial.

A Year Without the Tram

Spending $25M+ on a Failure of Responsibility

Roosevelt Island is about to spend $25 million or more on a Tramway upgrade largely because one official could not stand up and say, "My fault."

On April 18, 2006, equipment that was working as designed triggered a routine stop on the 5:15 p.m. trip, leaving two cabins and their evening-rush passengers hanging. Shortly thereafter, a rookie Tramway employee, inadequately trained for such an ordinary occurrence, was unable to execute a standard restart procedure. His incompetence (he was later fired) was exacerbated by the arrival of NYC emergency personnel - most notably NYPD but also including FDNY units - who were all too willing to undertake some heroic rescue activity in view of helicopter-borne television cameras. Their eagerness was compounded by the interdepartmental rivalry in which NYPD didn't want to be upstaged by FDNY. The rescue effort was summarily removed from the hands of experienced Tramway personnel who had arrived and who were ready to resolve the situation without outside help.

It was later revealed that equipment that should have reeled in the two cabins failed because it had not been maintained and fully tested on a regular basis. (Procedures have since been tightened.) At the time, the closest observers of the Tram - those who run it day by day - had often complained that Red Blomer, the Dopplmayr employee in overall charge here, was rarely present. A subcontractor had failed to supervise adequately, and RIOC had apparently accepted that without complaint.

This was, in short, a failure of the RIOC administration of Herbert E. Berman, a political appointee of Governor George Pataki. He had inherited a deficient system - human factors, not mechanical or electrical ones - from previous Pataki appointees.

The buck should have stopped then and there. Berman should have stood up and issued a statement something like this:

We failed to administer and supervise. We failed in maintenance responsibilities. We allowed eager city rescue workers to take over prematurely. We panicked under pressure and discarded tested procedures. The Tram is sound, and it will be back in service in a few days at most. We screwed up. Sorry. We will do better in the future.

But there was no such statement. There was no immediate follow-up to repair the chain of command. The Tram was taken out of service for over four months. Fingers were pointed in error. ConEd, for example, mounted a credible defense. Scrambling to find a scapegoat, the Berman administration turned to the one component that could not defend itself.

They blamed the Tram.

The equipment became the scapegoat. Like RIOC presidents before him, Berman had been more interested in building things than in taking care of the things that we already had. For a bureaucrat, it's nice to be able to say, "I built that." There is not as much glamour in being able to say, "I took care of what was already there."

Once the blame was fully misdirected to the equipment, that was rationalized: It's 30 years old was the blanket that obscured all else. But age had vitually nothing to do with the Tram's failure that day. The failure was in components whose maintenance and testing had been slipshod. Put that down to human factors and failed supervision. Hardware can fail, even backup hardware. But that night's hardware failures, as they mounted, clearly had their root in human failures, most notably laxness in maintenance and testing. A further failure, specific to 4/18/06, was in dropping the matter into the hands of city emergency personnel without sticking to tested rescue protocols. It has been said, and we believe it, that if Tramway workers had remained in charge, passengers would have been on the ground within an hour - or two at most.

Blaming the equipment meant that when it was time to ask How do we fix this?, the focus became the Tram - not training, maintenance, administration, and learning from a bungled experience.

Then, more heroics: The Governor stepped in with a promise of $15 million. An impressive sum, but a classic example of throwing millions at a mess that could be fixed for thousands.

That puts us where we are today - about to spend $15 million of New York State taxpayers' money, plus $10 million in Roosevelt Island money, on a complexifying "upgrade," and about to suffer a year without Tram service when we already have rush-hour delays and inconvenience because, as we add more residents in new buildings, there is no morning-rush room on one F train after another.

Under Steve Shane, procedures are better. Supervision has been tightened. Most of the potential for human-factor failure has been wrung out of the system.

Once we debunk the scapegoating of the equipment, the remaining reasons for why we're going to go through this boil down to these:

1. We've got the state's $15 million to spend. We'd hate to lose it, and we can afford to add $10 million.

2. We'll get a marginal increase in the availability of Tram service by converting to a separated system where work can be done on side A while side B carries passengers. (As Steve Shane notes in a rebuttal on page 12, this was a primary attraction for him.)

To reason #1, we say there are many ways we can use $10 million or $25 million-plus, and we doubt very much that would be the end of it. To reason #2, we note that a year out of service to buy something new for the next 30 years means that we're gaining a system with a promised downtime of 1% at the expense of 3% downtime - that is, a probable year or more out of the next 30 - of downtime. We think that's a bad trade.

Further excuses focus on parts that may become unavailable at some point in the future, and on fears that certain rare parts could fail unexpectedly, leaving us without the Tram for what is claimed to be weeks or months. But the really critical parts can be fabricated in advance. An example is the reduction gearbox that transmits power from the Tram's motor to its haul cables. Why not order a spare? Why not install that spare when it arrives, and have the old one remanufactured to be like new? And if that's not possible, why not order an additional standby?

The electrical system has already been upgraded, and future upgrades will be possible. New track cables are needed, but their periodic replacement is routine, though costly, and it doesn't take the year that we expect the upgrade will take. (Those in charge say it should be less than a year. That would be nice, but predicting such things isn't an exact science, and we think the hoped-for 8 months could stretch to 18.)

We also believe that track cables will have to be replaced more frequently in the new system because of a change in the tensioning system. That's a downtime in availability, even with a second side running, because one cabin can't keep the rush-hour pace of two. And track replacement is, as noted, a costly matter.

Much of this is what Mark Ponton, a RIOC Board member until recently, has been saying. He found a way, through expert scientific testing that was beyond the testing capability of RIOC's contracted consultant, to get the Tram to speak in its own defense. (See the August 3 WIRE.)

We disagree with Ponton in his supposition that, should we have a sudden need for a Tramway upgrade in a year or two or three, the Governor and legislature will hurry to provide the $15 million that we would give up if we don't take it now. Governors and legislatures have been known to disagree at length and get nothing done for a long time. Budget squeezes and freezes can stall important activity.

So we think that the RIOC Board and RIOC administration should prevail upon the state administration to allow the Island to put that $15 million - plus the $10 million of Island money - in the bank. Call it the Tramway Replacement Endowment, if it needs a name. Claims that this kind of thing is impossible with government are specious. If the political will is there, it can be done.

Experts have spoken. They've said that the Tram, as it stands and with vigilant maintenance, could easily have another 30 years of life in it, and it's safe. Other experts - experts with a vested interest in having the work of a Tramway rebuild - have offered no concrete end-of-life estimate, nor have they sounded safety alarms.

And RIOC Board member Michael Shinozaki has pointed out that the planned "upgrade" would actually downgrade the track-cable tensioning system, replacing the current dynamic system, which is flexible, with a hard-anchored static system that assigns all the responsibility for coping with stress (like summer expansion and winter contraction) to the cables themselves.

The Tramway that we have now can be improved with small upgrades and proper attention to testing and maintenance. It can last a long time. And the longer we can wait before replacing today's Tram, the longer its replacement will last once replacement is necessary.

Mark Ponton has suggested that the reason we're upgrading the Tram today is that nobody in charge - not the RIOC Board, not the RIOC administration - is willing to be the guy who says, Let's not, only to find months later that the Tram has failed, perhaps catastrophically. But there is no scenario for "catastrophic" failure that wouldn't apply equally to the upgraded Tram.

When we look at the risks and inconveniences of the upgrade, and what Ponton calls the "oops factor" - the unforeseen project-stopper or Achilles' heel discovered in an almost-finished job - we rate them as roughly equal to the inconveniences and risks of sticking with the Tram that has served us so well, and clearly has many years of life left in it.

Sticking with the existing Tram and doing minor upgrades, we can save nearly $20 million (including $10 million of Island money), at least temporarily, and perhaps for a long time.

It's not as glamorous to maintain today's Tram as it is to bring a shiny new set of cabins into the world. It's not as overtly heroic to keep this one as it is to manage a major upgrade project. But it makes more sense, and the RIOC Board should demand full and precise answers in the engineering study now in progress.

In doing so, the Board should recognize the history of this affair: We are about to spend $25 million-plus and lose a year of Tram service, because then-RIOC President Herb Berman couldn't say mea culpa and, instead, found a scapegoat for his administration's failures in the solid, reliable equipment.
And here is RIOC President Steve Shane's response reprinted from the Main Street WIRE.
"It’s really essential, especially given the frailty of the subway system, to have a separated Tram system so that, for both the planned and unplanned maintenance outages, we would always have the availability of one side. To me, that was the compelling, defining argument, and if we have the money to do it, it’s absolutely worthwhile to do it, without trying to justify it in terms of whether the existing system will survive another one or two or five years.

"Sooner or later, with a system that is 30-odd years old, no matter how you maintain it, it’s going to have a breakdown. It’s had a breakdown in the past, and it will have them in the future. The maintenance will become more and more difficult – and getting parts for an aging system becomes more and more of a problem.

"The flip answer to that, Just stockpile all of those parts, doesn’t work. Unless you stockpile an entire Tram, you don’t know what’s going to be needed. And to stockpile the major elements – gears and bullwheels and all of those things that might fail – is a huge economic matter. So it’s nuts, absolutely nuts, to do what Mark Ponton proposes to do, which is to keep it going with baling wire and chewing gum (emphasis added). If you talk to the people who are maintaining it and running it, particularly Armando [Cordova, Tramway supervisor], he will clearly express his increasing frustration with keeping it going. He loves it; that is his baby. But all these little failures are cumulative. It’s a mechanical system that needs upgrading."

Question: What if the 2006 incident hadn’t happened?

"We’d be going right along as we were at that time [and] we wouldn’t have the money in hand to do what we are now about to do. It’s only in the emergency and the obvious public discomfort that was created then that the state legislature stepped up and appropriated that $15 million. I have no idea whether they would do that in today’s budget crisis, Mr. Ponton’s confidence notwithstanding in his easy claim that no politician would turn us down. There are a lot of competing needs in this state, and you never know at what given moment it might be made available.

"[Before the 2006 incident], the Tram had been tested and it did perform in emergency drills but, when called on in the real emergency, it failed at the third level. We had backup after backup, and it failed. You can never test these systems fully except in crisis – you can do drills, do whatever you want, but until you load it up and, in the crisis, you try and get it to work, you just don’t know. What finally happened is that the seals on the hydraulic pump that was run by the diesel engine failed. Every pump, at some point, has the potential of the failure of a seal, and you can test it and test it and test it, and it doesn’t fail. At some point, it will fail. When called upon in this instance, it failed, and the prior two methodologies for dealing with the crisis didn’t work. That’s not an administrative failure. It’s life in a mechanical system. Things can and will go wrong in a mechanical system, so what you need is redundancy. You need failsafe systems, and you need to be super-careful, and if you have an aging mechanical system – and I don’t care whether it’s us or the MTA or Amtrak or the FAA – you’re going to have accidents."
Mr. Shane does not help his position by claiming that opponents of the plan propose to keep the Tram operating with "bailing wire and chewing gum". If that is the current state of the Tram, it should be put out of service immediately. If not, such an exaggeration makes one wonder what else may be similarly exaggerated? After all, the safety of the Roosevelt Island Tram is of paramount importance to all.

For more info on other Tramway systems, here is an interesting 2006 study done for the City of Ogden Utah comparing various urban aerial tramway systems including ours on Roosevelt Island and the 2007 Portland Oregon Aerial Tram annual report.

Also, from Re-Connecting America, Center for Transit Oriented Development, here is a comprehensive study on aerial tramways, gondolas and ropeways.


Anonymous said...

Shane's response says it all: "So it’s nuts, absolutely nuts, to do what Mark Ponton proposes to do, which is to keep it going with baling wire and chewing gum(emphasis added)."

I guess when there is no rational defense of a position, there is nothing left but name calling and exaggeration. That line all by itself is very revealing: bullying is a tactic used in the absense of sound reasoning.

Too bad the WIRE's thoughtful, reasoned and well written editorial was met with such a disparaging response.

Anonymous said...

Mark Ponton has NO qualifications nor background to have ANY meaningful opinions abt the TRAM or ANYTHING TECHNICAL. As usual, some bells are ringing in this old fool's ears, but wrong bells and wrong melody. The TRAM HAS to be retrofitted - it is at least 10 years beyond it's 'life' - if Ponton wants to have milk-crates instead of the furniture in his place, let him have it. Lucky for us, the RI residents, he is OUT of the RIOC Board. Ponton has NO understanding of what the correct LIFE-cycle/equipment aging analysis involves. He's been very destructive to our community. Time for him to go away from our Island, let him destroy smthg else. Old fart should NOT be given ANY space to spill his bs anymore - why do YOU repeat all his nonsense ? He has not a SINGLE record of ANYTHING positive for Roosevelt Island, betrayed the residents MANY times. STOP being his loudspeaker.