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How the MTA made its big decision to shut down for Sandy

Possibility of closing subways, rail and buses discussed for days ahead of storm

City bus on upper Broadway in Manhattan on Sunday. Photo courtesy MTA

In the coming hours, New York City’s trains and buses will grind to a halt in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath. Though the decision to do so was finalized and announced this morning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was monitoring conditions and discussing the possibility for days in advance, said MTA chief spokesperson Adam Lisberg.

“As it became more serious, our planning became more serious,” he said.

The final decision to shut down the city’s extensive transportation system rests with New York’s governor, Lisberg said, though it’s based on recommendations from the MTA.

In conference calls with Chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota, leaders from the agencies within the MTA — the Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit — discussed the situation and made recommendations about the best course of action. Lhota then passed the final recommendations to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced the impending shutdown of New York’s transit system at 10 a.m. this morning, Lisberg said.

The MTA had previously said it would consider a full system shutdown if the storm was expected to bring sustained winds greater than 39 MPH.

The subways will begin closing down service at 7 p.m. and buses at 9 p.m., though it could take between six and eight hours for the lines to shut down completely, said MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz. The city has already been moving trains and buses from storage areas at risk for flooding to safer ground, he said. After the storm passes, the MTA will have to evaluate any damage before restoring service, he said.

“Our first priority is always safety,” Ortiz said.

The MTA carried out a similar shutdown last August in preparation for Tropical Storm Irene. By one calculation, that action and subsequent repairs to badly damaged rails on commuter lines cost the agency $110 million.

In these final hours of operation, the MTA is providing additional service to Zone A, the low-lying areas where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered mandatory evacuation, Ortiz said.

In a press conference late this afternoon, Bloomberg reiterated the need for the 350,000 residents of these areas to seek shelter with friends or family on higher ground or head to one of the city’s 76 evacuation centers.

“Time is running out,” he said.

The worst surges from the storm — projected to measure between 6 and 11 feet — are expected to occur every 12 hours, with the natural rotation of the tides, beginning tonight at midnight.