Hurricane Sandy triggered one of the worst public transportation disasters in U.S. history, flooding and damaging rail yards, train tracks, tunnels, power stations, bus depots and critical operations centers throughout the Northeast, severely disrupting normal subway, train and bus service for weeks and affecting millions of commuters.
Congress responded to this devastating 2012 storm with a $10.9 billion special transportation appropriation, including $3.6 billion that could be used for “resilience” grants dedicated to protecting the infrastructure that was repaired after Sandy and would be at risk of damage by natural disasters in the future.
Adam Schildge, a relatively new Federal Transit Administration (FTA) employee with just four years of federal experience, was put in charge of developing and implementing a $3.6 billion competitive grant program with these resilience funds, and astutely managed this huge and high-profile initiative.
Colleagues said Schildge demonstrated exceptional management skills, analytical knowledge and coalition-building talent, and developed a novel methodology for rating and evaluating the projects and awarding the grants. This new approach, they said, helped assess whether proposed construction projects would result in reduced damages in the event of another disaster, and also would be cost effective considering the probability of another disaster occurring.
“It is very likely that the public transportation projects selected through the process that Adam helped create will be in service 100 years from now,” said Matt Welbes, the executive director of the FTA. “People riding public transportation through areas of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region will be on systems built to better endure extreme weather events.”
Welbes said there was tremendous pressure to get the resiliency grants awarded as quickly as possible. He added that the FTA, which had been authorized by Congress to set up an emergency relief program just a few months before the hurricane, had limited capacity within this new office.
“While FTA leadership and agency teams were very focused on this program, it was Adam who helped frame a coordination process and evaluation approach for allocating the funding that proved successful,” said Welbes. “When future hurricanes, earthquakes or other disasters harm public transportation, the tool developed by Adam will guide investments in resilient transit infrastructure. This is his enduring legacy.”
The grants awarded included $1.6 billion to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to make flood protections throughout its subway system, rail yards, substations, critical support facilities and underground equipment. New Jersey Transit received $1.3 billion to reduce the risk of flooding at the Hoboken rail yards, among other projects. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority was awarded $86.7 million to build an alternate control center to guarantee continuity of operations and to improve flood protection on commuter rail lines. Additional grants were awarded to other systems such as Washington’s Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Therese McMillan, acting administrator of the FTA, said the aftermath of the hurricane turned out to be an “overwhelming time” for the agency as it sought to respond to urgent needs in numerous states and communities, and meet congressional requirements.
“Adam had great poise and was able to see the big picture and the outcome we wanted while dealing with all of the details of delivering the program,” said McMillan. “He worked incredibly hard and around the clock in the immediate aftermath of the storm.”
Jamie Pfister, director of the FTA’s Office of Transit Programs, said Schildge “showed leadership and innovation” in directing the high-profile program.
“He’s very creative and gave his superiors sound options to consider,” said Pfister. “I don’t even know how to quantify the impact that his work will have for years to come.”
McMillan said that increased severity of storms will continue to pose threats to public transportation.
“Adam’s contribution is hugely important because many of our grantees don’t have the technical capacity to evaluate these investments. They needed us to provide a model to deal with these challenges,” said McMillan.
Schildge said he consulted with many experts, including those at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, regarding how to determine whether a project would be able to withstand a natural disaster and is worth the investment. He said this involved looking at proven technologies, regional issues, costs and many other factors.
“We selected some really great projects to protect the New York metropolitan area from the next disaster,” said Schildge. “Public transportation riders will have much more security in knowing they can rely on their transit systems during and after a disaster once these projects are built.”
Schildge said he began his career in finance, but found the work unfulfilling and went back to school to study urban planning. He took a position with the FTA in 2010 because it offered “the greatest opportunity to impact communities.”
“I’ve always known I wanted to work for the public good and I’ve found a good way now to give back to communities across the country,” said Schildge.