Nightmarish Long Island Rail Road commutes, like the one last week when an ancient electrical cable failed at the height of morning rush hour, will become commonplace if the MTA fails to inject billions of dollars more into the 181-year-old rail system, experts and officials said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed plan for capital improvements falls short of fully addressing the LIRR's wear and tear, transportation experts say.
Wednesday's service disruption -- and other recent infrastructure-related meltdowns in the metropolitan area -- underscore the severe funding challenges facing transit systems.
"Things like this are going to continue to happen until we can start to make a real dent in this backlog of upgrading our infrastructure," said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan-based research group. "It kind of takes a crisis situation. . . . Then we start moving on that."
The needed LIRR improvements, experts say, will cost billions more than the MTA has in its proposed $26.8 billion capital plan, recently pared from $32 billion. And the LIRR was recently criticized in an independent report for failing to meet its own "relatively unambitious" maintenance goals.
Meanwhile, the railroad's deteriorating infrastructure is increasingly taking a toll on train service, statistics show. Delays rose 35 percent from 14,479 in 2013 to 19,578 in 2014, and increased another 2.2 percent in the first half of this year.
"It's getting unbearable for riders," said LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein, who noted the worsening delays come as the LIRR is on pace to shatter its all-time ridership record. "We're paying the money for a new system, and we're getting an old system. You can't have increasing fares and low performance. It can't sustain itself."
It's not just how many delays there are, but where they're happening.
Delays in the East River tunnels leading into and out of Penn Station, which are owned and maintained by Amtrak, jumped by a third in the first half of 2015. Disruptions in or around the bottleneck of the tunnels tend to affect far more trains.
That was the case Wednesday morning when a faulty electrical cable that LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said was "probably a hundred years old" caused the power to go out on the signal system at the LIRR's busy Harold Interlocking junction in Queens, just east of the tunnels.
The failure forced a rush-hour suspension of service, causing delays getting in and out of Penn for up to three hours, stranding hundreds of thousands of riders.
Nowakowski, who was hired in May 2014, likened the condition of the wires to an old roof on a house that homeowners don't get around to replacing. "At some point . . . you're on borrowed time," he said.
"In our business, because we move so many people a day, when something is nearing the end of its useful life, we better be out there and we better be looking for the warning signs that this thing could fail," Nowakowski said. "It does speak to the importance of our capital program. It speaks to the importance of the need to get after this stuff and replace this stuff on a frequent basis."
An October report by the Manhattan-based Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan think tank, revealed that the LIRR considers itself to be in a "state of good repair" in six out of seven categories: rolling stock; stations; track; communications and signals; shops and yards; and power. The LIRR only considers itself deficient in the category of "line structures," which includes bridges, achieving a rating of 75 out of 100.
But experts say those ratings don't tell the whole story, as evidenced by the century-old electrical wires.
Even Nowakowski conceded that while much of the LIRR's system is in "really good condition," other parts, including its signal system, are "not as well."
East of Speonk and Ronkonkoma, the LIRR has no signal system at all -- relying instead on an antiquated "manual block" system in which dispatchers communicate with train crews using paper orders.
And the aging East River tunnels -- not included among the LIRR's assets -- are in dire need of repair after being inundated with 14 million gallons of corrosive saltwater during superstorm Sandy.
"In some cases, they're like ticking time bombs. We don't know when these things are going to go wrong because they're so old," Barone said. "We're kind of racing against the clock."
Although the MTA has earmarked $3.1 billion for the LIRR in its next capital program, covering 2015-2019, a CBC report questioned the agency's priorities, noting that the proposed expenditure falls short by more than $1 billion of the LIRR's own "relatively unambitious" maintenance goals, as detailed in its 20-year assessment released in 2013.
"Restated, the needs assessment set a low bar, and the approved plan does not meet even that low bar," the report said.
But the proposed MTA capital program aims to spend $5.5 billion on expansion projects, including the $10.2 billion East Side Access plan to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, the report said.
While agreeing that the LIRR does need to spend more on its aging infrastructure, MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook defended the authority's decision making, pointing out that nearly two-thirds of the MTA's proposed capital program is committed to routine maintenance.
LIRR officials have also noted that, as part of East Side Access construction, the MTA is replacing a lot of old LIRR parts, including throughout the Harold Interlocking.
"We can all go back 20 years and decide, 'You know what? It was stupid to build East Side Access.' But we spend a lot of money building these new improvements because we have areas in the region that need this kind of system," Pally said. "We spend almost everything else trying to upkeep what is there."
'Can't do it all at once'
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg acknowledged that the proposed plan does not address all of the agency's maintenance needs.
"We can't do it all at once," he said. "We make choices on where to invest based on how best to take care of our existing assets, as well as how to serve a growing ridership with growing expectations."
According to a 2012 report by the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, since the MTA adopted its first capital program in 1982, the LIRR has spent $10 billion on infrastructure improvements. The biggest chunk, $2.8 billion, went to purchasing train cars. It spent $1.28 billion on its communication and signal system and about $1.9 billion on tracks.
Pally agreed that the MTA is asking for "less than we need" in the capital program, which has already been scaled back considerably at the urging of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
But even the leaner plan has yet to be approved and funded by city, state and federal lawmakers. Cuomo last month vowed to kick in $8.3 billion if New York City agreed to contribute $3.2 billion. The MTA has said it can cover the rest by issuing bonds and through other funding sources, including federal dollars.
On Wednesday, Cuomo reiterated that a "robust" MTA capital plan was necessary to avoid "continued issues."
"It's time, and I'm willing to invest the money from the state side and I've asked our partners in local government to also help," Cuomo said, adding of the LIRR: "It is the circulatory system of the metropolitan area. It does a fantastic job, but it needs rebuilding and it needs repair. It's under constant use."
So far, the city has balked at the $3.2 billion request -- instead offering to contribute $657 million toward the capital plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration has reasoned that the city already pays its fair share, including $1 billion annually in MTA operating funds, and also questioned how the state will come up with its end.
"We literally don't know where the money is coming from or how it would be paid for or what it means," de Blasio said recently.
Advocates have pushed for the creation of a sustainable, new revenue source to support transit investments, including, potentially, tolls on currently-free East River bridges. But none of those ideas has gained the necessary support.
"This capital plan is just barely keeping our heads above the water. It's not like they're shooting for the moon," said Ellyn Shannon, the citizens advisory committee's associate director. "And they can't even get this thing passed."
CORRECTION: CBC stands for the Citizens Budget Commission, a Manhattan-based nonpartisan think tank. A story Sunday about the Long Island Rail Road's aging infrastructure was incorrect.