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Schumer seeks $550M in unused Sandy funds to fix East River tunnels

Sen. Chuck Schumer talks during a press conference

Sen. Chuck Schumer talks during a press conference in Hauppauge on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Credit: James Carbone

Sen. Chuck Schumer has asked federal officials to use $550 million in untapped Sandy aid to help pay for repairs to the badly damaged East River tunnels primarily used by the Long Island Rail Road.

In a letter written Saturday, Schumer urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate to tap $800 million of unobligated federal superstorm Sandy funding to help pull Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, out of the fiscal jam caused by a recent federal court decision.

The court ruling capped insurance companies' payouts to Amtrak for the Sandy tunnel damage to $125 million. That's a small fraction of the several hundred million dollars Amtrak has said it needs for the massive undertaking, which will require largely reconstructing two of the four tunnels connecting Queens to Penn Station.

The tunnels were inundated with 14 million gallons of floodwaters during the October 2012 storm, and Amtrak officials said corrosive salts and chlorides left behind have continued to deteriorate them.

In his letter, Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the court decision could cause Amtrak to delay repairs "for a number of years" as it waits for a decision on an appeal. That could also set back the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's East Side Access project to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal. Amtrak and MTA officials have said the schedules of the two projects need to be closely coordinated.

"This is simply unacceptable," Schumer wrote. "Both projects -- the repair of the East River Tubes and the East Side Access project -- are simply too important to Long Island, NYC, New Jersey and all of the New York metro region to be placed into jeopardy."

Federal transportation officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Amtrak officials said they "greatly appreciate Senator Schumer's continued efforts to provide reliable transportation funding to both the region and entire Northeast Corridor."

"The longer we delay investment in this critical infrastructure, the greater the risks of future service disruptions," Amtrak said in its statement.

Although Amtrak officials have said there is no imminent safety risk posed by the tunnels, problems stemming from the saltwater damage have manifested in increased service problems for the LIRR, which operates about half the trains running through the underground passageways every weekday. The number of Amtrak-related service delays has nearly doubled since 2012, according to the LIRR.

An MTA spokesman declined to comment Sunday.

Schumer, who helped pass a $60 billion federal Sandy relief bill, said Amtrak could reimburse the government if it secures further insurance money in the future.

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