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Post-Sandy repairs on LIRR, subways still far from complete

Long Island Rail Road Substation showing the switches

Long Island Rail Road Substation showing the switches on the ground in Oceanside Oct. 22, 2014. LIRR Substation was damaged in the wake ofsuper storm Sandy. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Long Island Rail Road still has a long way to go before completing

repairs after superstorm Sandy's

floodwaters devastated its tunnels, tracks and storage yards two years ago.

Some efforts, like those to elevate electric substations on the low-lying Long Beach line, are well underway. Others are not as far along, including a critical project, led by Amtrak, to restore the flood-damaged East River tunnels that has no time frame to begin.

And although some transportation experts and public officials said they would have liked to have seen the LIRR and its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, make more progress with their post-Sandy plan by now, most agreed that the massive task at hand cannot be accomplished quickly.

"Would we like to see things move quicker? Of course we would . . . It's sometimes difficult, because you can't just shut things down," said Mitchell Pally, the Suffolk County representative on the MTA board. "The hope is that the next storm will not come until you're finished. And, unfortunately, there's no guarantee."

The agency has awarded less than $60 million in contracts out of $300 million in proposed repairs and renewal projects. But LIRR officials said those figures do not reflect the amount of progress made so far, and noted that much of the work is being done in-house. Some projects will be finished by early next year, while others won't be done until 2019.

Officials point to a number of factors hindering more progress, including the lengthy, state-regulated bidding process for vendors, design stages for some projects, and the MTA's responsibility to provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Construction underway

"I think we're within the original schedule that we put out. In some areas, we're probably before schedule. And we're always looking for opportunities to advance the work," LIRR Chief Program Officer Rich Oakley said. "Given what we're trying to achieve, keeping the railroad operating . . . I think we're doing fine."

On the LIRR's Long Beach branch, which felt the brunt of the Oct. 29, 2012, storm, construction of two out of three new electrical substations is already underway, while a third is being designed. The first of the new substations, in Oceanside, is scheduled to be operational by early next year.

But the LIRR says it won't be until January 2018 that it completes all the proposed work along the line at a cost of $125 million. That includes restoring the Wreck Lead Bridge and replacing signals, switches, third rail and communications systems along the Long Beach line, which serves 4.5 million riders a year.

Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) said that while he does "respect the time frame" set by the LIRR, he would like to see the agency better communicate to riders its schedule for repairs, and the progress already made.

"They're doing the best that they can," Weisenberg said. "I wish it could be done and completed before 2018, but we'll accept whatever we have to."

Construction is also underway on several Sandy-related fixes and upgrades at a pair of LIRR storage yards. Repairs to an electrical substation at a Long Island City yard will be finished by June. Other work there, including the installation of a new flood wall, sump pumps and drainage systems, won't be finished until December 2017, the LIRR said.

Replacement of signal and power components in the LIRR's yard on Manhattan's West Side, which was inundated by Hudson River floodwaters, is scheduled to be completed by April 2019.

Challenges for tunnels

But, the LIRR said, fixes to one of the railroad's most important passageways, the East River tunnels that carry trains into and out of Penn Station, are "on hold pending discussions" with Amtrak, which owns the four tunnels and said last month that it will have to shut down two of them for a year each to conduct Sandy repairs. The tunnels were flooded with nearly 14 million gallons of corrosive saltwater, the MTA has said.

Although Amtrak is responsible for the project, the LIRR -- as the tunnels' primary user -- may have to help fund the work, which Amtrak has said will cost $328 million.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped the MTA secure federal funding to pay for the Sandy recovery projects, said in a statement that while there are "real engineering and logistical challenges" standing in the MTA's way, the agency "must move with all speed to protect the tunnels, electrical systems and more, so that the LIRR is not left vulnerable to future flooding and storm surge events."

In a statement, the Federal Transit Administration, which is funding most of the MTA's Sandy work, said the region's transportation network has made "great progress" rebuilding over the past two years.

"However, the process to rebuild and make these systems more resilient is complex, and restoring the Long Beach Branch substation, the Wreak Lead Bridge system, and other critical components of the Long Island Rail Road and the MTA rail network will take time to complete," the FTA said.

The MTA also has years to go in finishing repairs on other parts of its system, including the New York City Transit Subways, where nine tunnels were completely inundated.

In some instances, the MTA has temporarily shut down service in some tunnels, including the Montague Tube serving the R line and the Greenpoint Tube serving the G line, to fast-track repairs.

"It goes back to the idea of ripping off the Band-Aid. It hurts. It's painful. But, then, it's over," said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit think tank. "This was a severe, extreme event that we had to deal with. And I think, overall, the agency has responded well."

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