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LIRR still years away from some Sandy repairs

The eastern end of an East River tunnel

The eastern end of an East River tunnel used by Long Island Rail Road trains. Credit: Craig Ruttle

The Long Island Rail Road has made progress in fixing and fortifying its system following the devastation of superstorm Sandy, but some planned repairs and upgrades, including inside the critical East River tunnels linking to Penn Station, remain years away, according to the MTA.

Six years after the October 2012 storm clobbered the nation’s largest commuter railroad — submerging critical infrastructure under corrosive saltwater in several locations — the LIRR has rebuilt and strengthened major parts of its system, but many projects on the to-do list still have a long way to go.

The $68.6 million replacement of several switches, signals, third rail and communications equipment on the Long Beach line that were damaged in the storm — originally scheduled for completion by January of 2018 — isn’t expected to be finished until September 2021. The railroad said the work is about 64 percent done.

It will take a year longer than that to replace other damaged track components at the LIRR’s West Side Yard in Manhattan. That $43 million effort is a little less than half-complete, the railroad said. That work once was expected to be finished by April of this year.

“I think it’s clear to say that some work has progressed really well, and other work has not progressed as well as originally hoped,” said Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board Member Mitchell Pally, adding that competing maintenance priorities have challenged the railroad’s Sandy recovery efforts. “That is of concern. So I think the railroad has to do a more comprehensive and better job of finishing these projects as quickly as possible, both for the reliability of the railroad and, also, for the credibility of the railroad.”

One of the most critical Sandy repair projects for LIRR commuters — the $1 billion restoration of two of the four East River tunnels, which were deluged with 14 million gallons of floodwaters — hasn't started. Engineers have said the harmful chemicals in the saltwater continue to eat away at the concrete structures.

Some progress has been made. In January, the LIRR completed work on reconstructing three electrical substations along the low-lying Long Beach branch, which was the hardest hit by the storm. The substations were built atop 15-foot high elevated platforms to protect them from floodwaters.

The railroad late last year also finished restoring the Wreck Lead rail bridge, which links Island Park and Long Beach across Reynolds Channel. That work included the installation of underwater cables, a bridge electrical system and an emergency generator.

“You could definitely see the improvements,” said Allan Renz, a golf instructor at Chelsea Piers who has commuted from Long Beach for 25 years. He praised the railroad for prioritizing the protection of the electrical substations, which provide electrical power along the branch. “They’re higher. If another flood hits and gets them, forget about it. That would be the end of Long Beach.”

In a statement, LIRR president Phillip Eng called the progress made “significant” and that several other projects not directly Sandy-related are also helping strengthen the railroad’s infrastructure. Those include installing new technology, such as track switch covers, to protect tracks from severe weather and 100 other infrastructure projects included in a $6.6 billion modernization plan.

"We are building a stronger, more robust railroad to reduce delays and improve service for our customers,” Eng said. “Our approach to fortifying our system encompasses many mutually reinforcing projects.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak revealed last year that its planned repairs of the East River tunnels that it owns and maintains  — originally expected to commence next year — may not start until as late as 2025. Officials have said that putting it off until then will take some pressure off Penn, because the LIRR will have a second Manhattan terminal by then as part of its East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal. The repairs will require the LIRR to operate without one of four East River tunnels linking Long Island to Penn Station for up to four years, Amtrak has said.

Asked for an update on the tunnel repair project, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said only that it “must be integrated with other key regional priorities,” including East Side Access, the MTA’s plan to bring Metro-North Railroad into Penn, Amtrak’s Gateway plan to build a new Hudson River rail tunnel, and the ongoing transformation of the Farley Post Office building into Moynihan Station.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that the "good news" is that he already helped secure $432 million in federal Sandy aid to pay for the tunnel fixes. 

"What the MTA and Amtrak need to do is get on the same page and repair the East River Tunnels, now," Schumer said. "The dollars shouldn’t just sit there. My message is to use them to repair the ERT before you lose them.” 

Pally said he can understand the reluctance to move forward with the tunnel repairs without “enough redundancy or alternatives” for commuters at Penn, which already has been besieged in recent years by infrastructure-related service disruptions. Amtrak-related LIRR delays more than doubled in 2017 compared with the previous year, from 1,227 to 3,074, according to a state comptroller’s report.

“The question is how much hardship are people willing to go through, especially since we’ve already gone through substantial issues at Penn Station,” Pally said. “The East River tunnels were in rough condition before Sandy. Sandy only made them rougher.”

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