The Long Island Rail Road has a lot of catching up to do to address its worn and aging infrastructure, according to a new report that points out most of the agency’s Superstorm Sandy resiliency projects haven’t even begun.
The report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli looks at the progress made by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent organization — since it last published its "20-year capital needs assessment" in 2013. The agency is expected to update that plan in 2022.
"The MTA is getting a large infusion of federal infrastructure funds, but its long-term finances are still in trouble as it wrestles with an overdue list of repairs and upgrades and growing debt," DiNapoli said in a statement. "It needs to reassess and focus its priorities to get money where it is most needed to restore the system and bring riders back."
The MTA addresses its long-term infrastructure needs through five-year "capital programs," the most recent of which began in 2020 and is set to run through 2024. According to the report, since the beginning of its prior program cycle, in 2015, the LIRR has spent $762 million on track projects — about 66% of it on the needs identified through 2024. That work includes replacing aging track components and upgrading wooden rail ties with concrete ones.
DiNapoli’s report did note that 85% of the LIRR’s 502 miles of track are "in a state of good repair," and that the 20-year needs assessment could not have taken into account how much funding would be available to carry out projects, nor the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The LIRR also is well behind on efforts to address the damage caused by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, and to harden its system from future storms, according to the report. It says "the LIRR has only completed 20 percent of its $569 million program, with 54 percent of the program not even begun."
Larry Penner, a transportation advocate who previously worked with the Federal Transit Administration for 31 years, called the lack of progress "shocking."
"That sends the wrong signal to Washington when you're crying about how you need more federal dollars," he said. "These are extra dollars . . . and it's frightening that nine years later, a substantial amount are in projects that haven't been completed or have not even been awarded yet."
MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan took issue with the methodology behind the report, which he said looks at "an eight-year-old assessment of needs" and a "capital project delivery system that the MTA has replaced." In 2019, the authority created MTA Construction & Development to streamline major infrastructure projects.
Donovan added that, rather than focusing on project completions and money spent on projects, the report should consider "substantial completions" and money committed to projects. Donovan also said the agency’s 20-year assessment is meant only to guide future capital plans and is not a commitment to specific projects.
As for the progress on Sandy-related work, Donovan noted that the MTA didn’t get its final round of federal funding for the projects until 2017. He said about 75% of all Sandy projects have been committed to and are either complete or underway.
The LIRR also is behind on upgrading its fleet of trains, the report said. Although the agency, in its 2013 infrastructure assessment, identified as a priority replacing its 1980s-era "M3" train models with new "M9" cars, the antiquated trains remain in the fleet, as the arrival of the new cars has been plagued by delays and technical problems.
According to the report, as of September, the LIRR had less than half of the 202 new train cars it purchased and doesn’t expect to have them all until sometime next year.
The report encouraged the MTA to prioritize the effects of climate change in its next 20-year needs assessment, including "coastal storm surges, heavy precipitation and flooding, and acute variations in temperature that could lead to the disabling or deterioration of assets."
DiNapoli’s report also was critical of the progress made in shoring up the MTA’s subway system from weather threats.
"Subway flooding is increasingly disruptive and destructive, yet since 2015 the MTA has only spent $56 million on pump rooms and other line equipment with another $189 million committed, out of the $1.7 billion called for in the needs assessment for 2015 through 2024," the report said.
MTA acting chairman and chief executive officer Janno Lieber has addressed the need to make the transit system more resilient to climate change, especially after recent storm surges inundated some subway and railroad stations. He said the MTA will address the issue in its next five-year capital program, which begins in 2024, and in an update to its 20-year needs assessment.
"With extreme weather becoming more and more frequent, this clearly has to be a major priority for the agency," Lieber said in September.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said the slow progress on the Sandy work shows that "these projects can’t just be identified; they also have to be sped up and prioritized."
She called on the MTA to be more transparent with the public about its progress on infrastructure projects. "Riders and all stakeholders should be able to easily see what projects are being funded; their costs and timelines; progress updates along the way; and most importantly, how they’ll benefit riders," Daglian said.