MTA employees using a pump train are working around the...

MTA employees using a pump train are working around the clock to pump seawater out of the L train's tunnel under the East River. The tunnel was flooded during the unprecedented 13-foot storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. (Nov. 5, 2013) Credit: MTA

Transit systems like the Long Island Rail Road should use federal Sandy dollars first to protect existing facilities from future storms, and not for expansion projects, the head of the Federal Transit Administration said Wednesday.

The FTA's primary goal is to avoid having to rebuild the same infrastructure "a second or third time," agency Administrator Peter Rogoff said at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the progress of Sandy funding.

"Going forward, the FTA's first and highest priority for fostering resiliency within transit systems is to better protect existing transit facilities and equipment from the impact of the next disaster," Rogoff said at the Washington, D.C., hearing.

The LIRR has proposed spending $300 million in federal Sandy funds to complete its Double Track project that would add a second set of rails between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma. Although mostly promoted as a service improvement project, Double Track would have benefits during a storm by providing an alternative for riders if other branches were knocked out, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has said.

"What we're saying is that if it's an important enough project and it meets the criteria for resiliency, were going to seek those funds," MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast said Tuesday. "If we don't get them, then we'll deal with it in other ways."

Rogoff, who said he grew up along the LIRR's Port Washington line, would not comment on the merits of specific projects, but said the money should first go to "protecting the infrastructure that was destroyed" by Sandy, but added the FTA will consider investments in "redundancy."

"We need to recognize that even with our best efforts, we could lose that infrastructure, and the economy needs to continue to move forward and people need . . . to be able to get home or get to work," he said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the FTA to strongly consider LIRR proposals for flood mitigation projects in its Long Island City and West Side yards, and in the East River tunnels for Penn Station. He also pushed to strengthen signaling equipment inside the tunnels to protect them from corrosive floodwaters.

"The MTA and the Long Island Rail Road commuters have long complained, as have I, that we need to do a better job maintaining the East River tunnels structure," Schumer said.

Rogoff said he realized the importance of the tunnels to the region's transportation network, and would "take a very hard look" at plans to bolster them.

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