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LIRR disruption a sign of far bigger concerns

Commuters jam Jamaica Station as the Long Island

Commuters jam Jamaica Station as the Long Island Rail Road suspended service into and out of Penn Station during Wednesday morning's rush hour because of signal trouble east of the East River tunnels on September 2, 2015. Credit: Uli Seit

There's a lot we don't know about the signal problem that disrupted Long Island Rail Road service and commuters' lives starting around 5 a.m. Wednesday.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials are investigating what caused the power-supply breakdown that caused signal problems. If the cause is unclear, so is where to place the blame for the hot and put-upon passengers who were diverted far out of their way and lost hours of their workdays. But we do know that trains could not get into or out of Penn Station, which is to say, Manhattan, and had to be either canceled or diverted to the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.

And there's also a lot we do know about the LIRR, the problems it faces and how important it is that we get serious about fixing them. This will be true no matter what caused Wednesday's debacle.

The rails must run!

But the infrastructure is often aging, decrepit and extremely vulnerable to breakdown. Nowhere is this better seen than in and around the 100-year-old East River tunnels these trains couldn't use Wednesday morning. The four tubes were badly damaged in superstorm Sandy when more than 14 million gallons of water poured in. Now, each needs to be closed in turn for serious rehabbing, which will reduce traffic capacity at least 20 percent. Insurance policies are only going to pay $125 million for the repairs, thanks to the wording of the policies, and the federal government is balking at ponying up the hundreds of millions more that is needed.

That's particularly maddening when you consider that the federal government's rail line, Amtrak, actually owns the tunnels. Amtrak's ownership is even more frustrating when you consider that the majority of the traffic through the tunnels is LIRR trains, and it's the LIRR that is most motivated to care for them properly and has the greatest concentration of nearby resources for maintenance.

If one of the tunnels goes out, it could be a disaster. If any of the tunnels goes out before the others are repaired, it will drastically transform travel in our region.

And the tunnels are just the most dramatic and visible iteration of a much broader problem. Many of the systems the LIRR depends on are aging and outmoded. So are many of our bridges and roads. Transportation infrastructure is a massive priority on Long Island and across the nation. But if we allow politics and shortsighted stinginess to keep us from properly caring for that infrastructure, our society is going to end up stranded.