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LIRR tunnel repairs require urgency

Cracks in the Long Island Rail Road tunnels

Cracks in the Long Island Rail Road tunnels under the East River of New York City as a result of superstorm Sandy. Credit: HNTB

Two years ago, we sounded the alarm about the need for massive repairs to a rail tunnel under the East River, particularly two tubes inside flooded by superstorm Sandy in 2012.

In those two years, little has changed.

Meanwhile, every day, hundreds of Long Island Rail Road trains rumble through the cracking, damaged tubes. Power and signal problems sometimes occur, resulting in delayed trains and angry riders.

It's just a matter of time before a serious incident occurs, or before a significant outage disrupts service more widely.

Yet, somehow, transportation officials are still having the same arguments about what to do. The East River tunnel is more than a century old. Two of its four tubes are in extremely bad shape due to corroding steel, cracking concrete and other damage from Sandy. The other two aren't much better.

So it is frustrating that Amtrak is still designing the project to fix and upgrade the damaged tubes, and even the design phase won't be done until 2021. That's too long to wait. Meanwhile, Amtrak and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority continue to disagree on how to split the costs. The MTA says it owes 24 percent; Amtrak thinks that figure should be higher. 

Complicating it all is $432 million in federal funds that Sen. Chuck Schumer says he secured specifically for the LIRR and tunnel repair in 2016. The MTA now says it spent the money on New York City Transit Sandy-related projects, arguing that the money was meant for overall transit resiliency, and was due to expire this past September. 

Certainly, railyards and subway signals needed repairs, and in some ways, the MTA's choice was understandable given the lack of tunnel progress and apparent expiration date. But the MTA erred in not providing a more public, detailed accounting of that decision-making. Now the agency must show it is setting aside its own funds for the LIRR tunnel to make up for dollars it spent elsewhere.

Figuring out the cost sharing among  Amtrak, the MTA and New Jersey Transit while fighting for more federal funding is only the first step.

Beyond that, the project delays are unacceptable, and the lack of urgency is appalling. Amtrak and the MTA together must find better, faster ways to do the work. MTA officials suggest learning from the subway's L train tunnel work, which includes racking cables rather than enclosing them.  But Amtrak says that might not work for the East River tunnel because of its complexities and the voltage involved. That doesn't mean, however, that there are not innovative solutions.

Still, the tubes deteriorate every day. The eventual completion of the East Side Access project connecting the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal will provide an alternate route to Manhattan for some commuters, but the start of tunnel repairs must not wait until then. 

Amtrak owns and operates the tunnel, and must take the lead, but everyone shares responsibility for doing the improvements. If they don't, everyone will share the blame when — not if — the tunnel fails.  — The editorial board