Below the East River lies a train tunnel with four tubes, each with a single track. More than 800 trains, including 581 Long Island Rail Road trains, rumble through them each day.
And, slowly, the tubes are crumbling.
The tunnel is more than a century old, first opened in 1910. That alone is cause for concern. But in 2012, superstorm Sandy flooded two of the tubes up to their ceilings with 14 million gallons of saltwater. The saltwater ate at the concrete and corroded the steel, cracking the walls and damaging railroad tracks and ties, signals, switches and power systems.
Five years later, Sandy’s impact still reverberates. Concrete chunks fall on the tracks, power and signal problems persist, trains full of passengers languish outside and inside the tunnel, leading to delays that stymie commuters, employers and the region’s economy.
Let’s not wait until there is a terrible accident or system failure that renders the tunnel unusable and requires another emergency response. We’re sounding the alarm now so there is urgency at Amtrak and at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to schedule the repairs and upgrades.
If the situation at Penn Station, where emergency repairs are being made only after two derailments, and the deterioration of the city subways have taught our region anything, it’s that transit officials have to get ahead of their infrastructure troubles.
The problems in the East River tunnel are already clear to commuters. An April report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the number of trains delayed, canceled or terminated because of problems with the tubes and their switches increased 72 percent since Sandy — from 866 in 2011 to 1,488 in 2016. DiNapoli said that accounted for 18 percent of the overall increase in cancellations, delays or stopped service.
The two once-flooded tubes need to be gutted, which likely will cost more than $1 billion. Each would be closed one at a time for up to two years. The other two tubes need extensive repairs and upgrades. All of that work will mean significant service disruptions, but the alternative is unthinkable.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the project is fraught with political, financial and logistical complications.
It requires cooperation and coordination by Amtrak, which owns the tunnel, the MTA, whose trains account for most activity, and New Jersey Transit, which uses the tunnel to park trains at Sunnyside Yard in Queens. So far, getting the three entities to focus and work together has not been easy.
Then there are the questions of who’s in charge and how to pay for it.
As long as Amtrak owns and controls the tunnel, it must take the lead. Amtrak officials say they’ve just started final design work for the two Sandy-damaged tubes, but there’s no timetable, plan or funding strategy. How’s that for urgency?
A lot of the money is available. Sen. Chuck Schumer fought to secure $432 million in federal Sandy-relief funds specifically for the East River tunnel. It’s money that went to the MTA, and Schumer expects it to be spent on this project.
But here’s the rub: The MTA has budgeted those funds for other items: repairing a rail yard, signals and subway tunnels — all Sandy-related, but not what Schumer says he fought for. MTA officials say their agency will ultimately pay 24 percent of the total cost, a figure they say is determined by federal law. But they argue Amtrak has to pony up its share and that the federal Sandy money was never officially dedicated solely to the Amtrak-LIRR tunnel.
That argument is like the tubes themselves — riddled with cracks. The federal funds were meant to be used specifically for the Amtrak-LIRR East River tunnel, not other MTA needs, and that’s where they should be spent.
Amtrak and NJ Transit must do their parts, too. Contributions must come from every entity that benefits from the tunnel. There has been far too much finger-pointing, and far too little accountability and responsibility from all involved.
Reconstructing the East River tunnel is without a doubt a massive project, and it will, like this summer’s repairs, result in commuter pain. Some suggest waiting until East Side Access opens a new path for the LIRR into Grand Central Terminal. But railroad observers and experts aren’t sure the decaying tubes can wait that long.
And even though the two Sandy-afflicted tubes are the top priority, transit officials also have to develop a strategy for the other two tubes, which handle most of the LIRR traffic.
The deterioration of the concrete, steel and signals won’t wait for political debates to stop. When the tubes start to fail, the problems of this summer of hell will merely seem like spring in the park.