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We ignore LIRR breakdowns at our peril

Commuters wait at Jamaica station in Queens for

Commuters wait at Jamaica station in Queens for Long Island Rail Road trains that had been delayed on May 16, 2013 by a fallen power line in an East River tunnel. Credit: Mario Gonzalez

It was naked copper electrical wire strung between two wooden poles -- equipment old enough to be getting a Social Security check -- that broke Wednesday morning and cut off power, disrupting Long Island Rail Road service and commuters' lives for most of the day.

Even worse, the LIRR couldn't automatically start a backup system. Instead, a crew had to drive to the location, flip a switch and then go a half-mile down a track to flip another. The miserable experience for thousands of commuters whose morning trains into or out of Manhattan were canceled was compounded by the LIRR's pitiful communications about the depth of the problem and the length of delays.

It was an example of how vulnerable commuters are to frequent breakdowns because of decrepit LIRR equipment.

Another concern is the 100-year-old East River tunnels that LIRR trains use to and from Penn Station. Those four tubes were badly damaged when more than 14 million gallons of water poured in during superstorm Sandy. Now, each needs to be closed for serious rehabbing, which will reduce capacity. Insurance policies are only going to pay $125 million for the repairs, and the federal government is refusing to pony up the hundreds of millions more that is needed. That's maddening because Amtrak, the federal rail line, 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.

It could get worse. Many of the systems the LIRR depends on are outmoded and the MTA's capital plan is underfunded. Although the state is pledging $25 billion, New York City is balking at upping its share from $500 million to $3.2 billion. Full funding would get the LIRR started on stringing new insulated cooper wire and replacing the old poles, as well as automating backup systems. If we allow politics and shortsighted stinginess to keep us from properly caring for our transit infrastructure, we are going to wind up stranded more often.