Ten years after Superstorm Sandy flooded the East River Tunnels leading into Penn Station, a long-delayed plan to fix the damage is still more than a year away from starting, officials said. Until the $1.6 billion repair effort is complete, it could complicate the commutes of tens of thousands of Long Island Rail Road riders.
The Oct. 29, 2012 storm inundated two of the four underwater tubes with corrosive salt water that Amtrak has acknowledged continues to eat away at the concrete walls.
Amtrak has waited to start the repairs until the completion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $11.1 billion East Side Access megaproject, which will give the LIRR a second route onto and off Manhattan.
The MTA had pushed for the work to be carried out on nights and weekends — which would have allowed the repairs to commence sooner and the tunnels to stay in service. But it eventually went along with Amtrak's plan, and is paying for a significant portion of it.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Ten years after Superstorm Sandy inundated two of the four East River Tunnels with millions of gallons of corrosive salt water, a long-planned repair project still hasn't started, and Amtrak doesn't expect to begin the work until 2024.
- Although the two flooded tunnels are primarily used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, the LIRR will have to share one tunnel that it usually has to itself with the two other railroads.
- The MTA pushed for Amtrak to use a construction method that would allow the work to begin sooner and the tunnels to remain open. But Amtrak believes the tunnels need to be taken out of service so that the work can be done properly, including by modernizing the 112-year-old structures.
"We're past that now," MTA chairman Janno Lieber said last month of his agency's disputes with Amtrak over the repair project, which he acknowledged "does constrain our ability to run."
Amtrak said it has completed the design phase of its project, and will begin “preconstruction” activities next year. The actual repair project won’t get started until sometime until 2024.
Amtrak expects the work to last into 2027, taking 18 months in each of the two affected tunnels, known as “Line 1” and “Line 2.” The tubes are primarily used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains, but until the work is done, the LIRR will have to share one of the two tunnels it usually has to itself with the two other railroads.
The reduced capacity is a key reason the LIRR plans to run fewer trains into Penn upon the opening of its new Grand Central Madison station in December, officials at the MTA, the LIRR's parent organization, have said. The LIRR plans to operate 66 trains into Penn during the weekday morning rush — 10 fewer than it does now, and 29 fewer than before it reduced service in 2020 due to low ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
MTA external relations chief John McCarthy said once the tunnels are repaired, the LIRR could increase service at Penn “in the event it’s warranted by ridership after Amtrak finishes rebuilding the East River Tunnels.”
The tunnel repair effort was once projected to commence in 2019, but has been repeatedly put off. Amtrak felt it best to wait until the LIRR’s new Manhattan station was open to begin the repairs, so as to reduce the demand on Penn.
“Before we went and took the East River Tunnel out of service … it seemed to be in the region’s best interest to sequence these projects in a way that didn’t cause any more pain than already was going to be inflicted,” Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said in an interview.
The MTA reluctantly went along with that plan after it failed to persuade Amtrak to use a construction method — employed by the MTA on Sandy repairs in the subway system — that would allow the tunnels to remain in service while work was carried out on nights and weekends. The key difference would be mounting electrical and other cables on racks, rather than encasing them in concrete walls, as Amtrak plans to do.
“We did nine tunnels in the time since Sandy — several of them without shutting down,” Lieber said Wednesday. “They didn’t want to go that way.”
Amtrak has said taking the tunnels out of service altogether is necessary to do the job right, including by modernizing the track bed inside the tunnels and elevating the concrete bench walls, which sustained much of the saltwater damage, so that they are level with train doors in case of an emergency evacuation.
“Even if Superstorm Sandy didn’t happen, we’re still talking about infrastructure that goes back to the 1910s,” Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said. “[The project] was accelerated because of [Sandy], but we would have had to get here eventually.”
The repair strategy has been one of many points of contention between Amtrak and the MTA over the tunnel fixes. Another is the cost of the project, which has ballooned from Amtrak’s original estimate of $330 million to $1.6 billion.
The MTA initially balked at a proposal to divert $432 million it received in federal Sandy grant funding to subsidize the Amtrak project, but eventually acquiesced after Sen. Chuck Schumer brokered a deal under which Amtrak agreed to spend $500 million to help the MTA link Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station. The agreement allowed Amtrak to move up construction, which it once predicted wouldn't get started until 2025.
Schulz acknowledged that securing the rest of the funding is “very much a work in progress.” The national passenger railroad carrier is counting on securing 80% of the funding through the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the federal government last year.
“We’re hoping that there will be federal funding available … to fund a significant portion of the project,” said Schulz, who noted that Amtrak’s broader plans include potentially extending intercity rail service to stations on Long Island. “The idea here is that we should all be in sync and partner together, as we’re doing, for these really important regional investments.”
Schumer’s office said it intends to fight for as many federal dollars as it can get for local projects like the tunnel repairs. “We have to move as fast as we can on advancing this work, ensuring safety, and repairing these tunnels in a way that inconveniences LIRR riders as little as possible," Schumer said in a statement.
Although reconstruction of the damaged tunnels has not begun, Amtrak regularly inspects and maintains the tunnels to ensure their safety. The agency recently began a $150 million “reliability improvement program” in the tunnels on nights and weekends that includes “grouting, leak mitigation … and scooping out debris and muck,” according to Schulz.
Amtrak officials also noted that a 2014 engineer's report it commissioned found the tunnels to be structurally sound.
“We are in there, actively working in the tunnels to extend their lifespan,” Schulz said. “They served us well for 112 years already, and we’re committed to making sure they continue to serve us as long as we need them to. But, ultimately, what we need to do is to fully rehab these tunnels so that we have 21st century infrastructure.”
While it has waited on Amtrak, the MTA has advanced its own $7.8 billion effort to repair Sandy damage and fortify its system from future weather events. The agency has already completed $3.8 billion in work, including on projects to elevate infrastructure on the LIRR’s low-lying Long Beach branch, which was hard-hit by the storm. Another $2.2 billion of work is underway.
“As the MTA picked up the pieces from Superstorm Sandy 10 years ago, it was clear that massive investments would be needed, not just to restore damaged assets, but to systematically upgrade our resiliency across our system,” MTA construction and development president Jamie Torres-Springer said Monday.
A report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli last week noted that about $1.3 billion in Sandy projects at the MTA are still in the design or planning phase, and that the agency doesn’t expect to complete all its work until 2028 — 16 years after the storm.
“Superstorm Sandy put our transit system to the test, revealing significant vulnerabilities,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “A decade later, the MTA has made progress on nearly $8 billion in projects, but much more needs to be done.”