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— by Angela Cotey, associate editor
Helena Williams spent the night of Oct. 29, 2012, holed up in the "situation room" at MTA Long Island Rail Road's (LIRR) Jamaica, N.Y., headquarters. The LIRR president watched live video feeds monitoring critical areas of the rail system as Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City and on Long Island. She watched water rush over a five-foot-high dam protecting Penn Station. She saw the East River tunnels flood. And she witnessed the storm surge from the Hudson River pour over the wall of West Side Yard, a critical component of LIRR's service into Manhattan.
As Sandy's wrath barreled down on the railroad, Williams and her team sat in disbelief.
"There was a pause as we watched, that moment when the water is flowing in, and all you can say is, 'Oh. My. God.'" Williams recalls. "It was heartbreaking."
The hurricane's massive size and larger-than-expected storm surge caused unprecedented damage to the nation's busiest transit systems. In the days and months since, Williams and the chiefs at other New York City and New Jersey transit agencies have had the daunting task of overseeing massive cleanup and repair efforts, and resuming service. They met the challenge head on. Partial service on the moderately damaged lines — even some of the heavily damaged ones — was restored within days of the storm.
Today, full service has resumed on most passenger-rail lines and at most stations in the New York/New Jersey region.
But the recovery process is far from over. Running repairs, such as replacing station canopies and subway tiles, still need to be made. Signal and communication systems corroded by saltwater will have to be replaced sooner rather than later, and until they are, agency execs expect more system failures. Longer term, transit agency officials say they need to reinforce infrastructure. More intense storms are hitting the region more frequently, and a failure to protect transit assets puts the systems at risk. As a result, every time a massive storm strikes, it threatens regional mobility — and, by extension, economic vitality — in the country's most populated area.
"The hurricane dramatically illustrated to us that, as we rebuild and recover from the damage, we can't just go back to the way it was," says New Jersey Transit Executive Director James Weinstein. "We need to make sure that the system is resilient and that it will withstand the challenges Mother Nature is presenting us with."
For more perspective on how transit agencies need to increase storm resiliency — and how those efforts should be funded — listen to this audio clip from the Eno Center for Transportation's President and Chief Executive Officer Joshua Schank.
For NJ Transit and other area transit agencies, Hurricane Sandy was the mother of all challenges. NJ Transit's damage totaled $400 million, including $350 million in damage to the rail system. Bridges shifted from their piers, boats and debris were scattered across track, and catenary poles snapped in the wind. The Meadowlands Maintenance Complex, NJ Transit's primary shop, flooded for the first time in the agency's history, destroying stock parts and damaging about 300 rail cars and locomotives that either were stored at the facility to shelter them from the storm, or sidelined for repairs or inspections. Hoboken Terminal, another key station, had five feet of standing water. And on the North Jersey Coast Line, an eight-mile stretch of track was completely washed out.
"I had the opportunity two days after the storm to do a helicopter tour and it really did leave me speechless," says Weinstein. "I'm a lifelong New Jerseyan, and hurricanes and Nor'easters are just part of the equation, but the damage inflicted by this storm on our transportation system just defied words."
NJ Transit has spent the past four months picking up the pieces. Full or partial service on four rail lines was up and running less than a week after the storm; by mid-November, full or partial service had resumed on all but one rail line. And on Jan. 11, NJ Transit began running full service into New York Penn Station.
As of press time, catenary power into Hoboken Terminal still was unavailable because flooding destroyed the Mason Substation, located west of the facility. However, the agency was operating diesel service to the station and is expected to soon complete interim repairs that will enable electric service to resume. The agency is working to repair the maintenance facility, as well.
Meanwhile, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has done "a terrific job" of restoring Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) service to lower Manhattan from Hoboken, says Weinstein. The PATH system, which links New Jersey communities with Manhattan via tunnels beneath the Hudson River, has estimated rail system damage costs at $800 million, according to various news reports. Stations on both sides of the Hudson River were closed for weeks after the storm and full service was only recently restored on some lines.
MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) isn't back to 100 percent, either. Agency officials estimate Hurricane Sandy caused $3.7 billion worth of damage to the system. Eight of NYCT's 14 underground tunnels flooded. Crews were able to pump water from the tubes and most were restored within a week or two. The Montague Street Tube suffered more severe damage, with corrosive saltwater destroying the electrical and signal systems, power feeds and controls to one pump room. Service in that tunnel didn't resume until Dec. 21.
The South Ferry subway station, which opened in 2009, was destroyed by a tidal surge and will cost upwards of $600 million to repair, says NYCT President Thomas Prendergast. Moderate flooding and damage occurred at a number of other stations and locations across the subway system.
NYCT also sustained heavy flooding at its 148th Street and Coney Island yards. Crews still are hand-throwing switches in Coney Island until damaged switch machines are repaired or replaced. The Rockaway section of NYCT's A Line was heavily impacted, as well, with damage to the track bed, and signal, power and communication systems. Repair efforts still are under way and service isn't expected to resume for several months.
The agency also needs to pull out and replace traction power cables located in duct banks throughout the system.
For LIRR, getting West Side Yard back up and running as quickly as possible was a top priority after the storm. The yard's 73 switch machines and switch heaters all needed cleaning. Crews also had to repair third-rail components, track, power and signals. The yard was operational a week after the storm, says LIRR's Williams.
LIRR officials also worked with
Amtrak to repair two of the four tunnels beneath the East River that flooded. The signal system was damaged and five signal cases were completely rebuilt, Williams says. Amtrak owns the infrastructure.
On Long Island, crews removed 600 trees and 20 boats from the railroad's right of way. In addition, 20 substations weren't functioning.
The Long Beach branch was LIRR's hardest-hit line. The beach community it serves was devastated when water surged miles inland. Track was washed out, power and signal systems were damaged and the branch's yard flooded. To make matters worse, a sewage treatment plant next to the yard overflowed, contaminating the yard and substation. LIRR began operating diesel service on the branch about a month after the hurricane.
The agency was operating full service system-wide by Dec. 10. LIRR estimates immediate clean-up and repair efforts cost about $24 million, in addition to about $14 million in lost revenue.
MTA Metro-North Railroad crews had to contend with downed trees, power lines and catenary, too. In addition, flooding occurred in one of its rail yards, which damaged a "small number" of electric cars and coaches, says President Howard Permut. But the agency's Hudson Line was the hardest hit.
"The surge of the Hudson River was so high that we estimate that about half of the Hudson Line was under water Monday night after the storm, from Croton-Harmon to somewhere in the Bronx, so probably the better part of 25 miles," says Permut. "With all that salty water coming in, it got into the electrical components — the power system, signal system and communication system all have been compromised."
Metro-North officials estimate total repair costs at $30 million to $40 million.
But Hurricane Sandy repair costs — and the recovery process — won't end there for Metro-North or the other New York and New Jersey transit agencies. Hundreds of millions of dollars still are needed to restore the transit systems to their pre-Sandy conditions.
"Now, we're left with a system that can operate, but we're having more failures than typical and the life of much of this equipment, particularly the electrical equipment, has been severely shortened," says Permut. "Salt water has gotten into these systems and they have been compromised. They won't last as long, and they won't be as reliable."
That's why transit agencies are categorizing their Sandy recovery in two parts. The repairs to resume operations was phase one. Next, agencies will need to restore their systems to pre-Sandy conditions. For Metro-North, that means replacing signal systems, transformers and other components corroded by salt water. The efforts will cost a little less than $200 million, Permut says.
LIRR officials estimate they'll need about $267 million to replace substations and damaged signal systems, says Williams.
"We have made repairs, but they are, in essence, short-term repairs," she says.
Ditto for NYCT, which has similar projects on its restoration agenda. The agency also will need to replenish its stock of system parts and components that was depleted for post-Sandy repairs.
"I won't tell you we're living precariously, but we are living without the cushion we normally have with the stock that's available," says Prendergast.
Until NYCT and other agencies fully restore their infrastructure, officials expect there will be more system failures as components compromised during the hurricane begin to degrade. In some respects, resuming train operations so quickly after the storm might have led people to underestimate how hard a toll the storm took on transit agencies.
"Because we had upwards of 85 percent of our system running within a week, I think people thought the damage can't be that bad, but we're still suffering the consequences," says Prendergast.
In early January, Congress approved a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that will help NYCT and other agencies suffer a bit less. The bill includes $12 billion for projects that will help restore transportation systems.
Those efforts will be a main focus for agency officials and workers in the months to come. But transit agency execs say the work can't stop there. Hurricane Sandy illustrated that New York's and New Jersey's transit-rail infrastructure is not resilient enough to withstand the most severe weather. Pre-storm actions to move equipment to higher ground, tie up crossing gates and place sand bags around station entrances helped curb the damage, but there was little that could have been done in the days before the storm to prevent flooding and signal system damage. The storm also reinforced the importance of the region's transit network. With transit service down and roads flooded in the days after the hurricane, transportation was gridlocked.
"We have to ensure we don't get to a point of paralysis again," says Williams.
Officials at New York and New Jersey agencies are all trying to figure out how.
NYCT is contemplating what it would take to build sea walls and total enclosures to station entrances. LIRR is considering flood gates at Penn Station and rubber plugs that could be placed in under-river tunnels. Metro-North officials have discussed everything from constructing sea walls to burying power cables to creating a greater redundancy in the electrical system. The agency also is conducing a topographic survey of its right of way to locate the precise elevation of its infrastructure. That would give Metro-North officials an idea of how they could relocate some infrastructure out of harm's way, perhaps by elevating substations on concrete blocks, says Permut.
"Right now, what we control is the response after the storm hits," he says. "Now what we're talking about is, 'How do you try to mitigate the impact of the storm itself?'"
Amtrak officials are thinking along the same lines. Hurricane Sandy "exposed the fragility of century-old structures and the challenges that come when we're confronted with weather conditions the designers never anticipated," Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Boardman told a Senate committee in early December.
Boardman highlighted three projects that would help Amtrak and commuter-rail systems that use its Northeast Corridor infrastructure better handle and recover from massive storms. A high-density signal system would provide greater operational flexibility in the Amtrak-owned East River tunnels also used by LIRR. The two tunnels that did not flood during the storm could have handled a heavier traffic load while the other two tunnels were out of service if a high-density signal system had been in place.
In addition, a major electrical substation in Kearny, N.J., that supplies power to the North River tunnels and Penn Station needs to be rebuilt atop a platform above the high water line, Boardman said. And, the substation needs more electrical capacity so it can support additional service into and out of New York. The substation flooded during the storm.
Amtrak also wants to advance design and early construction on the Gateway Project, which includes two new tunnels beneath the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey.
"We need a system that's robust enough to support our operational needs not just on good days, but every day," Boardman told the committee.
Particularly when those not-so-good days seem to be occurring more often. In August 2011, Northeast transit agencies had to contend with Hurricane Irene, which caused substantial damage to
Metro-North, LIRR and NJ Transit infrastructure. The region also has been slammed by a handful of massive Nor'easters in recent years, including one just last month, Winter Storm Nemo.
"Some people can make the argument that this is global warming. I'll let them have those arguments, but I'll look at the empirical data," says Prendergast. "The levels of storm frequency and intensity are increasing."
Implementing the storm protection measures transit agencies are talking about will come with a hefty price tag. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie still are working to compile possible solutions and cost estimates from various public entities. Metro-North's Permut figures it will cost his agency about $750 million to harden the New York portion of its system. NJ Transit's Weinstein estimates about the same cost for his rail system. For LIRR, those expenses are pegged at about $400 million.
In order to make such significant investments to harden their systems, cash-strapped transit agencies would need to rely heavily on the federal government. But given that Congress is more focused on discussing — or, rather, arguing about — budget cuts and tax increases than on making investments, transit officials have their work cut out for them.
"It's hard to tell, given the dialogue in Washington, exactly what actions will be taken in response to Sandy and, in general, the need for infrastructure investment," says Metro-North's Permut. "[MAP-21] runs out at the end of next year and then we'll be back to talking about what the federal role will be in public transit investment. For a host of reasons — not just storm resiliency — that investment, in my opinion, is critical to the future of the economy."
The message transit execs are sending to Washington is a familiar one: Additional infrastructure funding is becoming increasingly important to provide transportation options and maintain the United States' economic competitiveness. But this time, that message will be delivered in the context of a massive storm that gave a brief but harrowing look at what the nation's most heavily populated region would be like without the transit systems that help keep it humming. Transit agencies and the federal government have a responsibility to ensure those assets are protected, transit execs say. And with Hurricane Sandy's impacts still fresh in people's minds, politicians just might be ready to receive that message.
"I believe the recognition of large expenditures to harden a system is sinking in with [politicians] and I think the discussion — in terms of what is the appropriate funding level and what are we hardening against — is one we need to have," says Prendergast.
Hopefully it won't take another Sandy-sized storm to turn talk into action.