LI lawmakers: Amtrak needs to fast-track repairs to East River tunnels

Alfonso A. Castillo for Newsday

January 04, 2021

Originally published in Newsday on January 04, 2021.

A group of Long Island lawmakers has criticized Amtrak for "squandering a critical opportunity" to fast-track the long-delayed repairs of Superstorm Sandy damage inside the East River Tunnels linking the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station.

A letter authored by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and signed by the Nassau and Suffolk county executives as well as six other Democratic state senators, urged the top two officials at Amtrak, which owns and operates Penn Station and the adjoining tunnels, to consider an alternative approach to repairing the two underground tubes.

Long Island’s five members of Congress, in a separate letter sent Monday, also backed the alternative repair plan. In that letter, written by Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), the lawmakers said the method could resolve the tunnels’ issues "faster and cheaper."

The alternative — used to fix a Sandy-damaged subway tunnel in Brooklyn — could allow the 111-year-old East River tunnels to remain in service during most of the repair work, could shave years off the project’s timeline, and minimize impact to customers on the LIRR, the tubes' primary user, lawmakers said in the letter authored by Kaminsky and dated Jan. 4.

"Hundreds of millions of gallons of water inundated the tunnels during Superstorm Sandy and left them in a precarious state of disrepair," said the letter to Amtrak chairman Anthony Coscia and chief executive officer William Flynn. "Astoundingly, however, as we enter 2021 there is no operational plan to fix the tunnels and it clearly does not seem to be a priority for Amtrak."

Once projected to commence in 2019, Amtrak has suggested repairs to the tunnels may not begin until 2025. Because the work would necessitate taking each of the two damaged tunnels out of service for two years, Amtrak officials have said they prefer to wait until the completion of the MTA’s East Side Access project, which would give the LIRR a second Manhattan terminal. Amtrak’s most recent estimate put the cost of their project at $1 billion.

But some transportation experts have asked Amtrak to consider the alternative approach, successfully used by the MTA in repairing the subway tunnel in Brooklyn. It would greatly reduce the cost, timeline and impact of the repairs on customers, according to experts. The key difference between the two approaches — both of which entail repairing concrete "bench walls" along the sides of the tunnels — is that in the faster, cheaper alternative version, electrical cables are hung up on metal racks along the walls, rather than being encased inside the concrete structures.

"Considering the time and money that could be saved, and the convenience that could be gained, by getting to work on the tunnels immediately — especially now that ridership is low and any repairs would create less disruption — we think this question should take on the highest degree of urgency for Amtrak," the state and county lawmakers wrote.

Amtrak officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but have previously pointed out several key differences between their tunnels and those in the MTA’s subway project, including the fact that their electrical cables carry much higher voltage and must be encased in concrete, and that the bench walls need not only to be repaired, but reconstructed at a different height.