Officials Warn Northeast Transit Corridor Needs Significant Upgrades

More than a month after Hurricane Sandy, the Northeast transit corridor is still in need of massive repairs and transit officials are urging federal authorities to provide enough funding to not just restore the system but to upgrade its safeguards and better prepare against future storms.
by , | December 6, 2012

More than a month after Hurricane Sandy, the Northeast transit corridor is still in need of massive repairs and transit officials are urging federal authorities to provide enough funding to not just restore the system but to upgrade its safeguards and better prepare against future storms.

“Mitigation is critical – we can’t just rebuild what is there not because it is not only physically impossible but because, frankly, it would be foolish to do so in my opinion,” James Weinstein, executive director of NJ TRANSIT Corp., told a Senate subcommittee Thursday. “We need to build a system that’s going to serve us well into the future, not just something that’s going to get us back to where we were yesterday.”

Of the roughly $40 billion in damages caused when Sandy swept up the Northeast corridor in late October, $5 billion alone is needed for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority repairs, according to the authority’s director. Another $400 million is needed to repair New Jersey’s transit system, Weinstein said.

 “When we built this subway 100 years ago, they couldn’t even imagine this kind of flooding,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “New York has never suffered on this level because of a natural disaster. Ever.”

But with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s assessment that 2012 has been a record year for extreme weather, experts say storms like Hurricane Sandy could happen again. The administration also announced on Thursday in a separate event that 2012 was on pace to be the costliest year for natural disasters.

“Preparing for climate change is going to be expensive,” Brian Holland, climate program director of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, said during a conference call Thursday afternoon. “[We have to reinvest] again in infrastructure in a way that is going to be better prepared for extreme weather.”

On Capitol Hill, Thursday morning’s discussion at the Senate Commece, Science and Transporation  Surface Transportation Subcommittee centered on a rebuilding process with an eye toward the future.

Transit officials offered up several items they said would help combat against future storms. One is a $13.5 billion Amtrak project called Amtrak Gateway that would build a high speed rail running underneath the Hudson River, connecting Newark and New York City. The proposal would increase Amtrak’s capacity between New York and New Jersey and supporters say it would provide better protection against flooding and provide alternate transportation when the next flood hits.

“Enough is enough,” Joseph Boardman, president of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) said, adding that Amtrak is asking for $336 million in federal funding for the project. “We need that investment now, not later.”

Joseph Lhota, chairman and CEO of the MTA, said transit and infrastructure experts from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut should coordinate as one team to develop a regional plan for future storms.

“When this happens again, we [will] have a way for all our economies to come together,” he said.

But funding a restoration and funding for an upgrade are two different things, noted Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. He said that although money for safeguards like subways station seals at vulnerable points should be part of the rebuilding effort, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) “is bound by the law to replace items to the previous condition.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said, adding that the Federal Transit Administration’s emergency relief account should be made available to localities and states for such upgrades in addition to FEMA funds for restoration.

FEMA so far has doled out more than $1 billion in aid to the affected jurisdictions, according to its director, Craig Fugate. At a House committee earlier this week, Fugate defended the process by which it manages reimbursements.

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