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MTA Touts Tunnel Fixes But Sandy Subway and Rail Repairs Still Have Long Way to Go

MTA workers in the F Line’s East River Tunnel on March 21, 2021.
MTA workers in the F Line’s East River Tunnel on March 21, 2021.
Trent Reeves/MTA Construction & Development

When repairs to the F line’s East River tunnel wrapped in late March, the MTA hailed the earlier-than-expected completion of work inside the last of the eight subway tubes damaged by Hurricane Sandy back in 2012.

But nearly nine years after the superstorm, dozens of other projects designed to strengthen the transit system against future catastrophic weather events remain unfinished — with the pandemic slowing some for months at a time, an examination by THE CITY found.

From erecting miles of protective walls around subway yards in Coney Island and Upper Manhattan, to finishing repairs along the Rockaway Line, to replacing a waterfront Staten Island Railway facility that flooded during the storm, the MTA’s nearly $8 billion federally funded Sandy repair program is a slow-moving work in progress, agency records show.

“We are not fully protected — Sandy was not a once-in-100-years storm and we could potentially get hit by another major storm at any time,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “The more protected we are, the better.”

‘Very Vulnerable Areas’

The October 2012 storm slammed the transit system, inundating stations, train yards and under-river subway and vehicular tunnels with millions of gallons of corrosive salt water that swamped critical equipment.

While sections of the subway reopened soon after Sandy, the billions of dollars of damage led the MTA to embark on a years-long effort to turn temporary repairs into permanent fixes in flood-prone sections of the 117-year-old network.

“Much of the transit system is in very vulnerable areas,” said Cortney Worrall, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, which advocates for resiliency planning along the region’s coastlines. “It was built at a time when we did not understand climate change was going to be such a threat.”

The site of an MTA flood mitigation project, on the LIRR tracks in Long Island City, Queens, April 5, 2021.
The site of an MTA flood mitigation project, on the LIRR tracks in Long Island City, Queens, April 5, 2021.
Yana Paskova/THE CITY

MTA spokesperson Andrei Berman said the work inside the F line’s East River tunnel — which included replacing 4,365 feet of track, installing new signal equipment and power and communication cables — was finished “in record time” as part of a push to “do major projects faster and cheaper than before.” Major work on the tunnel began in September 2020.

Taking advantage of low ridership and the overnight suspension of passenger service, the tunnel renovation was completed on nights and weekends while riders were rerouted on other lines.

The approach employed lessons learned during the overnight repairs to the L line’s East River tube, which was flooded with 1.5 million gallons of saltwater during Sandy. In 2019, Gov. Cuomo scrapped plans to close the tunnel for more than one year of repairs and ordered that fixes be made using methods that included strapping replacement cables to walls instead of encasing them.

“In terms of the parts of the system that customers use, our resiliency work is almost complete,” Berman said. “The system has never been better equipped for resisting storms in the future.”

Track Work Ahead

At the sprawling Coney Island Yard, MTA records show long-term flood protection measures were delayed by three months because contractors’ work was “logistically more difficult” while more train cars were stored in the yard due to the pandemic.

The project, which includes installing new drainage structures, miles of storm-surge protection and elevating power and signal cables, is about 50% complete, according to MTA records.

Work at the yard, which took on 27 million gallons of saltwater and debris during Sandy, is now supposed to be done by September of next year.

At the 207 Street Yard in Upper Manhattan, which suffered extensive damage during the storm, records indicate the MTA has completed 52% of the work, which includes building perimeter walls and gates, replacing damaged track and erecting buildings to house signal equipment. The work there is supposed to be substantially completed by November 2023.

A section of a steel seawall that was installed after Hurricane Sandy to prevent future flooding at the Broad Channel station.
A section of a steel seawall that was installed after Hurricane Sandy to prevent future flooding at the Broad Channel station.
Jose Martinez/ THE CITY

Along the Rockaway Line, which had to be rebuilt and was out of service for more than six months after Sandy, work to wrap up remaining repairs has not even started, according to MTA records, because of delays to funding approvals.

The job will include structural repairs on the North Channel bridge over Jamaica Bay and replacement of cable and signal equipment. A contract is slated to be awarded by June. Completion of design for washout protection along the Rockaway Line was also pushed back from last December until June, records show.

‘It Never Ends’

John Carter, 67, who was catching a shuttle train at the Rockaway Park-Beach 116 Street station on Tuesday morning, recalled the havoc wreaked by Sandy.

“There are parts out here that were hit very hard, completely inundated, so this is very important work,” he said. “But it sometimes feels like it never ends.”

“It’s always something with the A train and the shuttle,” said Rose Bartok, who was transferring to the A train at Broad Channel, where the MTA built a steel seawall next to the water in 2013.

And on the Staten Island Railway, work to replace the Clifton Repair Shop is 17 months behind schedule. The shop, which is about 250 feet from the shoreline, flooded during Sandy. MTA records show the completion date has slipped to December, in part because of delivery delays caused by the pandemic.

Then there are Amtrak’s East River tunnels, which also carry Long Island Rail Road trains and were damaged during Sandy. The design for the rehabilitation of the four tubes is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“A lot of the transit system has been protected but we still have some way to go,” Daglian said. “It would be good to be able to get back on track and finish the Sandy projects that are still much needed.”

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