NYC faces crisis over tunnel repairs

Superstorm Sandy has not finished disrupting life in this city, even though it blew out to sea two years ago. Its storm surge — along with a high tide made higher because of a full moon and a general rise in sea levels indisputably due to global warming — flooded four Amtrak tunnels.

Two of the flooded tunnels run from Penn Station on Manhattan’s West Side to Queens, under the East River, and two run from Penn Station under the Hudson River to New Jersey.

About 400,000 riders each weekday — almost all workers — use the tunnels under the Hudson, according to Amtrak. The tunnels to Queens are used by the Long Island Rail Road, the nation’s busiest commuter line, and by New Jersey Transit to park some of its trains.

While the flood water was pumped out of the tunnels within days, the chlorides and sulfates in the salt water not only corroded and degraded the electrical components in the tunnels — signals, fans for ventilation, lights and so on — but also severely affected the concrete tubes lining the tunnels and the rail beds the trains run on.

Early this summer some concrete fell down from the tunnel ceiling onto tracks in the Hudson tubes, causing extensive delays and emergency repairs.

The HNTB consulting firm on Oct. 2 released a report commissioned by Amtrak detailing all the damage Sandy did to the tunnels’ structure and urging that this damage be repaired as fast as possible. Engineers estimate that Amtrak has only 7 to 15 years before the tubes decay so much that they are unusable.

The report estimates that working around the clock for a full year on each tunnel should allow Amtrak and its contractors to fix them. (The report is available from ­­­tunnels.)

The total direct cost, according to HNTB’s estimate, will be $675 million.

But the overall cost, which is causing all kinds of stress, is much higher because making these repairs means taking the tunnels, built over 100 years ago, out of service.

Only two of the four East Side tunnels were damaged. This leaves enough redundancy that closing one tunnel at a time will cause a 25 percent reduction in capacity, which is considered ­surmountable.

But the tunnels under the Hudson are configured differently. One is used for inbound traffic and the other for outbound. This means that taking one tube out of service would cause a 75 percent reduction in capacity, according to Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Investment Development.

Hundreds of thousands of people would have grave difficulty getting to work. The Northeast would suffer a major economic catastrophe.

The need to add a third tube under the Hudson has been clear for a hundred years. Four years ago, shortly after he took office, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie canceled a project designed to produce a third tunnel under the Hudson by 2018. Although New Jersey Transit had arranged to receive $3 billion from the federal government, and construction was already underway, Christie claimed that New Jersey didn’t have enough money to pay its share.

Christie is slick enough that he doesn’t deny global warming and the climate changes it produces, but is responsive to his ruling-class base in that he avoids increasing taxes or selling bonds to protect New Jersey against the effects of global warming. Christie is not alone in his policy of acknowledging climate change but not doing anything to combat it.

Christie and his allies and supporters claim they want to increase employment, but the only method they are willing to consider is cutting corporate taxes. Investment in infrastructure and protecting jobs doesn’t fit their scheme.

The federal government spends billions of dollars a week on warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and many other countries in the Middle East. But it won’t put up even one-third the cost of a major infrastructure project designed to promote long-term employment growth, as well as supplying a few thousand construction jobs.

The HNTB report is filled with descriptions of what salt water does to concrete structures like tunnels and how to repair them after they’ve been inundated. But what it doesn’t have, and the news articles on the repair project also don’t raise, is any mention of how to keep these inundations from happening again. And they will happen, given the increased sea levels due to global ­warming.

It was just a temporary, ad hoc, plywood dam backed up by sandbags, put up in Central Harlem by Metropolitan Transit Authority carpenters, that kept the New York City subway system from flooding so completely during Sandy that it would have been months, rather than days, before it started running again. The MTA has replaced its plywood with more durable plastic, and put higher lips around station entrances and ventilation tubes. (New York Times, Oct. 23, 2013)

But, just like Amtrak, the MTA has not taken any major steps to block the calamitous flooding that will come, sooner or later.

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