Northeast transit officials detail Hurricane Sandy impact

Officials from Amtrak and other northeast U.S. public transportation agencies briefed a Senate committee Thursday on the damage that was sustained by transit systems last month during Hurricane Sandy. 

"When we look at what we really lost in terms of revenue, we're at about $30 million just in terms of the few days that we were out of business. And then direct cost to get things fixed was another $20 million," Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security. 

Amtrak shut down routes in the northeast in anticipation of Sandy, as did intra-city mass transit systems in cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. 

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Boardman told members of the Senate's transportation panel that they were "going to hear the smallest numbers today from Amtrak in terms of our actual cost to deliver this, around $60 million of impact right this minute."

New York City subway chief Joe Lhota agreed damage on his transit system was a lot worse than Amtrak's.

"Just over a month ago, Hurricane Sandy brought our system to its knees," Lhota, who is chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, told lawmakers.

"We experienced a level of destruction that is completely unprecedented in our 108-year history," he continued. "Left in the storm's wake were eight flooded subway tunnels, two vehicular tunnels, 12 subway stations with major damage, some of them absolutely destroyed. We lost a entire bridge and a rail line serving the Rockaways and Queens, 15 miles of damaged or destroyed signaling and we had railyards and maintenance shops under water and damaged."

Lhota said Sandy was only the second time in the entire New York subway system has been shut down in its 108-year history.

That was not enough to prevent widespread damage from the massive storm however, Lhota told the committee Thursday.

"As it turned out, even our preparations would not -- actually could not have protected our entire system from the full force of Sandy's wrath," Lhota said. "At the height of the storm surge, the governor and I met at the Hugh L. Carey Brooklyn Battery tunnel in lower Manhattan, what we saw there was unbelievable. We watched more than 86 million gallons of sea water flood and rush in to the two tubes of that tunnel alone."

Lhota told the Senate committee that the MTA had to improvise for three days, but "most service was restored within a week and today most of our transit system is up and running.

"But let me be clear, we have to the restored service to the full capacity," he added quickly, however. "We're nowhere near normal operations -- that won't be for quite some time."

Transit officials from New Jersey, which was arguably hardest hit by the hurricane, said they were still trying to restore their networks to full strength.

"All together, we estimate the cost of curing Sandy's damage at nearly $400 million," New Jersey Transit Executive Director James Weinstein said. "That breaks down roughly to $100 million for rail equipment, including rolling stock, and some $300 million to fix and replace track, wires, signaling, electrical substations and equipment, as well as to cover the cost of emergency supplemental bus and ferry service that we provided, and lost revenue." 

Weinstein said his agency's employees have worked hard to restore service as quickly as possible.

"Rail workers fixed washouts, restrung catenary lines, removed trees, utility poles, and even boats from rights-of-way, and did so in record time," he said. "Thanks to their dedication, and that of the 11,000 employees of our agency, I'm proud to report that the New Jersey Transit's 12 rail lines are again running at more than 90 percent full service, and that we are back to full pre-hurricane service levels on our bus, light rail, and Access Link paratransit modes."

Lautenberg said the transportation officials' testimony was important to future debates in Congress about infrastructure funding.

"Sandy taught us something, a harsh lesson about the inability of our aging infrastructure to handle such severe weather events," he said.

"There is no indication that this couldn't be replicated in the future," Lautenberg continued. "The magnitude, the devastation, winds, the whole thing were impossible to guess in advance of the occurrence. And we now are unfortunately wiser as a result."