Northeast airports, transit systems slowly start moving again after Hurricane Sandy

Curtis Tate,Maria Recio

Hurricane Sandy brought every mode of transportation to a halt in the most populous region of the country this week, and getting people and goods moving normally again could take days, if not weeks, and add to costs that already are in the tens of billions of dollars.

The powerful storm idled buses and trains, closed bridges and tunnels and shut down airports from Washington to Boston. Floodwaters will have to recede from roads and airport runways. Inundated highway and subway tunnels will need to be pumped dry. Bridges will have to be inspected. Fallen trees and other debris will have to be cleared. Electricity will have to be restored to power commuter trains and subways.

The Northeast Corridor is home to the country’s busiest airspace, and 13,000 flights were canceled. The region is also more dependent on mass transit than any other in the country. Some systems resumed limited operations Tuesday, including Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston.

Many major roads and bridges reopened Tuesday after officials completed safety inspections. But the millions of commuters in New York who usually depend on subways and commuter trains will have to find some other way to get to work on Wednesday.

“Our transportation system has never faced a disaster as devastating as Hurricane Sandy, which has caused an unparalleled level of damage,” said Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Sandy’s massive storm surge and drenching rainfall flooded New York’s 108-year-old subway system, and transit officials said it could be days before the water is pumped out. Only at that point can they determine the extent of the damage and return the system to service, a process that could take weeks.

But experts say that New York transit officials planned for a catastrophic storm of Sandy’s scale, and they took what steps they could to minimize the damage, such as moving subway cars and buses away from flood-prone areas.

“If anyone can handle this, New Yorkers can,” said Bonnie Nelson, a veteran transit consultant and founding partner of Nelson Nygaard, a transportation planning and engineering firm in San Francisco.

Nelson said New York got a good dress rehearsal for Sandy last year when, amid rider complaints, the city shut down subway and bus service for two days in August when Hurricane Irene struck. While the storm’s impact on the city was minimal, shutting down a transit system with 8.5 million daily riders was disruptive.

“In a system that never sleeps, that’s a big deal,” she said. “You never know if it’s going to work unless you try it.”

Sandy flooded all seven subway tunnels under the East River, as well as three subway yards. Salty seawater can have a corrosive effect on aging wires, switches and other equipment, which will have to be inspected and tested. Nelson said some critical components that ensure safe operations may be ruined, and they’re not easy to replace.

“You can’t just go to your Sears catalog and order new ones,” she said.

Ahead of the storm, MTA moved thousands of buses and subway cars away from the tunnels and yards that flooded. While subway service may not resume immediately, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that partial bus service would restart Tuesday, with full service on Wednesday. Rides will be fare-free.

“The MTA was very good about shutting down the system and moving a lot of rolling stock away to safe areas,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation expert and senior fellow and at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But restoring full service will take a while, Puentes said, and could be costly.

The New York’s subway and commuter rail systems depend on the electrical grid, and power companies are struggling to restore service to the 750,000 New Yorkers who lost it. Some key commuter routes on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North were damaged by flooding, too.

“The subway and commuter system will be phased in, but I think we still don’t know yet which parts are in the best shape and how long that’ll take,” Puentes said.

Other commuter rail systems, including New Jersey Transit, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and Maryland’s MARC, operate over portions of Amtrak’s electrified Northeast Corridor, and their operations will resume when Amtrak completes inspections, repairs and removal of debris.

Amtrak said in a statement on its website that a decision on a limited restoration of service north and south of New York would be made late Tuesday.

The New Jersey Turnpike reopened Tuesday morning, and most of New York’s major bridges were reopened by the afternoon. The Lincoln Tunnel was the only underground crossing open into Manhattan Tuesday afternoon, with others closed because of flooding.

Northeast airports were largely empty Tuesday. Airlines planned to resume limited flights Wednesday at New York’s three main airports: John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International. Airlines waived change fees for travelers affected by the storm.

Reagan National, which serves the nation’s capital, usually has more than 850 flights a day and Dulles International, also nearby suburban Virginia, has nearly 1,000 flights daily. But fewer than 15 flights left Reagan on Monday and less than 10 departed Dulles, said Kimberly Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Airlines were starting a few flights on Tuesday with a full schedule restarting on Wednesday.

USAirways canceled more than 1,600 flights both Monday and Tuesday at major terminals on the Eastern seaboard, such as Boston and Philadelphia. The early warning of the hurricane made it easier for the carrier to reposition the aircraft in Charlotte, Phoenix and Pittsburgh for safety.

“There was advance warning for this storm,” Gibbs said. “The traveling public heeded that advice and did not come to the airport. People paid attention and did not attempt to ride out the storm.”

Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.

By Curtis Tate and Maria Recio
McClatchy Newspapers