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Infrastructure challenges seen in PATH's slow return to service after Sandy

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Despite ongoing capital investment in infrastructure improvements for the Port Authority Trans Hudson service, the rail system's limited operations more than a week after Hurricane Sandy has shed a light on its core vulnerabilities to extreme weather, a transportation industry expert said.

"There's so much of the PATH service either at or below the level of the surrounding waters that, of all of the transit systems in New Jersey, PATH is among the most vulnerable," said Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University and former director of NJ Transit's Waterfront Transportation Office. "Climate experts have been warning us about this kind of thing for a very long time. I don't know about any engineering plans or anything being done in terms of capital investment to harden facilities in New Jersey, but there has been a lot of thinking about it, and this mess is definitely going to hasten efforts to do it."

According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the PATH system suffered widespread flooding and power outages in tunnels and multiple stations from the hurricane, leaving service suspended between Newark Penn Station and Journal Square and shut down at the Hoboken, Exchange Place and World Trade Center stations as of today. While NJ Transit began restoring its rail and light rail service on Oct. 31, the first PATH trains to run after the storm departed from Jersey City and Manhattan at 5 a.m. on Nov. 6, and service still remains limited to those two cities.

To avoid delays in full service restoration after future disasters, Robins said the Port Authority will need to invest in building seawalls several feet high to block the Passaic and Hudson Rivers from flooding the PATH corridor. But he noted constructing even the most simplistic river barriers is "not easy to do and can be very, very costly."

Aside from actual dollars, the price tag would include "a scrambled capital investment program that makes things more difficult for the PATH to meet its needs," Robins said.

"All of the different vulnerabilities uncovered by Hurricane Sandy divert resources to newfound threats here and there, instead of long-term projects," Robins said. "The whole controversy surrounding the PATH and the toll increase was driven by the Port Authority having to spend huge amounts of money to rebuild the station at the World Trade Center after 9/11. Every time you have a disaster, it's a setback for the whole system, so you just don't ever get away from these catastrophes."

With New Jersey residents increasingly flocking to cities like Hoboken and Harrison that have immediate access to the PATH, Robins said, "The role the system has in the region will become ever more important — and ever more important to maintain."

"The PATH represents a critical linkage that will always need to be protected, because it's such a central part of New Jersey's future as North Jersey grows its urban densification," Robins said. "PATH has been an undervalued yet very valuable part of New Jersey's transit system for decades, so something will need to be done to make it less susceptible to these kinds of issues."

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