WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Billions of dollars are needed to strengthen and repair rail and other transportation networks in the U.S. Northeast in the aftermath of savage Superstorm Sandy, lawmakers and transportation officials said on Thursday.
"Estimates of the damage have reached more than $7 billion. Across the region, train tunnels, stations, and rail yards were flooded, rail tracks were damaged and critical equipment was ruined," Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said at a Senate subcommittee hearing on storm damage.
Hundreds of millions of gallon of salt water flooded the city's subway system, which is more than one hundred years old, Joseph Lhota, chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the panel.
"Our preliminary estimates total nearly $5 billion in damages and this figure could possibly rise," Lhota said.
It also represents just the amount that is need to get the subway back to where it was before the storm, Lhota said, arguing it was "critical" to make additional investments to protect the system from future storms.
"This is a national issue" because the New York area accounts for about 11 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and grinds to a halt without the MTA, Lhota said.
"We're going to need help from the federal government to rebuild the MTA," Lhota said.
Amtrak President John Boardman told the panel the passenger rail service was requesting $336 million in emergency federal funding, including $60 million for estimated operating losses and $276 million for projects to prevent flooding and build new rail tunnels into New York to expand capacity.
"We've always known that the city needs more rail capacity, and now it should be clear that our rail transportation system as a whole needs more resilience. That means a better ability to resist damage, recover from an event, and return the system to service," Boardman said.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates three of the United State's busiest airports as well a regional rail system and a number of passenger car bridges and tunnels, is still calculating its recovery costs.
"But clearly our needs are enormous. We are facing hundreds of millions of dollars in immediate repair costs and billions more in mitigation and resiliency measures," Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye told the panel.
New Jersey's transit agency estimates that Sandy caused nearly $400 million in damage to its networks.
"That breaks down roughly into a little more than $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 costs of emergency supplemental bus and ferry service and lost revenue," NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein said.
Another $800 million is needed "to mitigate and harden the transit system to make it more resilient to future storms," Weinstein said.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Vicki Allen)