By Jennifer Berkley Geller
Transit Authority President Lawrence Reuter said his agency now believes it can have both the A and the C lines running normally in six to nine months – not the three to five years estimated Monday after a blaze damaged a subway signaling room serving both lines in Lower Manhattan Sunday.Borough officials and subway riders have expressed consternation and frustration over the breakdown. For the foreseeable future, Queens straphangers must contend with service on the A train, which is the only subway line to the Rockaways, running at 60 percent of normal levels at best and the C line out of business altogether. The Transit Authority said the A line disruption affects both the Rockaway branch, used by passengers en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport as well as commuters to the Rockaways, and the Lefferts Boulevard branch running to Ozone Park. The AirTrain from Kennedy Airport connects with the A line at Howard Beach.The fire, apparently set by a homeless person in the Chambers Street station, destroyed a critical underground signal and switching station room and brought nightmarish delays for the 470,000 daily riders of the A train.Transit workers speaking to subway operators by radio now must manually guide A trains over a 1,300-foot stretch of tracks. The Transit Authority said the C line was effectively out of business for six to nine months.”We have located some parts, called relays, of the type destroyed, which will make our jobs a bit easier,” Reuter said at a news conference Tuesday evening at Transit Authority headquarters in Brooklyn.Queens Borough President Helen Marshall called for ferry service from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan to help people of the Rockaway Peninsula.”Today our residents in the Rockaways are almost completely stranded,” Marshall said in her State of the Borough address Tuesday.City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said, “I believe we're at the tip of the iceberg with this problem.” Addabbo also is an advocate for ferry service for Rockaways residents.Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Far Rockaway) said he rode the A train Tuesday to see what it was like. “It was absolutely horrible. It was the trip to hell getting home. It was like New York back in the '70s.”Elected officials and riders were incredulous that such extensive damage could be caused by a fire set by a vagrant in the Chambers Street station and expressed alarm at the implications of the system's vulnerability to terrorists.Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee, said he would soon convene a public hearing into subway security and circumstances leading up to the Chambers Street station fire.”The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not adequately prioritizing safety,” Liu continued. “Sunday's fire caused extensive damage and riders are the ones suffering. This accident, caused by one individual simply seeking to stay warm, underscores how vulnerable our subway system is.”The Transit Authority has been forced to drastically cut the number of A trains at rush hour from 52 to 16, resulting in an overcrowded, chaotic commute.At the Howard Beach station of the A train Tuesday evening, Daria Waszak said the trip took her half an hour longer. There were 20-minute delays at Chambers Street and she had to take the A train uptown to transfer to the No. 7,”I'm going to make some adjustments so as to avoid Chambers Street all together,” Waszak said.A woman who did not give her name said “it was horrible.” As for the new six- to nine-month schedule, Reuter said, “we could do it faster, but that would mean shutting down the system, We will be working at night on bringing back the system,””Our plan is to restore the A train first since nearly a half million people depend on that line,” Reuter said. “Then comes the C line.” Its ridership is 110,000 daily.Reuter said the TA would “phase in more and more A trains as we work on restoring the system.” He said he hoped to have 60 percent of the system operating by Feb. 2 and 80 percent within three months.He said an entire overhaul of the switching, relay and signaling systems for both lines would have to be carried out at an estimated cost of $60 million but would come after restoration of the lines.Reuter had originally estimated Monday that bringing back the damaged lines could take three to five years costing millions of dollars, setting off a firestorm of outrage and criticism.Some of the A train's route, at 32 miles the longest subway line in New York City from Washington Heights to the Rockaways and Lefferts Boulevard, is through parts of Queens where beleaguered transit riders had just finished more than a week of scrambling for alternate transportation because of a strike by Green Line Bus employees.Reuter said the fire, apparently started in a grocery shopping cart filled with wood and refuse, spread to the room housing thousands of wires to switches and signals. Much of the equipment destroyed was nearly 70 years old and replacement parts would have to be custom made.The C line runs from Washington Heights in Manhattan to Euclid Avenue in Brooklyn and carries 110,000 riders daily.Mayor Michael Bloomberg said keeping the subway secure was “a constant challenge because it's open 24 hours a day seven days a week.”Reporter Peter A. Sutters Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Berkley Geller by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.