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It may take years and billions of dollars to bring New York's transit system back to full strength. That's the sobering message from top transportation officials speaking today at a hearing on Capitol Hill. The price tag to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure in New York is estimated at $7.5 billion. NPR's Joel Rose got a look at the damage in one subway station that will have to be almost completely rebuilt.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Most subway stations in New York have reopened by now. But South Ferry, the southern tip of Manhattan, is still closed. And when you get inside, it's easy to see why.

JOSEPH LEADER: This is a sheetrock ceiling.

ROSE: Joseph Leader is the chief maintenance officer for the New York subway system. Leader guides several reporters through ankle-deep water in a dimly lit passageway to a platform that's still coated with dirt and debris more than a month after the storm.

LEADER: You basically have a sheetrock ceiling. This all came down.

ROSE: MTA officials tried to barricade the entrance, which is just yards from the New York Harbor, but the barricades didn't hold. On the night of the storm, seawater rushed in and submerged the platform from the tracks all the way up to the ceiling, some 25 feet overhead.

LEADER: The tile, the panels and everything, that stuff I could say can be cleaned. Everything else I think needs to be completely gutted out and replaced.

ROSE: That includes all of the wiring and all of the duct work. Leader says the track itself can be saved. But anything that runs on electricity can't. That includes a whole room full of switches, relays and other specialized electronic gear that was installed just four years ago.

LEADER: You'd see in here, there were relays that plug in basically. And you could see they have been pulled out because they were destroyed. You can see how the saltwater has corroded all the contacts, these back contacts. You could try and clean this, but you would never get it 100 percent where reliability would be good. So the only way to do it is really just to rip this out and just to start from scratch.

ROSE: That may be one reason subway officials say this station alone could cost $600 million to fix. Leader's boss, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota, was in Washington today testifying before a Senate subcommittee about the extent of the damage.

JOE LHOTA: We're nowhere near normal operations. It's important to remember that hundreds of millions of gallons of saltwater completely inundated our system that's over 100 years old. We will be feeling the residual effect of this storm for months, if not years to come.

ROSE: Lhota estimates it will cost $5 billion to get the subway system back to where it was before Sandy. But New York Senator Charles Schumer says that should be only part of the goal.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: You can't replace exactly what has been damaged. But even if you could, you wouldn't want to. You want to make sure that the next storm that occurs, that we're much more flood proof.

ROSE: Transportation officials provided few specifics on what that might mean, except that it will require lots of additional federal money. That may be hard to come by as Congress and the White House wrestle over deficit reduction plans. For now, MTA's Joe Leader says riders who want to catch the subway at South Ferry will have to walk half a mile to the next stop.

LEADER: For the most part, New York has been resilient in that sense of understanding that, you know, we took a big hit. And, you know, it's going to be like this for a little while.

ROSE: Leader says it may be six months to a year before the South Ferry station is open to riders. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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