Jan
04

From Christie, an odd defense of NJ Transit execs

By

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is flying high these days. After taking a hard stand against his GOP colleagues in the House on Sandy relief, his star has risen among both Republicans and Democrats in the northeast. While his national future is cloudy — it’s hard seeing too many GOP establishment figures lining up behind him right now — he has bipartisan support in his own state and in New York as well. Still, his defense of New Jersey Transit’s actions during Superstorm Sandy leave much to be desired.

While speaking to reporters earlier this week about his extreme disappointment in Congress, Christie again responded to criticism over New Jersey Transit’s handling of its rolling stock. Saying that NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein’s decisions were “not a hanging offense,” Christie issued a rigorous defense of the transit agency. A reporter and Christie engaged in the following exchange (via Transportation Nation):

Reporter: In light of the report last week that NJ Transit had been warned months ahead of time that rail yards in Kearny would likely flood in the event of a storm like Sandy, do you still support the leadership?

Christie: “I absolutely support the leadership — and I don’t believe that that’s what the report said. I mean, I think you’ve gilded that report up pretty well in the lead up to your question. I don’t think that’s what the report said. I think these guys made the best judgement they could under the circumstances. And all of you are geniuses after. Once you see that the Kearny yards flooded, you could say ‘well, geez, they should have moved the trains.’ Well, you know, if they knew for sure it was going to flood, believe me, executive director Jim Weinstein would have moved the trains. This is a guy with decades of experience in government, with extraordinary competence, who made the best decision he could make at the time. Sometimes, people make wrong decisions. It happens. It’s not a hanging offense.”

“If they knew for sure it was going to flood, we would have moved the trains” is a great statement in modern times. We already know what the report said because we had a chance to read it last week, and we know that Weinstein himself admitted that he hadn’t studied it much prior to the storm.

What strikes me about Christie’s language, though, is the definitiveness of it. Last summer, Christie yelled at surfers to get off the beach before Hurricane Irene when we didn’t know how Irene would hit the area or behave. We didn’t know what would or wouldn’t flood, but citizens were expected to act as though the worst might happen. Here, with Sandy — a stronger storm aiming directly at New Jersey — Christie is excusing NJ Transit’s response because they didn’t know Kearny would flood. Of course, they didn’t know; that’s part of the unknown of a weather event. But being safe rather than sorry is why New York had its transit system up and running relatively quickly.

New Jersey failed, and, as an added insult, some Metro-North trains suffered damage because of it. They were warned; they ignored the warnings; and Weinstein should be replaced. I think it’s that simple.



Categories : New Jersey Transit

58 Responses to “From Christie, an odd defense of NJ Transit execs”

  1. BBnet3000 says:

    Totally agree with your assessment.

    “Well, you know, if they knew for sure it was going to flood, believe me, executive director Jim Weinstein would have moved the trains.”

    After all this, Christie has suddenly forgot everything he ever knew about disaster preparedness. Honestly though, I suspect hes just trying to defend underlings.

    • Bolwerk says:

      “Knew for sure” is a conveniently impossible standard. Let’s just say, for sake of argument, it’s the day before Sandy and there is a 1% chance of a flood; that’s enough to make it smart to pay people overtime move the equipment. Why? The cost of the equipment replacement is at least two orders of magnitude greater than the cost of paying NJT employees to move it.

      • Eric F says:

        Didn’t the equipment get the Kearny yard because it was moved there at NJT expense?

        • Bolwerk says:

          Uh. I guess?

          • Eric F says:

            So — stay with me here — it was moved by NJT to ride out the hurricane and they weren’t looking to not move it in order to save a few bucks. Rather, they moved an entire statewide transit system’s rolling stock offline per the plan.

            • Bolwerk says:

              I’m rather generously assuming they were just discovering the probable magnitude of the flood in the days before Sandy, and would have had to make a last-minute move away from their contingency plan. I was being generous.

              Of course, you may be right that they just did whatever they always planned to do like a hard of drunk buffalo, but that would make them look even worse.

  2. Someone says:

    Those people should have more common sense. It’s illogical to store trains at a low-lying rail yard during a hurricane just because it’s never been flooded before.

    • AG says:

      someone – if something never happened before how could it be “common sense”???

      • Bolwerk says:

        Concepts like “record storm surge” call for applying a little sense (which I’m not always sure is common).

      • Nathanael says:

        Common sense involves reading elevation maps?

        • AG says:

          Nathanael – when something is unprecendented it can’t be common sense… that would be called having foresight. NOW it would become common sense since this destruction happened.

          • Nathanael says:

            That’s a really really low standard for common sense. Some sorts of foresight are cheap. Maybe I’ve never fallen off a cliff before, but I have enough common sense not to walk off the edge of one.

  3. Kevin says:

    I hear a lot of critisicm, but not a lot of suggestions (other than vague “move the trains to higher ground”, or “he should be replaced”). Where exactly would these trains go? And who exactly would replace Weinstein.

    Regarding the report: How big was it? How much of it was concerned with which areas of the system would flood? How many reports do these guys get? Who commissioned this report?

    • I did a full post on the report last week. You can read the document and NJ Transit’s reaction to it there. It spoke extensively of the areas of the system vulnerable to flooding.

      I don’t really get your other questions. If you have an area vulnerable to flooding, figure out somewhere else to store the vital equipment necessary for operations. That’s Disaster Preparedness 101, and NJ Transit failed it.

      As to Weinstein’s replacement, I’m sure it wouldn’t too hard to find a qualified replacement. When an agency screws up as badly as NJ Transit did, someone has to take responsibility.

      • Nathanael says:

        Let’s be clear about this: PATH might have an excuse for not finding a safe place to store its trains — most of the system is flood-prone, and what’s left is right out in the open in the path of the high winds at the mouths of the Hackensack and Passaic.

        Yet *PATH* managed to get through Hurricane Sandy without rolling stock damage.

        NJ Transit has far, far more places than PATH does where it could store rolling stock safely far from hurricane risks. Yet NJ Transit chose not to do that.

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:

      ” Where exactly would these trains go?”

      Away from the water.

      • Nathanael says:

        Yeah. There’s a problem in that a bunch of the areas away from the water have a lot of trees overhanging the rail lines, but the tree damage would have been less than the water damage. In any case the trees should have been cut back away from the rail lines. Then the equipment could have been stored at the high, far-from-water ends of the various lines.

  4. Eric F says:

    The analogy is flawed:

    “Christie yelled at surfers to get off the beach before Hurricane Irene when we didn’t know how Irene would hit the area or behave.”

    Christie was “yelling” (because that’s how republicans communicate) to follow a plan. NJT had a plan and followed it. NJT will now revise its plan.

    On a daily basis you make hundreds of tacit assumptions about how the world works based on past experience. There is nothing unusual or incompetent about acting in this way. Storing stuff in a hurricane in the exact place where they were dry and safe in the last hurricane is not inherently flawed no matter how much you might dislike Mr. Weinstein.

    • VLM says:

      You’ve been routinely very defensive of New Jersey Transit over the past few months when they clearly screwed up. Why?

      Storing stuff in a hurricane in the exact place where they were dry and safe in the last hurricane is not inherently flawed no matter how much you might dislike Mr. Weinstein.

      Also, that’s just flat-out wrong. Sorry, Eric. New Jersey Transit had a report given to them earlier this year warning that their yards were vulnerable to flooding. They received the report and barely looked at it. They also barely paid attention to the weather forecasts concerning Sandy. The MTA managed to save its yards and rolling stock by paying attention. New Jersey Transit didn’t. Someone should be held responsible. Who would you blame, besides no one?

      • Eric F says:

        “You’ve been routinely very defensive of New Jersey Transit over the past few months when they clearly screwed up. Why?”

        I’m not somehow uniformaly supportive of NJT. Look, here’s the thing. You guys (I generalize) have a bias in favor of government bureaucracies providing stuff. There’s arguments on all sides as to the advisability of that. It is hard to run a bureaucracy, I think especially a highy regulated one and extra especially a government one. They are hard to manage and hard to change. You have a politically controlled, unionized statutory monopoly. I bet firing a secretary at NJT takes 5 years. I think they probably did the best they can given the assets they had. I wish you guys were 10% as hard as the agencies that have been fighting the “war on poverty” or addressing illiteracy since 1965, albeit I understand that’s not the subject of this blog.

        The blogger here is making a more nuanced argument than perhaps he appreciates. NJT got a report with probably lots of recommendations and it should have made concrete changes to implement them. That involves composition of a new plan, a personnel and procurement policy to carry it out and funding for same. This is not moving a few pawns around on a chess board. How long would getting that done take? We’ll see, because they are presumably doing it now, and I bet the timeline is more than one hurricane season, but they’ll improvise.

        Put it another way, the LIRR was bashed about the head for its disability retirement scam, it must be 4 years ago now. That bureaucracy had 4 years to work on this and what has changed since then?

        • Bolwerk says:

          I hate to break the bad news, but you’re projecting. You want government bureaucracies to provide you roads, afterall. Most of the broad-spectrum bureaucratic problems you can find with the MTA or NJT, you can find with DOTs. Roads are, if anything, more expensive and less productive.

          • Eric F says:

            The road network is a pretty “dumb” system. The entire thing was back up and running pretty quick. If anything, the Sandy crisis shows the need for further capacity in the Manhattan area because you can switch lanes over to buses to get people in and out in crises like this.

            And, anyway, I’m not advocating the elimination of bureaucracies, I’m just letting you know that efficiency and nimbleness is not a hallmark of these things whether they are running roads or rails or handling our cancer treatments.

            • Bolwerk says:

              You’d need a lot of standby buses and a lot of extra road capacity, free of other users. That’s pretty expensive, when rail can do the job much more cheaply and efficiently.

              You’re also exaggerating the inefficiency of bureaucracy. Social security, medicare, and maybe medicaid are considered pretty well run. It’s the private healthcare bureaucracies that are expensive and ineffective. Transportation is more complicated, since lots of stakeholders don’t want efficient passenger transportation, but there is no inherent reason why a transportation bureaucracy can’t be run every bit as efficiently as a private company.

              Ever hear of Deutsche Bahn? Its organizational model (publicly owned private company) isn’t wildly different from Amtrak’s, yet it’s somehow efficient and perhaps even profitable.

              • Eric F says:

                NJ should at least have a two/three lane dedicated bus tunnel from west of the palisades into a new station or larger PA terminal, with some connection to an east side terminal. Such a facility would solve current needs and could replace a good chunk of displaced rail travel in an emergency. You wouldn’t assume that every rail line would be out simulatenously, but you’d have resiliency enough to replace a lot of what you need. Getting buses to NJ on an emergency baiss is much easier than getting almost anything else. Anybody with a CDL can drive one from wherever extras happen to be lying around.

                The tunnel, being dumb asphalt, would be useful to resupply Manhattan in a crisis.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  That would be absurdly expensive. If it came to the point where, in the midst of the apocalypse, we needed to use buses to get people out, the sensible thing would be to use the existing tunnels and keep other drivers out of them.

                  If we’re talking about the mundane, day-to-day usefulness of having a modern transportation system, some kind of rapid transit tunnel is the cheapest option. The Lincoln Tunnel apparently has a peak daily bus load of about ~850 buses carrying ~30k people/hour.

                  • Someone says:

                    There are 2 alternatives.

                    1) The 7 train can be extended all the way to New Jersey, so we wouldn’t need all these buses in the first place. As we all know, you can’t install CBTC on buses or BRT systems.

                    2) The Lincoln Tunnel’s existing 3 tunnels could be made one-way during peak hours (2 tunnels for buses, 1 for other vehicles). There could be a new tunnel to carry non-peak-direction traffic.

                    Both of them are absurdly expensive.

                    Let’s just say that if Christie hadn’t canceled the 7 train extension to Secaucus, traveling to/from New Jersey during peak hours would be so much easier.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      Christie canceled ARC, not the 7 to Secaucus.

                      For boring under a river, rail is probably always the cheapest bet.

                    • Someone says:

                      Sorry about that.

                      I meant to say that If Lhota hadn’t killed off the 7 train extension to Secaucus, then traveling to/from New Jersey during peak hours would be so much easier.

                    • Eric says:

                      Or else take just one of the tunnels, put the 7 extension through it, and keep 2 tunnels for cars. Construction costs would be MUCH cheaper than the proposed 7 extension (no new tunnels), and there would be more capacity for cars/other vehicles than in your plan. Buses would end in New Jersey.

                    • Someone says:

                      @Eric: How are you going to get the 7 extension up to the level of the Lincoln Tunnel from the deep-level 34 St station?

                • Nyland8 says:

                  Indeed … I can’t think of anything worse than increasing the capacity to bring vehicles into the city. It is the wrong direction in so many ways.

                  The only tunnels that should be built across the Hudson are rail tunnels, and the only bridges should be pedestrian bridges. There is a lot of unused and underutilized ROW in New Jersey which could funnel commuters into and out of the city, and the only place the price of gas is going to go is up.

        • VLM says:

          Thanks, Eric. I understand what you’re saying, but I guess I’m not too satisfied with where your argument takes me. I certainly understand how slow-moving these government agencies can be; I’ve seen and experienced it first hand.

          What you’re saying though is that, even if we assume Weinstein knew what the report said about Kearny, NJ Transit basically had two options with forecasters predicting Sandy as they did.

          1. They could say we know our yards are flood-prone and this storm is very large, but we have not had time to put a plan in place. So we’re just going to do what we’ve always done even though we’re risking hundreds of millions of dollars to damage to our key equipment.

          2. They could say we know our yards are flood-prone, and this storm is very large. We haven’t had time to adequately digest this report, but since our equipment is very much at risk, we’ll do the best we can within the next 3-4 days to prepare.

          A good leader would have taken the second path. NJ Transit took, at best, the first path. I’m not satisfied.

          • Eric F says:

            If you get bored go on the website of the NJ DOT or NY’s DOT. You will find scores, maybe hundreds of plans, policy statements, reports and proposals. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of good ideas, the implementation of any number of which would result in mobility improvements, better air quality, better freight effociency, lower pedestrian and cyclist deaths, lower crash rates and the rest.

            NJT did not get “one” report with “one” key recommendation wrapped in a bow. That is not how these places work.

            At any given time, NJT is implementing plans developed over many years in response to cumualtive experience and recommendations. They are not easy to change absent a crisis aftermath, and I guarantee you that you can find a “report or plan” somewhere in the public hopper, the implementation of which would have eliminated virtually all tragic instances and inconveneinces we have collectively suffered on roads and rails in our lifetimes.

            • VLM says:

              Again, I think you’re discounting the report too heavily. This was a report prepared at the request and funding of NJT after Irene came through and wrecked their infrastructure. In other words, it was prepared for exactly the situation they faced with Sandy. High-level executives knew about and were familiar with the findings and vulnerabilities. They still did nothing even without a plan.

              I don’t think we’ll agree on what should be done here, but I don’t think NJT’s leadership is as blameless as you’ve made them out to be even though we live in an era of reports.

              • Eric F says:

                Whenever the “bad thing” happens, with hindsight it seems like we were always focused on it, but we weren’t.

                If you notice, the NJ Turnpike Authority has been working for a few years now on all their river crossings up near NYC. They have been going flat out on the Casciano Bridge and whatever that bridge is called (if anything) that takes the Tpk. over the swamps in Secaucus. I don’t have any special insight, but I notice this stuff. Why are they doing this? I can’t say for sure, but is it a coincidence that they have gone flat out on this stuff after that bridge collapsed in Minneapolis? Maybe. I am quite sure the Tpk was quite diligent in doing bridge inspections for 50 years, but stuff happens and they re-evaluate.

                Similarly, who is very lucky regarding Sandy? MARC, Metro, T or any other northeast transit agency that was spared this time but now knows to adjust its threat levels.

        • Nathanael says:

          “It is hard to run a bureaucracy,”
          Yes.

          “I think especially a highy regulated one and extra especially a government one.”
          No. In practice, I think corporate bureaucracies are the hardest to run properly.

          • Bolwerk says:

            The fetish the “conservative”/”Libertarian” (neoliberals and neo-cons, really) wing of the authoritarian spectrum of American politics – well, the part that mostly doesn’t include the Democrats – has for so-called “small government” is pretty misleading. The idea is to hand arbitrary power to oligarchs controlling the levers of the state. It’s why these people cheer the arbitrary stupidity of people like Chris Christie,* Scott Walker, that shitface in Ohio (Kasisch?), and Canada’s resident clown Rob Ford.* Derp, railroads are socialist anyway.

            For all their problems, strong bureaucracies can actually moderate the arbitrary power of the executive branch, which is the real reason neo-cons and neoliberals oppose them.

            * What a Canadian I know said about Ford applies pretty well to Christie. “He [embodies] every quality that neo-cons respect: stupid, obnoxious, cruel, vicious, arrogant, authoritarian, uneducated, sadistic, short-sighted, insulting, white, old, male, bigotted, and fat.”

            • Nathanael says:

              I’m realizing Christie is not actually as vicious and cruel as “reads while driving” Ford. He’s merely stupid (, arrogant, etc.)

      • Bolwerk says:

        If our own Eric F. were, say, a bumblefuck third generation heir to, say, a railroad or petroleum fortune, being his salami shaving financial manager would probably be one of the most lucrative 9-5 jobs in the world. It would take some loose morals, but nothing rare to the GOP (coincidence?).

  5. Nyland8 says:

    Christie is vulnerable when it comes to transit. No matter what his current poll favorability (it’s easy to soar in the polls when you curse Congress – it’s the lowest form of populism) the fact is, at least as far as transit goes, anyone who runs against him can exploit this weakness.

    Unilaterally killing the ARC project – after so much time, money, studies and approvals – should forever be a black mark against him in the eyes of north Jersey commuters. Between NJTransit’s mismanagement of their pre-storm surge preparations, coupled with the PATH’s total debacle (they’re shut down yet again this weekend, still trying to recover from Sandy – and everyone perceives PATH to be a Jersey issue, because that’s where their yards are and those are the commuters most affected) Christie political career has hit the Trifecta of train disasters, running off the rails more than figuratively.

    NJTransit, PATH and ARC should not soon be forgotten by the electorate, and any savvy Democratic opponent should be able to drive those spikes home at the end of his term – no matter what current polling seems to imply.

    • Eric F says:

      I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I agree that his replacement of ARC with “absolutely nothing” does not stand NJ in great stead. Note that he did try to work with the Feds to replace Portal bridge as a joint project but they Feds have effectively decided they’d rather be vindictive and wait out his term than build a new rail bridge.

      That said, we’d see if you are right if his opponent makes ARC and issue. If I had to guess, he or she simply won’t. Despite what rail enthusiasts like us are inclined to think, most people just don’t get to work by train and would rather see budget certainty than enhanced train capacity. This also becomes a NY-NJ issue (i.e., why can’t NY chip in?) which makes it unsturdy ground for someone advancing the point.

      That the lack of NEC rail capacity and PATH capacity is not a huge issue in NJ is always surprisng to me. But the tunnels and roads should be expanded as well and brought up to modern standards. Does nobody in this area ever see what life is like in other states??? But people seem to think that this stuff is almost a feature of the landscape, not subject to change by human hands. The one thing gov’t can do to make a true, discrete, postive change in all of our lives is the last thing it seems capable of doing in the modern era.

      • John says:

        “Most people just don’t get to work by train…”

        Do you live/work in the same New York City metro area as the rest of us?

      • Nathanael says:

        Most people who work in NYC get to work by train. Period. Easy enough to look up.

        Even most people who live in NJ and work in NYC get to work by train, last I checked.

        Yes, most people who live in NJ and don’t work in NYC don’t get to work by train. So?

        • Bolwerk says:

          Actually, I think bus users actually outnumber rail users from New Jersey. It surprised me too – I had a long debate with one of Streetsblog’s many assburgers-afflicted bus fans about this a while ago. At peak, something like 30k riders come in by bus in one hour. This was supposed to be evidence that buses are superior to rail (because none of the dozens of tracks into NYC carriers as many users as XBL – not making this up).

          • Nathanael says:

            Oh yeah, if I remember the numbers correctly, you’re right about that. It’s close; PATH downtown + PATH midtown + Amtrak/NJT carries nearly as many people as the XBL, but there are slightly more bus commuters from NJ than rail commuters.

            This is mostly because of lack of capacity on the NEC, which is hampered by having to carry intercity traffic as well as commuter traffic. (There’s intercity traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel too, but it is sssssllllooooowwwww.) PATH midtown could carry more passengers, but the stations aren’t lined up right to take transfers from most of those NJ bus routes using the XBL (most of which come from points north).

            • Bolwerk says:

              A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that northern NJ has a pretty sidespread and dense bus network. The rail network is rather limited, and even kind of quasi-rural at times.

      • Nathanael says:

        (Why won’t NY chip in? Well, if it’s easy to get to NYC by train from NY, and hard to get to NYC by train from NJ, that’s more tax money for NY. There’s hardly anyone living in NY and commuting to work in NJ, so that’s not a consideration. It’s a general rule that it’s the jurisdiction with the housing which cares about the transportation, not the suburb with the jobs.)

    • Killing ARC wasn’t the bad part – in fact, he should have killed it, since it was a horrible project. The real crime was that he never offered up any transit-based solutions. (Alt G would have been ideal, but I’d have settled for more bus lanes in the Hudson RIver tunnels.)

  6. John-2 says:

    NJT got burned by Sandy in the same way the MTA got burned two years earlier by the Christmas snowstorm. In both cases, there were plans for storm conditions, but the planners failed to anticipate, if not historically worst scenario, at least one that was worse than anyone currently in a management position had dealt with in their lifetime.

    In the MTA’s case, the consequences were less severe, if just as embarrassing — abandoned buses in Brooklyn snowdrifts, and stories that made the Far Rockaway A train sound like an early scene from “Alive”. Given the added cost the NJT debacle is costing, someone’s head should roll, but the main thing is to see in the future if the agency learns from its mistakes, just as the MTA became more nimble to deal with Sandy in large part because of how inept they had been two years earlier.

  7. Ray says:

    I’m not one to defend Christie or NJT. Yet I will concede Christie’s response is a PR pitch perfect dismissal of the allegation of incompetence. Very well crafted. Aware that few people will read the report, and fewer still will draw Ben’s conclusions. For John Q Public, it’ll be enough that the governor said “if they knew for sure it was going to flood, believe me, executive director Jim Weinstein would have moved the trains” and “Sometimes, people make wrong decisions”. He then dismisses the matter. The question of what needs be sacrificed to fund the repair of the equipment will be white washed in the financial noise of $30-60 billion in aid falling into the region from Congress. Politics gentlemen.

  8. Chris says:

    Say NJT had moved the trains to some far-off dry spot, the storm had wound up minor and there was no problems or flooding, and it had taken NJT another full day to get up and running after a little rain (causing people to be unable to get to work and so on), that’s politically costly as well … maybe just as costly as this situation. Better to experience a big inconvenience, with a disaster to point to as the cause, than to allow a minor inconvenience while having no place to assign the blame.

    As long as NJT is run by political appointees, their main concern will be to protect political capital, not to protect the agency’s physical capital or its financial security.

  9. I think the takeaway from this is that Chris Christie just doesn’t give a shit about transit. Also interesting thing to note that while he canceled ARC, he didn’t bother to fire anyone (or try to fire anyone) at NJT or the Port Authority for proposing it (either because it was poorly designed, as many of us “technical” rail advocates believe [see: Alt G], or because it was expensive, as conservatives likely believe). Chris Christie doesn’t want to spend money on transit, but aside from that, it seems like he really doesn’t care what happens to it.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Christie Defends NJ Transit’s Decision Not to Empty Kearny Yard Before Sandy Flooding (2nd Ave Sagas) [...]

  2. [...] were flooded out while some parts of the system suffered further destruction. New Jersey Transit rather foolishly left its rolling stock in vulnerable areas. The Port Authority’s PATH trains still [...]

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