Home New Jersey Transit The ultimate story of NJ Transit’s Sandy mistakes

The ultimate story of NJ Transit’s Sandy mistakes

by Benjamin Kabak

A screenshot of the heavily-redacted documents New Jersey Transit supplied in response to WNYC’s FOIA request.

Since Superstorm Sandy swept through the region in November, I’ve followed the story of New Jersey Transit’s utterly inept reply very closely. The agency suffered $450 million worth of damage to its rolling stock because it made many mistakes including erroneous modeling and the ignominious decision to ignore a report on vulnerabilities which led agency officials to move trains to vulnerable areas. No one has been fired yet.

Now, though, we have the ultimate tale in this saga as WNYC’s Kate Hinds and Andrea Bernstein have put together a comprehensive look at New Jersey Transit’s response. Their piece compares NJ Transit’s actions with those from the MTA, and the Garden State’s rail agency does not come out looking prepared or knowledgeable. It remains a stunning gap in leadership that has gone unpunished in the intervening months.

Throughout the piece, Hinds and Bernstein tackle some familiar territory. The two reporters focus on how NJ Transit used models with incorrect data inputs that led them to think vulnerable areas were safe. They track how officials ignored dire warnings relating to flood zones and rising tides. They touch upon the excuses officials have put forward and the lack of responsibility assumed by anyone in the storm’s aftermath, but as an exercise in synthesis, it tells a very damning story.

“The fate of NJ Transit’s trains – over a quarter of the agency’s fleet – didn’t just hang on one set of wrong inputs,” the two write. “It followed years of missed warnings, failures to plan, and lack of coordination under Governor Chris Christie, who has expressed ambivalence about preparing for climate change while repeatedly warning New Jerseyans not to underestimate the dangers of severe storms.”

When compared with the MTA’s uber-preparedness in the aftermath of both a crushing summer rain storm in 2007 and Hurricane Irene in 2011, NJ Transit’s response is even more bewildering. The trouble started at the top, and even as Andrew Cuomo and Joe Lhota stayed in close contact, Chris Christie and Jim Weinstein did not. Meanwhile, Hinds and Bernstein offer us more details on the reports NJ Transit commissioned and ignored:

In 2010, David Gillespie, the agency’s Director of Energy and Sustainability, rustled up funding for his own study: “Resilience of NJ Transit Assets to Climate Impacts.” The report was commissioned, Gillespie explained in a presentation to planners in March 2012, to help him sort through a pile of literature that he described as “two-and-a-half feet high.”

The report, prepared by First Environment of Boonton, NJ, also did not mince words. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” it said. And, on page three, it referenced the “Flooded Bus Barns” report, emphasizing that “NJ Transit is already experiencing many of the climate impacts (flooding, excessive heat, larger storms) that are expected to occur in the Northeast over the next 20 years.”

The report specifically did not include recommendations for how to handle train cars. “The mitigation plan we have for moveable assets – our rolling stock – is we move it out of harm’s way when something’s coming,” Gillespie said in his presentation. Still, the report suggested the Meadows Maintenance Complex (MMC), located on dozens of acres in Kearny and positioned between the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers — might have actually been in harms way in a “storm surge area.”

Gillespie gave several presentations of the report at professional conferences. He shared the report with counterparts at other transit agencies and with the Federal Transit Administration. But, requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records act for all of Gillespie’s emails referring to climate change (which filled an entire box) unearthed no evidence he sounded alarms at NJ Transit about the report, or that he even delivered it to the rail operations team.

The reporting then moves to focus on how NJ Transit ignored week-of forecasts as well:

In the days leading up to Sandy, NJ Transit was at the receiving end of a series of increasingly chilling reports from the National Weather Service that warned of record storm tides of up to 15 feet. “Very Dangerous Hurricane Sandy,” read the briefing issued Sunday, October 28. It contained a personal plea from Szatkowski to take the storm seriously. “If you think this storm is over-hyped and exaggerated, please err on the side of caution,” [National Weather Service’s Gary] Szatkowski wrote to the agency. That kind of warning “never happens,” he later told WNYC.

New Jersey’s state climatologist, David Robinson, told a panel at a January transportation conference that the forecasting was “brilliant.” “Sandy hadn’t even formed yet,” he said, “and models were showing a major storm.… We had plenty of warning.”

But despite this, NJ Transit was not prepared for the storm surge that swept in and engulfed its yards. Weinstein maintains he was at the yards at around five p.m. on Monday evening when the storm was on its way. “There was no flooding, no indication of flooding. The elevation is about 10 feet. A storm surge of six feet reinforces what we are telling you.”

But the prediction was for up to 15 feet, and even at low probabilities, Szatkowski says those numbers “convey huge, dangerous risk to both life & property.… Based on an analysis, if there was a 10 percent risk of a particular bridge collapsing over the next 72 hours, would that be deemed an acceptable risk? I don’t think so. A 10 percent risk of a catastrophe is huge.”

The real kicker though comes in the documentation. The MTA has publicly released hundreds of pages of documents concerning storm preparedness efforts. New Jersey Transit’s response to a FOIA request for its rail operations hurricane plan was a four-page document in which every single word was redacted. Did they even have a plan or did they just black out four pages to make it seem like their super-secret (and seemingly inept) plan can’t be revealed to the public?

It’s been nearly seven months since Sandy, and the same people are still in charge in New Jersey. We’ve heard story after story highlighting the poor responses, the bad decisions and the misinformed officials, and yet no one has been fired. Does Chris Christie have such a low regard for New Jersey Transit? Is he concerned that admitting an error in hurricane response will hurt his national image? Is everyone willfully ignoring what happened? Now that we know the story from Sandy, these questions demand answers.

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26 comments

Adirondacker12800 May 14, 2013 - 12:21 am

Chris Christie and Jim Weinstein did not.

Real New Jerseyans ™ don’t use trains and don’t commute to those icky places like Newark, Jersey City or Manhattan. Why would he be concerned?

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Alex C May 14, 2013 - 2:17 am

Chris Christie belongs to a political party whose official stance on climate change means he will never admit anything went wrong. These places had not previously flooded, so admitting that something changed and made the yards more vulnerable to flood would open the possibility of the “hoax”, as Republicans call it, being real. His running for President in 2016 of course means nobody in his administration will ever admit any wrongdoing in costing the state millions.

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Bolwerk May 15, 2013 - 1:36 am

I actually really wish people were smarter than this (I don’t mean you, Alex C). Sandy doesn’t “prove” climate change anymore than Irene proves it isn’t happening because there weren’t record floods. The “proof” is in a collection of models and theories (no, theory does not mean “hunch”) that, while tweaked and re-evaluated, have been reasonably reliable for decades.

Anyway, I doubt Christie is running in 2016. He may be stupid, authoritarian, and blustery, but his social policies are rather milquetoast center-right. Not sure he has much of a shot, unless the Republikans reverse course on the road to insanity. Sad, eh?

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Alex C May 15, 2013 - 11:41 pm

Oh, it most certainly doesn’t prove it. BUT, it could be somewhat linked to it, and that’s a risk Christie can’t take to support.

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lawhawk May 14, 2013 - 8:43 am

The MTA releases hundreds of pages of information, photos on a near daily basis of the damage and restoration efforts, and NJ Transit replies to a FOIA with four pages of blacked out nonsense, claiming that security considerations must take precedence.

It’s all so much nonsense. There’s a stunning lack of common sense at NJ Transit and it’s enabled by Gov. Christie who continues to stand by the incompetence and gross mismanagement of the agency’s key resources.

Even now, the agency is still dealing with a significant percentage of its fleet that remains disabled due to flood damage. I wish I could tell you the specific percentage, but the agency hasn’t updated its storm response page showing how many cars remain in need of repair since they posted it in March after months of hiding those details in plain sight (the fact that rail schedules were a fraction of pre-storm levels showed just how screwed NJ commuters were).

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g May 14, 2013 - 9:04 am

I’m sure NJT actually had a plan in the redacted document but in light of the info dump that the MTA has been doing it is probably so ill conceived and complacent that they blacked it out in embarrassment. The “These things happen” attitude of the governor and executives within NJT is particularly galling and it doesn’t look like they are in any hurry to learn from this expensive blunder.

The MTA put NJT and the PA to shame with their response and communication with customers. The below piss poor performance of NJT leadership on basically every level would have gotten a bunch of people fired anywhere else.

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llqbtt May 14, 2013 - 9:27 am

‘Jay Lhota’ good one Ben!! 😉

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Nyland8 May 14, 2013 - 9:39 am

Governor Christie’s willingness to expand both the GSP and the Jersey Turnpike, coupled with his backward stance on global warming and his abysmal record on mass transit issues, including killing the ARC project, makes him philosophically in tune with those behind the General Motors/Standard Oil streetcar conspiracy over 60 years ago.

He seems to have no problem giving the green light to radon-laced gas pipelines coming through his state from the Marcellus Shale. And New Jersey has among the lowest taxes on petrol of any state in the nation.

I wonder how much money in his campaign coffers comes directly from fossil fuel interests.

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Eric F May 14, 2013 - 10:23 am

The Turnpike and GSP expansion are Corzine initiatives. Construction began before Christie was elected. You can google a photo of Corzine holding a shovel at the ground breaking. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.

“He seems to have no problem giving the green light to radon-laced gas pipelines coming through his state from the Marcellus Shale.”

I have one of those gas lines in my very home!!! I use the stuff to cook over an open flame. Should I evacuate?

And New Jersey has among the lowest taxes on petrol of any state in the nation.”

We call it “gas” here in lower Canada, and don’t worry in NJ they get you on the tolls and insurance.

“I wonder how much money in his campaign coffers comes directly from fossil fuel interests.”

I think he’s mainly financed by Monsanto, Halliburton and Blackwater, but he probably also gets some of that Standard Oil conspiracy money as well, just to top off the tank, as they say.

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D in Bushwick May 14, 2013 - 1:18 pm

Eric F, I like your bitchiness.
It makes it difficult to determine which side you are on other than your own.

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Phantom May 15, 2013 - 12:11 am

NJ ‘s low gas taxes mean that many thousands of NY and PA drivers who travel across state lines will nearly always buy gas in NJ.

I’m one.

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Bolwerk May 15, 2013 - 1:19 am

And that’s probably a win for New York City. The last thing we need is more people backing up traffic at the pump.

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John-2 May 14, 2013 - 10:03 am

It’s also worth remembering that the MTA had it’s public relations disaster with the 2010 Christmas snowstorm, and already had a trial run-though of the damage a hurricane’s flooding could cause when Irene took out the Port Jervis line.

Big government agencies are like everyone else — they tend to get too comfortable when things go well for a while, and then are caught flat-footed when a major crisis occurs. The MTA still had the A train stuck near Aqueduct and the buses abandoned to the drifts in Brooklyn on their minds, as well as the cost of repairing the track bed near Suffern when Sandy hit, and stuff like that focuses the mind.

The scandal with NJT is less that they ignored the MTA’s problems going into Sandy — because that’s what big, dumb bureaucracies historically do — but that while the MTA admitted it screwed up and worked to be more proactive for the next weather disasters, NJT right now seem hell-bent in denying they did much of anything wrong.

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Eric F May 14, 2013 - 10:28 am

I generally agree. Also, the report tries hard to imply that NJT is somehow currently crippled by sidelined rolling stock, when in reality it’s up at 100% of pre-Sandy service. It had a rough couple of months getting stuff back in service, in particular tracks and bridges, but it has enough rail cars and engines to fully function.

NJT’s biggest problem is that it needs a whole lot of additional capacity and has no means of obtaining that capacity without billions of dollars coming its way.

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lawhawk May 14, 2013 - 2:38 pm

It’s not quite 100% of pre-storm capacity. Consider that many scheduled trains are running with fewer cars, so while they may have gotten back on to a near-pre Sandy schedule, they’re still dealing with capacity issues. They’re still dealing with more than 100 cars that are out of service, along with dozens of locomotives.

And it took months to get to that point because of all the flooded out railcars and locomotives – a wholly preventable situation.

Look, they’ve got assets located in flood zones – the Hoboken Terminal and Meadows complex. Those can’t be moved, but they can be made more resistant to flooding and the agency claims that is what they’re going to do going forward. The stuff that they should have moved, they didn’t. And they’re doing all they can to shield those decisions from public scrutiny.

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John-2 May 14, 2013 - 2:39 pm

They would do well to improve their transparency with the public, even though given Christie’s re-elect poll numbers at the moment, they aren’t going to get an edict from above to make it happen.

The MTA got burned by all those negative stories about the Christmas storm lack of preparedness and have responded since they by being very proactive about what the will be doing before the next major storm hits — even if in some cases it may seem like overkill (there was griping before Irene about the extent of the shutdowns), but even if the next major storm threat to the city fizzles, the MTA has gained back the PR it lost from the snow disaster. NJY seems to not really care about showing the public it’s not going to make the same mistakes the next time — which it may not, if you’re just talking about emergency preparations for another hurricane. If some other problem hits the agency that the struggle with, the lack of openness is just going to make critics pile on more in connecting last year’s troubles with future woes.

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Matt May 14, 2013 - 10:15 am

As a NJT rider for the last 4 years, I can say that they are just ass backwards in everything they do, so this doesn’t really shock me.

Also, fares went up this year….to pay for the warnings they ignored, great.

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Eric F May 14, 2013 - 10:24 am

NJT fares did not go up this year. MTA fares went up this year. The last NJT fare increase was a couple of years ago, I think in 2010.

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Matt May 14, 2013 - 11:08 am

Ah, actually, you know what, I’m a NY stop on NJ transit, so that’s it…I always forget that…my hatred for NJ transit takes over.

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Eric F May 14, 2013 - 11:43 am

I believe the NJT fares went up quite a bit on the last go round, so they should be done for another year or two. NJT is not a cheap commute by any stretch.

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Phillip Roncoroni May 14, 2013 - 12:39 pm

The last NJTransit fare hike was 25% for rail and bus operations:

http://www.nj.com/news/index.s.....ike_f.html

Larry Littlefield May 14, 2013 - 12:56 pm

Yes, they are on the rare catastrophic whopper plan that the MTA followed for years, and many of the politicians want it to go back to.

D in Bushwick May 14, 2013 - 1:23 pm

Everyone likes a good conspiracy theory. Any chance the cars they moved into the swamp areas were their older stock?

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llqbtt May 14, 2013 - 1:47 pm

You mean there’s a part of the state that isn’t a swamp? :))

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lawhawk May 14, 2013 - 3:40 pm

Nope. No such luck. The damaged cars included everything from their new bilevel cars and their new dual mode locomotives that hadn’t even yet entered regular service to older rolling stock.

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ARR May 15, 2013 - 2:55 am

CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years
http://www.theonion.com/articl.....-all,1848/

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