New Jersey Transit’s response — or lack thereof– to Hurricane Sandy is seemingly the gift that keeps on giving. Nearly ten months after the storm, thanks to one diligent Garden State newspaper, we now have a much clearer picture of how New Jersey Transit’s plans were simply ignored even as their own internal models badly under-predicted the looming storm. No one has yet to be held responsible, but Jersey politicians are starting to focus their rage on the rightly beleaguered transit agency.
By now, the backstory is getting familiar. The agency suffered through $450 million in damage to its rolling stock when officials made a slew of mistakes including, as I mentioned, erroneous storm modeling. Claiming that their emergency preparedness plans dictated such a decision, NJ Transit moved trains into vulnerable areas but released fully redacted documents when pressed for their storm plans.
In May, The Record sued for access to the non-redacted version of the plans, and this week, they won. The headline of the resulting article says it all: “NJ Transit didn’t follow its own storm plan.” Karen Rouse had the details, and I’ll excerpt at length:
Newly released internal documents show NJ Transit had a plan in place for moving railcars and locomotives to higher ground as Superstorm Sandy approached, raising further questions about why the agency left hundreds of pieces of equipment in low-lying locations in the storm’s path, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. Only after The Record filed a public-records suit did the transit agency release a 3½-page copy of a hurricane plan prepared four months before the storm that advised transferring commuter trains to several upland sites. Nowhere did the plan recommend what NJ Transit ended up doing: moving millions of dollars worth of railcars and engines to a low-lying yard near water, where they were inundated by Sandy’s storm surge.
The NJ Transit document stands in stark contrast to the more detailed hurricane plan prepared by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which, taking into account concerns about global warming, enabled the transit system to move the vast majority of its trains to higher ground, saving all but 11 of its railcars from flood damage. The damage to 343 pieces of NJ Transit equipment in low-lying yards in Kearny and Hoboken — 70 locomotives and 273 railcars, a third of the railroad’s fleet — is estimated at $120 million. The damaged equipment also included seven railcars and seven locomotives owned by the MTA that NJ Transit stored in Kearny, site of the agency’s sprawling Meadows Maintenance Complex.
The “NJ Transit Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” prepared in June 2012 directs NJ Transit’s train crews to move railcars and locomotives “from flood-prone areas to higher ground” in the event of a hurricane or severe tropical storm. The plan is brief, but it lists more than a half-dozen locations where equipment is to be moved. Commuter railcars and locomotives used on the Main and Bergen lines would be stored in the Waldwick Yard, according to the plan. Equipment serving the agency’s Hoboken Division would be stored in the Bergen Tunnels under the Palisades. And cars and engines serving the Atlantic City Line would be moved to a yard in central South Jersey.
Yet, for reasons the agency has declined to explain or discuss, NJ Transit crews stored trains at the Kearny Yard and left others in Hoboken. Both yards occupy low ground near bodies of water and both flooded in the storm surge. Neither was mentioned in the hurricane plan as a place to relocate equipment in a storm emergency.
New Jersey Transit officials refused to comment, but other New Jersey politicians were more than willing to share their thoughts. “It is unconscionable that someone could get away with it. If I squander $100 million, the governor would be the first person to fire me,” Upendra Chivukula, Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly, said to WNYC’s Alex Goldmark.
Chivukula is one of many high ranking New Jersey politician to call for an investigation into NJ Transit’s practices and an ouster if necessary. He believes Executive Director Jim Weinstein should resign over the way the agency responded — or didn’t respond — to the threat of Sandy. “The process for finding out who made the decision, if that’s the key factor, should not be difficult for the governor,” he said. “The poor decision making process under the Governor’s jurisdiction should not tolerated.”
It’s long been a no-brainer to me. New Jersey Transit ignored their internal procedures and ignored the warning signs. The mistakes were costly, and no one has been held responsible yet. Being stronger than the storm means being ready for the storm and taking responsibility for failures.