Aug
20

NJ Transit draws political ire as depths of Sandy failures come to light

By · Published in 2013

Redacted no longer.

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.



38 Responses to “NJ Transit draws political ire as depths of Sandy failures come to light”

  1. Frank B says:

    It is becoming increasingly clear that the sheer amount of gross ignorance here equates not to neglectful action, but intentional fraud, on NJ Transit’s part, perhaps to obtain new railcars.

    Do we know exactly what railcars were damaged? I’m willing to bet the newer ones escaped just fine…

    • Edward says:

      I’m not ready to go that far, as it assumes the railroad knew exactly which equipment would be damaged and in what locations the storm would hit. Plus, we are witnesing now, the financial and PR nightmare would be a lot more difficult than going to Trenton and/or the feds with hat in hand to obtain funding for new rail cars.

      My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that this plan was not widely distributed before the storm, and that no practice runs/drills were held to see how effective the plan was. When Sandy hit, everybody just ran for the hills and parked the trains in the closest available yards and then prayed for the best.

      Neglect? You bet.
      Laziness? Very likely.
      Intentional fraud? You’re giving NJT too much credit for being smart/evil enough to carry that out.

    • Nyland8 says:

      If I recall correctly, a great deal of the NEWEST rolling stock was damaged. The beautiful double-decker rail cars were among the casualties of incompetence of management.

      • alen says:

        maybe the plan was to buy some newer cars to make the service even better?

      • JJJJ says:

        Yup, it would have been perfect fraud because not a month before, the new transportation bill passed which for the very first time set aside money to replace stock damaged in a storm!

        But then they went and parked the newest cars there.

  2. Nyland8 says:

    There should have been a full investigation, and heads should have rolled 9 months ago!

    Kudos should go toThe Record, as it seems that they are the only ones willing to pursue this scandal. You would think that with some MetroNorth equipment having been damaged by NJT’s incompetence, this would be more of a local story than our press has given it.

    It’s worth remembering that this might have been the most accurately predicted storm in our history. We were told that it would hit us a week in advance, before the eye had even crossed Cuba, and every day brought greater refinement and accuracy to those forecasts, as one computer model after another fell into substantial agreement. By early Friday morning we knew that this huge storm was going to slam into the NY/NJ Bight at high tide on Monday night, and by the time it made landfall it was within an hour, and within a few miles of what was forecast almost 5 days before.

    Before the evening rush hour on the 26th it was announced by the MTA that, in preparation for the storm, they would be shutting down their entire system by Sunday. In fact, Chris Christie himself ordered the evacuation of barrier islands on the Friday before the storm hit!

    We now know for certain that NJTransit’s impotent reaction to the storm predictions wasn’t simply a case of confusion, or misinformation, or laziness, or apathy, or even mere incompetence. They acted in a blatant disregard for their own policies and procedures, and in direct contradiction to the best information that they had. Some person or persons made those decisions, they should have known better, and they are culpable.

    Governor Christie should call for a thorough investigation, and heads should roll after the results are in. And if he doesn’t, he should be made politically weakened by that failure of leadership.

  3. lawhawk says:

    For months I’ve been calling for Gov. Christie to fire Weinstein and the head of the rail operations for their negligence, and willful failures in storm preparation. Indeed, anyone who even casually follows rail transit issues in New Jersey knows that Hoboken is the worst place to leave trains if a flood is predicted and yet that’s exactly where they moved the trains. I even said way back in November that Waldwick was a preferred location due to its position on higher ground.

    The Main/Bergen line was one of the most badly affected lines, and it’s still not back to 100% of its pre storm schedule. That’s due entirely to the lack of rolling stock. The line didn’t incur much in the way of storm damage; it doesn’t have overhead lines, and the signal system was pretty much intact. But it took weeks and months to get the rail cars and locomotives to provide anything resembling a schedule.

    The lack of rolling stock has been what limited the restoration of service across all lines, but the Main/Bergen remains most affected by Sandy damage to this day. That’s due entirely to the decisions by Weintein and all those involved in the decision to store the trains in the flood zones in Kearny and Hoboken.

    Gov. Christie must fire these guys to restore credibility. And while I fully expect Christie to be reelected regardless of his stance on this issue, Barbara Buono should make this a major campaign issue due to the abject failure of the agency to plan and recover from the storm.

    • Nyland8 says:

      Indeed, transportation affects the entire state of New Jersey, and Chris Christie’s transportation record has been abysmal. If the Buono campaign can’t get that message out, then they’re simply throwing the election away, because Christie is vulnerable.

      How far along would the ARC project have been if Christie hadn’t summarily squashed it? What has it cost the state? Does New Jersey really need a wider turnpike for MORE vehicular traffic? What has he done to reduce the backups at the Holland, the Lincoln, and the GW? Has he done anything for bicyclers? There are still more miles of paved bike paths in the five boroughs than there are in the entire state of New Jersey!

      And while he certainly went out of his way to stop the biggest interstate mass-transit project in the country – one that was already well past state and federal funding and approvals, including its EIS – he hasn’t done anything but bask in the fiscal glory of toll hikes put into place by his predecessor.

      A state like New Jersey, where so much of its income relies on its proximity to Philadelphia and NYC, should have transportation issues highlighted first and foremost during every election cycle. And Chris Christie’s report card on those issues is a resounding “F”.

  4. Hoosac says:

    Christie has been stonewalling on this for some time. When first questioned about it, he defended NJ Transit, saying that everyone was entitled to make a mistake. Later, after WNYC and The Record did an extensive investigation, he was asked by a WNYC reporter why, in light of the potential for flooding brought on by global warming, the equipment had not been moved to higher ground. He slipped out of that one by saying that wasn’t going to answer questions from the liberal media about global warming. Now a group of legislators are calling for an investigation, but they are all Democrats, which will allow Christie to say that it’s a politically-motivated ploy in an election year. He really has no intention of doing anything about this issue.

  5. Clarke says:

    Chris Christie for President 2016!

  6. John-2 says:

    Don’t expect any heads to roll here unless Christie’s polling shows it’s starting to affect his re-election numbers. But what could be fun to watch here, going forward is, it wouldn’t just be in Barbara Buono’s interest to make a major issue of NJT’s failures during Sandy, it’s also in Joe Lhota’s interest to do it, to point up the contrast in the NYC mayoral race to what the MTA did while he was chairman to deal with the hurricane compared to what happened on the other side of the Hudson.

    So going into the November election and the first anniversary of Sandy, you could see the Republican mayoral candidate for New York basically highlighting the failure of the government of the Republican gubernatorial candidate from New Jersey, in order to burnish his management abilities to NYC voters. Which isn’t going to make Christie a happy camper.

  7. Phantom says:

    I have been a fan of Christie, but here, the buck stops with him.

    He is responsible.

    This is a leadership failure that doesn’t stop at NJ Transit, which has access to many miles of track at higher elevation, in NJ and beyond ( if it was easier to move some cars to NY or PA, I am certain that MTA or SEPTA would have lent a hand )

    • lawhawk says:

      It was posited that the reason that some equipment wasn’t moved to PA was because after Irene, that equipment was unavailable due to flooding and washed out tracks linking back to NJ. They didn’t want the trains to be unavailable in that fashion.

      It’s understandable, but the Waldwick location is along the very Bergen/Main/Port Jervis line that many of the trains damaged in Hoboken served. Had the trains been positioned there, it would have allowed restoration of service far faster that it did.

      There was a further claim that positioning the trains along higher ground would have blocked other rail traffic along the route, but that ignores that most of the Bergen/Main line is double tracked, and several segments have triple tracks (Glen Rock through Waldwick). Trains could have been laid up in Ridgewood and elsewhere without blocking traffic or clearing the lines for downed trees. The excuses piled up, despite evidence of major failures by NJ Transit.

      And as for downed trees, one of the longstanding problems is that NJT hasn’t maintained its ROW, including tree pruning and removing debris from catchment basins and that too contributed to the slow recovery.

      • Rob says:

        “had a plan in place for moving railcars and locomotives to higher ground” — And, if you recall, one of their spokesmouths at the time risibly claimed that they did not have any higher ground trackage that they could move equipment to.

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    If you wonder why Christie hasn’t thrown NJT Management overboard, you need to look at the big picture.

    Christie inherited a financial disaster, created by nearly two decades of irresponsibility. And he was forced to allocate pain, even though he hasn’t gotten the state out of the hole.

    One target of a particularly extreme reduction in funding was New Jersey Transit. Just as the MTA and the road infrastructure was the loswer in New York in the early 1990s, with money never restored.

    What Christie needed at NJT was a “good soldier” who would not raise a fuss about the disproportionate funding cuts, service cuts, etc. at their agency. In return, Christie has had their back as well.

    Then they blew it in the storm.

    • Lady Feliz says:

      Christie really wasn’t “forced to allocate pain;” he could very easily raise the state gas tax (at 8 cents/gallon, one of the lowest in the country) and send that money toward NJT infrastructure and rolling stock. This is why people elect governors, to do the hard work that’s needed. All Gov Blowhard has done is cancel a much-needed rail tunnel to NYC and embarrass himself at town hall meetings by yelling at his constituents.

      • Clarke says:

        Don’t forget encouraging people to live in dangerous flood-prone areas!

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        “Christie really wasn’t “forced to allocate pain. He could very easily raise the state gas tax (at 8 cents/gallon, one of the lowest in the country).”

        A different form of pain, for different people. One they can afford, one could argue, but he chose otherwise. He shifted that pain to transit instead. And his transit guy went along with it. Which is why he won’t throw him under the bus.

        • Nathanael says:

          Given that these are criminal levels of negligence (violating their own plan, then covering up the violation), Christie is very close to implicating himself criminally. Not smart.

      • Phantom says:

        That low gas tax is one reason why every NYC driver who passes through NJ buys gas in NJ. Raise the tax, and you lose some of that business

        That rail tunnel was a horrible deal for NJ, who would have been stuck with unlimited liability for cost overruns. And since no construction project in the area comes in at budget, he chose not to sign on for an unlimited liability, when NY ( who would benefit too ) and the Feds would not pay any of the cost overruns.

        The tunnel or something like it is indeed needed, but I can’t blame him for giving the unions and contractors a blank check.

        • Bolwerk says:

          If you are liable for cost overruns, then it makes sense to control costs, something a competent-ish governor ought to be able to do. That liability is a risk taken with every single capital project in the world, including the non-railroad ones Christie supports.

          • Phantom says:

            This tunnel includes exposure in NY.

            How do you expect Christie to control NY construction costs, when Cuomo, Pataki, Bloomberg, Giuliani and all all their predecessors have had zero success in addressing the issue?

            Christie has his hands full in NJ.

            • Bolwerk says:

              As I recall, the overruns were in the cavern, not the tunnel. The way around them would have been to push to get the tunnel to GCT or Penn.

              It might even have been reasonable to drop the project if a push for that failed because of the action of NYC/NYS/MTA (likely), but Christie didn’t bother to try because it wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to cancel a useful project that would benefit north Jersey libruls.

          • Phantom says:

            The tunnel is for a bi-state service.

            Why should a NJ governor eat all the overruns for a service that benefits NY also?

            It was a stupid and unfair set of rules. Of course he said no to it.

            And I say this as a NY resident.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Because he’s the only one with the girth to eat that sheer volume of funds? It didn’t benefit NYS or NYC very much, since it was a terminal rather than a through service.

              The overruns weren’t even demonstrably certain to happen.

              • Phantom says:

                If 5 pct of the value went to NY, let NY pay 5 pct of the overruns

                Please list all the major public projects involving NYC that have come in on budget over the past 20 years.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  So New York should pay for other states’ overruns because half-wits like Chris Christie can’t handle a capital project? Don’t we have enough of our own mismanagement to pay for? :-\

                  Besides the PA funds that belonged to New York at least as much as New Jersey, NYS should have cleared the way to bring the tunnel to an existing station (Penn or GCT). But that should have been the extent of its contribution.

                  • Phantom says:

                    Please list all the major public projects involving NYC that have come in on budget over the past 20 years.

                    I imagine that the nunber is nil. Maybe it can’t be done under the current union / labor law / liability system. No one can control costs unless changes are made. And the governor of NJ can’t change NY’s labor laws, and crooked ways.

                    The Fat Man said no to a blank check. That’s what leaders do. Give him a hand.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      There was no blank check. And even if there were, he was in a position to actually do something about cost overruns and didn’t. He doesn’t deserve praise for not having the leadership skills to corral the various stakeholders into sticking to the budget.

    • Nyland8 says:

      “Christie inherited a financial disaster, created by nearly two decades of irresponsibility. And he was forced to allocate pain, even though he hasn’t gotten the state out of the hole.”

      That smacks of at least a little revisionist history. Corzine inherited no less a financial disaster, and it was Corzine who put the doubling and redoubling of NJTurnpike and GS Parkway tolls on autopilot to raise revenues. Christie’s budget has benefited from those hikes, and at least part of Corzine’s defeat was a result of HIM being forced to “allocate pain”.
      If Corzine had been reelected, we’d be on the threshold of having ARC in place, and the Bergen/Main Line trains that serve New Yorkers from Orange and Rockland Counties would have soon been pulling directly into an expanded Penn Station.

      As it is in most places, the people who drive cars have more political clout than the people who use mass transit.

      By keeping New Jersey gas prices so low, the tunnels and bridges across the Hudson and Arthur Kill have even MORE traffic, just from New Yorkers shuttling back and forth to fill their gas tanks! It is the car drivers and oil companies in New Jersey are Christie’s constituency – in other words, the last people he has any intention of “allocating pain” to.

  9. Phantom says:

    for -not- giving the unions and contractors a blank check

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