New Jersey Transit’s response to Sandy is the story that just won’t die. It’s not quite a scandal, even though perhaps it should be, but the developments continue to trickle out thanks to reporting by Karen Rouse from The Record and Andrea Bernstein from WNYC. This should be a bigger black eye on the face of the Garden State and its governor, but so far, the scandal just won’t stick.
Late last week, a story emerged that Chris Christie had absolved NJ Transit head Jim Weinstein of blame for the agency’s failures. These failures, as you’ll recall, cost the agency a few hundred million dollars in rolling stock and involved moving trains into locations identified as vulnerable to flooding. These failures also involved ignoring weather forecasts and generally assuming everything would be fine even as sister agencies in New York City prepared for the worst. Even Christie’s story rang a little strange, though, as Rouse reported:
[Gov.] Christie said that in the chaos of Sandy’s approach, a low-level manager who was in charge of securing hundreds of pieces of equipment at the last minute ditched a plan that was in place to protect the equipment, all without the knowledge of Executive Director Jim Weinstein. Christie claimed that the unnamed employee was a civil servant and because of civil service rules, could only be demoted.
“It was a lower-level manager that made the decision on the cars … where they were placed,” the governor told The Record’s editorial board on Thursday. “It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain. Mr. Weinstein handled it internally because he’s a civil service employee, and you can’t just fire the person. He was demoted as a result of that decision, and that’s what we could do…There’s certain people, when you’re governor, that you can fire, and there’s certain people that the law does not permit you to do that to.”
However, several officials close to NJ Transit said none of the agency’s employees fall under civil service rules, and that the law that created NJ Transit in 1979 excludes the agency from the civil service system.
A day later, Rouse uncovered emails that contradicted Christie’s story. She reported:
The day before Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, more than a dozen NJ Transit workers — from yardmasters to the top executive — shared emails describing where and how the agency’s rail fleet was being moved to shelter it from the storm. In one of the most questionable decisions made during the storm, many locomotives and passenger cars were parked in low-lying areas in Hoboken and Kearny — a key move that caused more than $120 million in damage after the storm surge flooded the rail yards with brackish water. How this occurred remains a mystery, particularly as damage was minimal to the operations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority across the Hudson River in New York State, which faced the same devastating storm but managed to move its fleet to higher ground.
This week, at a meeting with The Record’s editorial board, Governor Christie said the decision at NJ Transit was made by one employee who didn’t follow the agency’s plan and didn’t inform his supervisors about his actions. NJ Transit officials declined to elaborate on that remark Friday, leaving open the question of how a single low-level manager could be responsible for a decision that led to so much destruction.
But a review of emails obtained through a public records request shows that in contrast to Christie’s remarks, at least 15 agency executives and managers, were aware of fleet movements into low-lying areas in the days leading up to Sandy. Included in at least one email, was NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein — whom Christie has held blameless for the damage and whom the governor praised enthusiastically during the editorial board meeting.
Unknown is whether other directives went out that were not recorded in emails and that contributed to the decision to park the rail stock in Hoboken and Kearny. But the email chains establish that information on rail fleet movements was shared widely by top decision makers at the agency.
The Record identified William Lawson, a former superintendent of equipment management, as the scapegoat for the response to Sandy. He lost about $10,000 in salary and received a titular demotion. Christie, meanwhile, continued to defend Weinstein even as the email thread suggested that the New Jersey Transit head had plenty of information concerning the agency’s response. “Jim Weinstein didn’t know about it until after it happened,” the governor said. “Everyone else at NJ Transit executed that plan except for one guy.”
Based on Rouse’s reporting, Christie’s comments don’t pass the smell test. Lawson’s emails made their ways to Weinstein with time left to change the plan, and yet, the rail cars were left to flood. Even a minor demotion is hardly an adequate response to the magnitude of the miscalculation, and a dismissal — which could have happened — didn’t.
But all of this is proverbial water under the bridge. Someone should be held responsible, but as the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches, it’s likely that no one will be called to answer for the damage. Rather, New Jersey Transit should be working to ensure every single one of its riders that these mistakes will not happen again. Instead of issuing a mea culpa and moving forward, as the MTA did after Irene, New Jersey Transit has played defense. I can’t imagine they’ll leave rail cars to flood again, but month after month of ducking and dodging has done little to instill much confidence in me.