Home New Jersey Transit Even more stories about Sandy and NJ Transit

Even more stories about Sandy and NJ Transit

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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lawhawk October 7, 2013 - 8:53 am

Absolutely right that this scandal just isn’t sticking, despite the stench coming from Weinstein and Gov. Christie. It should be a huge black eye on his administration and handling of the storm response. But it hasn’t.

NJ Transit riders are still suffering from the damage. They once again closed the waiting area in Hoboken to carry out repairs, and that will be closed through mid December. That’s cold comfort considering the overloaded trains that are operating with fewer cars since there’s still a significant number that need repairs to fix the Sandy damage.

It also leaves NJ Transit with fewer options when trains break down, there are other disruptions – fewer trains available for backup so what was previously a minor issue becomes a significant delay affecting multiple lines.

It didn’t have to be this way, but here we are. Gov. Christie backing Jim Weinstein despite rank incompetence.

tacony palmyra October 7, 2013 - 9:48 am

This and the seemingly-intentional GW Bridge traffic tie-up incident make Christie look so terrible it’s amazing that he’ll cruise to re-election.

Phantom October 7, 2013 - 9:42 am

Why doesn’t anyone care about this story?

The Republicans don’t care because it happened under their guy’s watch. They don’t want him to be accountable for what happened under his watch.

The Democrats don’t care because it is an example of governmental civil service / management incompetence at a big agency. And you can’t have criticism of government employees.

This was a horrendous response to a well forseen event, and no one at NJT did their job.

SEAN October 7, 2013 - 10:48 am

Yeah, but when ever there’s some type of scandal in order of this magnitude, it’s always the fault of some low level rogue employee & never management.

Bolwerk October 7, 2013 - 11:00 am

Besides being poorly publicized? No one cares because it doesn’t hit most people’s trigger points. A bunch of rail cars were seemingly damaged by an act of God, nothing spectacular or appalling like terrorism or landfall of Hurricane Babyrape. Nothing unusual about Christie’s party forgetting about fiscal discipline or personal responsibility once it’s in power either.

Maybe it could be made into an issue if the press did its job, but there are at least two major problems with that: (1) it flies in the face of the mainstream press’s narrative about spendthrift Democrats vs. fiscally responsible, competent Republikans and (2) the press strives for equivalency in partisan reporting and there is no plausible equivalency here – there just aren’t Democrats in power right now who are that spectacularly inept. Better to stay quiet.

Mike October 7, 2013 - 9:46 am

Regarding NJ Transit’s “plan”:
quoted from here:
“NJ Transit’s plan was three and a half pages. Initially, the agency gave WNYC and The Record copies of the plan with everything but the title blacked out, citing security concerns. But after months of litigation, NJ Transit was forced to release the full plan. Revealed, it seemed more embarrassing than threatening to the agency.”

Benjamin Kabak October 7, 2013 - 9:51 am

I covered that a few months ago. They did eventually release a non-redcated version of the plan, but it basically said very little compared with the plans put forth by other agencies in the area. They were caught off guard and have tried to cover for a year now.

lawhawk October 7, 2013 - 11:10 am

The original NJT response was to redact the life out of the 4-page document citing security concerns. That didn’t pass the smell test and the Record eventually got the entire thing redacted, and it showed that NJT didn’t follow its own plan (such as it was).

The MTA had a lengthy plan published that indicated where and how they’d respond to a potential storm situation with storing subways in safe zones, outside flood prone areas, etc. They attempted to secure the BBT, South Ferry, and other low lying facilities, but the efforts were insufficient – resulting in the damage we saw (and are still dealing with). Fixed assets are more vulnerable as we all know and should expect going forward.

NJT didn’t do even that. They stored critical equipment in flood zones. They didn’t pay attention to all the storm warnings that urged people to get out of low lying areas like Hoboken and the Meadowlands. Christie’s now blaming some low level guy, even though his superiors were all in the loop.

NJT woes could have been mitigated had they simply stored their equipment on higher ground – in the very places like Waldwick yard that I’ve mentioned in the past. Had they done that, service would have been restored to normal in Northern NJ far faster than it did.

It wouldn’t change the conditions at Hoboken Terminal and the Meadows yard – fixed assets, but it would have meant the rolling stock survived to be used right away (and the Northern NJ lines – the Bergen/Main/Port Jervis/Pascack all rely on diesel locomotives, so power wasn’t a concern and generators could have powered signal systems and grade crossings. None of that was in place – as was the case with MNR and LIRR.

And with Christie claiming that they didn’t know, he should fire them for negligence considering that they should have been checking to make sure the plan such as it was, was actually being followed. It wasn’t – Weinstein and others didn’t follow up. That’s negligence on their part, and they should have been shown the door. Except Christie’s kept them on.

It strains credulity to think that a low level manager could completely screw up NJT rail operations with no one above him knowing what was going on. That’s a failure of the chain of command, and ultimately goes against Christie and NJT.

Phantom October 7, 2013 - 12:20 pm

There should have been some pain to NJ. You sure as hell would have had some accountability then.

Since all the avoidable flood damage to the trains was picked up by the Feds ” no one paid for it ” which is why no one cares.

Nyland8 October 7, 2013 - 1:46 pm

I believe that there WAS pain to NJ commuters – and still is. The problem is that nobody is quantifying it, and nobody is publicizing it.

How many more people have been forced to commute by bus – and suffer the delays of traffic, especially at the tunnels? How much more traffic has NJT’s catastrophe put on the road? Does anybody really know? Where’s the data? Did the bridge and tunnel tolls go up after the trains went down?

I dare say that even the people who always commuted by car HAVE suffered pain, forced to share the roads and river crossings with others who would not ordinarily have been there.

Most of northern New Jersey – by far the wealthiest part of the State – depends heavily on both New York City, and Philadelphia, for much of its income. Taken in aggregate over the course of his first term, Christie should be politically vulnerable on transportation issues. If he is not, then the Fourth Estate has dropped the ball, and his political opponents have failed to leverage his many transit shortcomings.

Bolwerk October 7, 2013 - 1:53 pm

That’s what he means. There was pain to NJT commuters, but Christie and his lackeys got away with their fuckups.

SEAN October 7, 2013 - 3:13 pm

And if Cristie runs for president in 2016, all the news coverage will relate to what a strong leeder he is & how he is inline with those in the Tea Party. However those in the Tea Party movement will quickly figgure out that Christie is a fraud & move towards a Rick Perry type candidate who speaks to there issues.

Phantom October 7, 2013 - 3:59 pm

There should have been -financial- pain to the state of NJ and to NJ Transit.

100 percent reimbursement by the Federal government was a sin. There should never be 100 percent reimbursement. The state should never not be expected to make any contribution at all to its own issues.

There was zero accountability by NJ Transit and by the state since there was free money from DC.

Bolwerk October 7, 2013 - 5:17 pm

I might be inclined to agree, but causing NJT financial pain punishes the passengers. That isn’t very constructive.

Phantom October 7, 2013 - 9:50 pm

Picking the pockets of the taxpayers of the other 49 states to cushion acts of gross negligence by Christie and NJT management is not constructive.

The voters in NJ would be mad as hell if they had to pay any small price for the fact that they elected a management that was asleep at the switch. Now, no one, except a few transit geeks like us, cares since Uncle Obama paid all of Christie’s bills , on the backs of all of Anerica, in return for an election year photo op.

Push accountability down to the lowest practical level. It is a fundamental principle of good management.. Here, the reverse was done.

Neither Christie, the NJT managers, nor Obama showed any leadership here.

SEAN October 7, 2013 - 3:25 pm

Since we’re on the topic of Sandy, the PBS program This Old House newest season is following three families from different shore towns as they go through the rebuilding process. Episodes air on WLIW at 7PM on Sunday. http://www.pbs.org. Ep 1 aired yesterday.

Phil October 7, 2013 - 3:39 pm

I wonder if this is all just a way for Christie to just reduce funding to NJT in some way. I’m glad I don’t commute from NJ.

Nathanael October 7, 2013 - 10:17 pm

Christie seems to be compulsively dishonest, and incompetent. Weinstein… is compulsively dishonest *and* incompetent.

Sorry your state is so screwed up, New Jersey.


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