In all of the promotional materials leading up to the Super Bowl, mass transit played a key role. The build-up to the game, much to the chagrin of New Jersey politicians, focused around New York City, but the anti-climactic Super Bowl happened out in the swamps of Jersey. So for weeks on end, organizers urged patrons to take the train to the game as parking would be limited and traffic bad. Little did anyone realize that everyone who took the train to the game would also have to take the train home from the game.
For New Jersey Transit, Sunday night’s debacle in which hordes of football fans waited in close confines outside the Meadowlands train station for up to three hours after the game ended was just another in a long list of problems. This is, after all, the same agency that ignored weather forecasts and moved trains into low-lying, flood-prone areas ahead of the region’s worst hurricane in decades. No one has been held responsible for that mess, and the same people were in charge for last night’s mess.
So here’s what happened: The Super Bowl organizers offered a $51 bus from Met Life Stadium into the city, but those tickets did not sell as briskly as planned. Instead, people who didn’t want to pay for parking or suffer the hassles of driving to the stadium took the train. As per usual, the ride on the way out was crowded, especially at Secaucus Junction, but tolerable. After the game, all hell broke loose. Few fans who paid for the experience of seeing a Super Bowl left early, and so when 30,000 fans headed to the train shortly after the Seahawks won, it was a giant mess.
That crowds piled up long after the game ended isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s tried to take the train home from a concert. New Jersey Transit stresses the convenience of travel to the games, but in nearly five years, they haven’t been able to move crowds away from the stadium when events let out. My first experience came during a Springsteen show in 2009 when we had to wait nearly an hour just to get a train that would take us to Secaucus. Since transfers aren’t timed properly, we had to wait until 40 minutes before a Penn Station-bound train arrived. I haven’t taken NJ Transit to Met Life again.
In dissecting Sunday night’s problems in an interview with The Times, NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein issued some of the most inane comments you will hear from someone tasked to run a transit agency. Noting that nearly 20,000 more fans used the trains than expected, Weinstein seemed more keen to issue zingers than to take responsibility for the mess. Matt Flegenheimer reports:
The reasons, transit and National Football League officials said on Monday, were varied; even the weather, which had been the greatest concern of staging the Super Bowl in the Northeast, may have conspired against the rail system. James Weinstein, New Jersey Transit’s executive director, said in an interview that many fans seemed to have decided on train travel at the last minute, suggesting that a cooler day might have kept some at home. “If today’s weather was yesterday,” he said, referring to Monday’s slushy snowfall, “I think it’s legitimate speculation that the turnout for the Super Bowl would not have been as robust.”
…Still, despite riders’ frustrations — and an acknowledgment from an N.F.L. spokesman that organizers “fell short” of their transit goals — delays almost certainly could have been worse. New Jersey Transit suffered no major breakdowns or other complications. And the agency’s estimate on Sunday evening that about 12,000 fans could be moved per hour proved largely accurate. “It’s not Star Trek,” Mr. Weinstein said, noting the system’s constrained capacity. “You can’t beam people from one place to the other.”
When the agency realized how many people had taken trains, he added, extra buses were summoned to help ease the postgame crush, carrying about 1,800 passengers. “Can we figure out better ways to handle it? I’m sure we can,” he said. “What those are, I’m not sure at this point that I’m able to articulate them.” Mr. Weinstein was asked how he might prepare differently if the Super Bowl returned. “I’d shoot myself,” he said, waiting a beat. “I’m only kidding.”
Hours after the drama unfolded, New Jersey Transit’s Twitter account seemed oblivious to controversy, and it’s stunning to hear Weinstein say they don’t know what they’d do differently. The Meadowlands stop is a dead-end stub that sees service only during peak events and can’t seem to handle post-event loads. It cost over $200 million to build, and somehow, moving out 33,000 fans over the course of three hours is a victory. The decision to kill the ARC Tunnel wouldn’t have solved Sunday’s problems but could have addressed capacity issues on a line that can’t do what it’s designed to do. And somehow, New Jersey Transit thinks this is all one big victory. That’s pathetic.
Even picking on Weinstein, the teflon man behind the response to Sandy, may be a moot point soon. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may soon remove Weinstein from his spot, and if the embattled governor doesn’t act on his own, other Garden State politicians and columnists are starting to make more noise that should lead to Weinstein’s ouster. Even the NFL, notorious for exercising tight control over every element of the Super Bowl, wants to conduct its own investigation.
This wasn’t the “world class transit experience” Weinstein promised fans a few months ago. This was instead business as usual for New Jersey Transit. Anyone who has to rely on that agency’s trains would have expected nothing more, and the New York/New Jersey region pays the price for this service on a regular basis.