Oct
14

A look inside New Jersey’s transit problem

By
New Jersey Transit's Hoboken crash was a tragic illustration of an agency in disarray. (Source: NTSB)

New Jersey Transit’s Hoboken crash was a tragic illustration of an agency in disarray. (Source: NTSB)

For New Jersey Transit, Thursday was, in its own pathetic way, a big day. Meeting for the time in months, the agency’s board finally filled its executive director vacancy — a spot left open since Ronnie Hakim decamped for New York City Transit — by appointing Steve Santoro, an accomplished project manager who may be in over his head, to lead the beleaguered agency. Santoro refused to commit to being available for press inquiries and stated in the obvious in his introductory remarks. “There are certainly challenges that we need to face going forward,” he said.

To say that it is an understatement would itself be an understatement. New Jersey Transit reeling from the recent crash in Hoboken, has come under intense federal scrutiny for recent safety lapses, and must find a way out of its current doldrums. With riders facing the strain of bad service and ever-increasing fares, it’s a nearly impossible task, and that’s thanks to the man at top — Gov. Chris Christie.

It’s no secret that I don’t believe Christie to be a friend of transit. It’s a remarkable charge for a governor of New Jersey, a state that wouldn’t exist in its current form without transit. With so many residents bound for jobs in New York City and a river serving as an imposing geographic barrier, New Jersey Transit’s buses and trains (along with ferries and the Port Authority’s PATH system) provide key lifelines, but Christie has denied New Jersey Transit state funding for years. He also recently engaged in a political showdown over the gas tax that became a back-burner issue as he stumped for Trump until the Hoboken crash made a solution a necessity.

That’s only recent history. We know he canceled the ARC Tunnel six years ago and never spent time or effort identifying or funding a replacement. We know ARC would have been nearing an opening date by now, and we know that Christie canceled ARC over spurious funding claims and not, as he tried to argue in hindsight, over concerns over the deep-cavern tunnel under Macy’s. He put that argument forward only because he knew it would win over New Jersey’s transit advocates who hated Alt-G and were willing to overlook the potentially damaging decision by Christie.

But New Jersey’s transit problem isn’t limited to my re-litigating the ARC Tunnel cancelation for the umpteenth time. Rather, we turn to The Times for a lengthy piece on New Jersey Transit’s current crisis. Some highlights:

The result can be felt by commuters daily. So far this year, the railroad has racked up at least 125 major train delays, about one every two days. Its record for punctuality is declining, and its trains are breaking down more often — evidence that maintenance is suffering…

A decade ago, New Jersey Transit was laying the groundwork for robust growth. While ridership has indeed boomed — nearly 20 percent more passengers have flooded the system in the past seven years — the railroad has failed to make the investments in infrastructure needed to meet the rising demand or to simply provide reliable service.

Today, its trains break down about every 85,000 miles, a sharp decline from 120,000 miles between breakdowns four years ago. The region’s two other large commuter rail systems, the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad, are twice as reliable: Their trains travel more than 200,000 miles between breakdowns. New Jersey Transit also reported more major mechanical failures: 213 in 2014, compared with 89 for the Long Island Rail Road and 169 for Metro-North…

Today’s grim picture is a far cry from the recent past, when major investments by the agency helped to fuel a real estate boom in New Jersey. Three initiatives — Midtown Direct in 1996, the Montclair Connection in 2002 and Secaucus Junction in 2003 — increased the value of homes near lines with improved service by $23,000 on average, according to a 2010 report by the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group. All together, the projects raised home values by $11 billion…

Under the Christie administration, the agency’s finances have been dealt a blow. The direct state subsidy to its operating budget plummeted to $33 million last year from $348 million in 2009, according to the agency’s financial reports.

With delays frequent and state support short, NJ Transit has raised fares by around 30% since the start of the Christie administration, and as some New Jersey residents told The Times, the constant pressure is starting to erode resident comfort. “The railroad’s falling reputation,” The Times states, “some fear, could push people out of the state and turn others off from living there.”

So that seems to be the current end-game. New Jersey Transit service has degraded to the point where people are considering and following through on moves to other New York City suburbs with better transit access to their jobs. It’s a cautionary tale for New Jersey and one that should serve as a wake-up call to Christie’s eventually successor. The region’s economic health depends on a healthy New Jersey Transit, and right now, the Garden State has a ways to go.



Categories : New Jersey Transit

23 Responses to “A look inside New Jersey’s transit problem”

  1. Douglas John Bowen says:

    Hey, blame us if you want for sinking ARC, but we did *NOT* “overlook” the negative impact of ARC’s demise. It weighed on us, heavily.

    That’s not to say there wasn’t any upside for the state (a better plan, Gateway, that critics said would take “decades” to push into place — it took three months, courtesy of Sens. Lautenberg and Menendex). Or even for us — the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers routinely is/was criticized for supporting any rail project regardless of merit, so we get to lay low a shibboleth.

    But we’re very aware that 20/20 hindsight allows critics, including Mr. Kabak, opens us up to implications of “dunderhead” decisionmaking. We’ll take it. We’ve got a better plan in place now, one that actually has advanced (though only in token form) farther than ARC ever did. And that superior plan is being advanced by forces that range beyond just NJ Transit — the corporation that, as stated above pretty accurately, has dropped the ball in so many ways.

    • Anonymous says:

      That “better” Gateway plan will arrive a decade or more later than ARC, involves knocking down a block of Manhattan real estate for Penn South, and will require the use of Amtrak’s slow & incompetent force account labor. The recent backlash about taking Midtown land for the bus terminal should be a concern for Penn South. And go ask LIRR how Amtrak has caused years of delay and higher costs for East Side Access.

    • Nyland8 says:

      My first thought was to ask how many moons orbit your planet, but it’s obvious your agenda has little or nothing to do with what’s best for NJ mass-transit commuters.

      Your “better plan in place now” is one that I will never see in my lifetime.

    • mister says:

      But we’re very aware that 20/20 hindsight allows critics, including Mr. Kabak, opens us up to implications of “dunderhead” decisionmaking.

      It’s not just hindsight. Pretty much every transit advocate was jumping up and down and screaming that it was a terrible idea from the day it happened. Even the federal government, who sent the transportation secretary to try to change the decision, with no success.

      We’ve got a better plan in place now, one that actually has advanced (though only in token form) farther than ARC ever did.

      ?

      ARC had actually begun construction on structures in NJ, and had a winning bidder onboard for the construction of the tunnels under the Hudson. Does Gateway even have a completed EIS yet? How could this be considered ‘farther advanced’?

    • Nick says:

      Unfortunately even if the Gateway plan is better, it has not even started construction yet. The Portal Bridge was approved in 2009 and some funding was granted and it was supposed to be completed by 2017.

      Construction has not even started yet. I think we’ll be lucky to see any of the Gateway Project results by 2030 and it may be too late by then.

  2. NattyB says:

    He put that argument forward only because he knew it would win over New Jersey’s transit advocates who hated Alt-G and were willing to overlook the potentially damaging decision by Christie.

    I did not know that. Why did they hate it? Going to Grand Central would’ve enhanced regional transit significantly and the utility of the ARC tunnel.

    • Nathanael says:

      Alt G should have been built from day one. It was deep-sixed basically because of worries about the cost of midtown real estate, which is an asinine reason.

  3. Eric F says:

    That article was very odd in that its premise is that underfunding is hurting NJ Transit, but the article never states what NJ Transit’s actual budget is for any year whatsoever. Is funding down or stable (or up)? From the article you get no clue, which is probably telling. There’s an atmospheric about cuts to certain funding sources and mentions of offsets, but no bottom line numbers as to how it all nets out.

    Just googling, I saw for FY 2016 “The Board adopted a $2.116 billion operating budget and a $2.099 billion capital program for the fiscal year that started July 1, 2015.”

    And for FY 2015: “The Board approved a $2.019 billion operating budget and a $1.203 billion capital program for the fiscal year that started July 1, 2014.”

    So it’s actually up smartly at least for that one year.

    Upshot:

    1: NJ Transit has huge capacity expansion needs
    2: Article is amateurish

    • Webster says:

      Under the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, the state subsidy for the agency has plunged by more than 90 percent. Gaping holes in the agency’s past two budgets were filled by fare increases and service reductions or other cuts.

      Under the Christie administration, the agency’s finances have been dealt a blow. The direct state subsidy to its operating budget plummeted to $33 million last year from $348 million in 2009, according to the agency’s financial reports.

      That decline has been offset by temporary infusions from New Jersey’s toll roads and utilities. But each year the railroad’s executives are still left to figure out where they will get the money to keep the trains running. New Jersey Transit has also had to divert billions of dollars from its capital budget to pay for operating costs, siphoning money from future improvements.

      I think the point being made in the article is more about funding uncertainty, and that this dithering has affected capital expansion (rolling stock, PTC, etc) and ability to perform routine maintenance.

      It’s unavoidable that there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in NJ: my property values may have improved because of public services, but don’t you dare tax that value to pay for them/more.

      • Webster says:

        *updated for clarity

        I think the point being made in the article is more about funding uncertainty, and that this dithering has affected capital expansion (rolling stock, PTC, etc) and ability to perform routine maintenance.

        It’s unavoidable that there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in NJ: my property values may have improved because of public services, but don’t you dare tax that value to pay for them/more.

      • Eric F says:

        “It’s unavoidable that there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in NJ: my property values may have improved because of public services, but don’t you dare tax that value to pay for them/more.”

        If your view is that NJ’s principal problem is undertaxation, I think you are way off. But don’t worry the next governor will raise every single tax in your state beyond the current Corzine levels and I suppose bliss will follow.

        • Webster says:

          Sorry, was busy trying to figure out how to blockquote.

          I don’t think under taxation is an issue. However, I do think many residents and electeds take for granted the effect proper transportation connections has on property values and the State’s revenues.

          It’s pretty clear sabotaging public services – particularly those that have a directly appreciable effect on both stated above – has been bad for the State, and it was this that Christie was elected to do.

          To put it bluntly, one can’t have the cake (great property values) and eat it, too (keep as much of it untaxed as possible). Then again, this is heading more into the territory in which I begin to argue that we should tax land value, not improvements, but I digress…

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          The problem in New Jersey isn’t undertaxation. The problem is that New Jerseyans pay lots of taxes, to the Federal Government, that then get sent to places in red states. Makes their lives comfortable enough that their hobby can be whining about how much money the government spends.
          I’m not gonna go look up current numbers. Last time I looked, it was roughly a billion dollars a MONTH that New Jersey sends to the Federal Government that never comes back.

          • Eric F says:

            That ratio is likely to become even more skewed when the feds finally close the military base (M-D-L). High income states with little in the way of military or national park presence are going to have that skewed ratio. It makes for a good but irrelevant sound bite. NJ will always vote to increase income taxes on its relatively high-earning tax payers and the transfer payments will naturally go to lower-income people out of state.

            • Nathanael says:

              We need to close all those subsidy-hog military bases in red states. That’ll even it up. The military bases in red states are mostly both useless militarily *and* a dangerous thing to have around.

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          The problem is past under-taxation, made possible by shifting costs to the future.

          Now NJ taxes are higher as a percent of the falling income of state residents, but things are still falling apart.

          It’s about Generation Greed.

    • Webster says:

      Under the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, the state subsidy for the agency has plunged by more than 90 percent. Gaping holes in the agency’s past two budgets were filled by fare increases and service reductions or other cuts.

      Under the Christie administration, the agency’s finances have been dealt a blow. The direct state subsidy to its operating budget plummeted to $33 million last year from $348 million in 2009, according to the agency’s financial reports.

      That decline has been offset by temporary infusions from New Jersey’s toll roads and utilities. But each year the railroad’s executives are still left to figure out where they will get the money to keep the trains running. New Jersey Transit has also had to divert billions of dollars from its capital budget to pay for operating costs, siphoning money from future improvements.

      I think the point being made in the article is more about funding uncertainty, and that this dithering has affected capital expansion (rolling stock, PTC, etc) and ability to perform routine maintenance.
      It’s unavoidable that there’s a certain cognitive dissonance in NJ: my property values may have improved because of public services, but don’t you dare tax that value to pay for them/more.

  4. Ethan Rauch says:

    XHTML

  5. Ethan Rauch says:

    Is the Montclair connection the same as the Kearny connection?

    • Adirondacker12800 says:

      The Montclair Connection is in Montclair and the Kearny Connection is in Kearny. The Kearny Connection connected the former Delaware Lackawanna and Western lines to the former Pennsylvania lines and allowed the trains along the former DL&W to access Penn Station. The Montclair connection connected what was the Montclair branch of DL&W to what was the Greenwood Lake Branch of the Erie that served the rest of Montclair.

      Google can be your friend. To find the link to the Wikipedia article.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kearny_Connection

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montclair_Connection

    • Eric F says:

      I was wondering about that also. This wasn’t a very well-written article, but it’s goal was to inflame not inform. The whole “NJ Transit is experiencing huge ridership gains . . . and is falling apart” makes no sense. The fact is that NJ is budget constrained, and the same relatively content-free rant could equally apply to education, parks, court system, etc. The state is highly taxed but has social spending ambitions far out of scope relative to its revenues. And those ambitions will ratchet up when Murphy is elevated to governor in 2018. Good luck.

      • VLM says:

        The whole “NJ Transit is experiencing huge ridership gains . . . and is falling apart” makes no sense.

        Are you arguing that’s a logical fallacy? Because if you removed your head from Christie’s ass now and then and focus on policies and dollars and reality (a tough concept for idiot Republicans these days), you would understand how ridership can increase while the system falls apart, especially if the rest of the infrastructure (i.e., roads) is worse. But at certain point, the system will fail and the roads will fail and people will move away, as these stories show. So blah blah blah inflame. But think critically now and then.

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