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.