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Even more stories about Sandy and NJ Transit

Posted by: · Published in 2013 | Comments (18)

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.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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NJ Transit draws political ire as depths of Sandy failures come to light

Posted by: · Published in 2013 | Comments (38)

Redacted no longer.

New Jersey Transit’s response — or lack thereof– to Hurricane Sandy is seemingly the gift that keeps on giving. Nearly ten months after the storm, thanks to one diligent Garden State newspaper, we now have a much clearer picture of how New Jersey Transit’s plans were simply ignored even as their own internal models badly under-predicted the looming storm. No one has yet to be held responsible, but Jersey politicians are starting to focus their rage on the rightly beleaguered transit agency.

By now, the backstory is getting familiar. The agency suffered through $450 million in damage to its rolling stock when officials made a slew of mistakes including, as I mentioned, erroneous storm modeling. Claiming that their emergency preparedness plans dictated such a decision, NJ Transit moved trains into vulnerable areas but released fully redacted documents when pressed for their storm plans.

In May, The Record sued for access to the non-redacted version of the plans, and this week, they won. The headline of the resulting article says it all: “NJ Transit didn’t follow its own storm plan.” Karen Rouse had the details, and I’ll excerpt at length:

Newly released internal documents show NJ Transit had a plan in place for moving railcars and locomotives to higher ground as Superstorm Sandy approached, raising further questions about why the agency left hundreds of pieces of equipment in low-lying locations in the storm’s path, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. Only after The Record filed a public-records suit did the transit agency release a 3½-page copy of a hurricane plan prepared four months before the storm that advised transferring commuter trains to several upland sites. Nowhere did the plan recommend what NJ Transit ended up doing: moving millions of dollars worth of rail­cars and engines to a low-lying yard near water, where they were inundated by Sandy’s storm surge.

The NJ Transit document stands in stark contrast to the more detailed hurricane plan prepared by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which, taking into account concerns about global warming, enabled the transit system to move the vast majority of its trains to higher ground, saving all but 11 of its rail­cars from flood damage. The damage to 343 pieces of NJ Transit equipment in low-lying yards in Kearny and Hoboken — 70 locomotives and 273 railcars, a third of the railroad’s fleet — is estimated at $120 million. The damaged equipment also included seven railcars and seven locomotives owned by the MTA that NJ Transit stored in Kearny, site of the agency’s sprawling Meadows Maintenance Complex.

The “NJ Transit Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” prepared in June 2012 directs NJ Transit’s train crews to move railcars and locomotives “from flood-prone areas to higher ground” in the event of a hurricane or severe tropical storm. The plan is brief, but it lists more than a half-dozen locations where equipment is to be moved. Commuter railcars and locomotives used on the Main and Bergen lines would be stored in the Waldwick Yard, according to the plan. Equipment serving the agency’s Hoboken Division would be stored in the Bergen Tunnels under the Palisades. And cars and engines serving the Atlantic City Line would be moved to a yard in central South Jersey.

Yet, for reasons the agency has declined to explain or discuss, NJ Transit crews stored trains at the Kearny Yard and left others in Hoboken. Both yards occupy low ground near bodies of water and both flooded in the storm surge. Neither was mentioned in the hurricane plan as a place to relocate equipment in a storm emergency.

New Jersey Transit officials refused to comment, but other New Jersey politicians were more than willing to share their thoughts. “It is unconscionable that someone could get away with it. If I squander $100 million, the governor would be the first person to fire me,” Upendra Chivukula, Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly, said to WNYC’s Alex Goldmark.

Chivukula is one of many high ranking New Jersey politician to call for an investigation into NJ Transit’s practices and an ouster if necessary. He believes Executive Director Jim Weinstein should resign over the way the agency responded — or didn’t respond — to the threat of Sandy. “The process for finding out who made the decision, if that’s the key factor, should not be difficult for the governor,” he said. “The poor decision making process under the Governor’s jurisdiction should not tolerated.”

It’s long been a no-brainer to me. New Jersey Transit ignored their internal procedures and ignored the warning signs. The mistakes were costly, and no one has been held responsible yet. Being stronger than the storm means being ready for the storm and taking responsibility for failures.

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The ultimate story of NJ Transit’s Sandy mistakes

Posted by: · Published in 2013 | Comments (26)

A screenshot of the heavily-redacted documents New Jersey Transit supplied in response to WNYC’s FOIA request.

Since Superstorm Sandy swept through the region in November, I’ve followed the story of New Jersey Transit’s utterly inept reply very closely. The agency suffered $450 million worth of damage to its rolling stock because it made many mistakes including erroneous modeling and the ignominious decision to ignore a report on vulnerabilities which led agency officials to move trains to vulnerable areas. No one has been fired yet.

Now, though, we have the ultimate tale in this saga as WNYC’s Kate Hinds and Andrea Bernstein have put together a comprehensive look at New Jersey Transit’s response. Their piece compares NJ Transit’s actions with those from the MTA, and the Garden State’s rail agency does not come out looking prepared or knowledgeable. It remains a stunning gap in leadership that has gone unpunished in the intervening months.

Throughout the piece, Hinds and Bernstein tackle some familiar territory. The two reporters focus on how NJ Transit used models with incorrect data inputs that led them to think vulnerable areas were safe. They track how officials ignored dire warnings relating to flood zones and rising tides. They touch upon the excuses officials have put forward and the lack of responsibility assumed by anyone in the storm’s aftermath, but as an exercise in synthesis, it tells a very damning story.

“The fate of NJ Transit’s trains – over a quarter of the agency’s fleet – didn’t just hang on one set of wrong inputs,” the two write. “It followed years of missed warnings, failures to plan, and lack of coordination under Governor Chris Christie, who has expressed ambivalence about preparing for climate change while repeatedly warning New Jerseyans not to underestimate the dangers of severe storms.”

When compared with the MTA’s uber-preparedness in the aftermath of both a crushing summer rain storm in 2007 and Hurricane Irene in 2011, NJ Transit’s response is even more bewildering. The trouble started at the top, and even as Andrew Cuomo and Joe Lhota stayed in close contact, Chris Christie and Jim Weinstein did not. Meanwhile, Hinds and Bernstein offer us more details on the reports NJ Transit commissioned and ignored:

In 2010, David Gillespie, the agency’s Director of Energy and Sustainability, rustled up funding for his own study: “Resilience of NJ Transit Assets to Climate Impacts.” The report was commissioned, Gillespie explained in a presentation to planners in March 2012, to help him sort through a pile of literature that he described as “two-and-a-half feet high.”

The report, prepared by First Environment of Boonton, NJ, also did not mince words. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” it said. And, on page three, it referenced the “Flooded Bus Barns” report, emphasizing that “NJ Transit is already experiencing many of the climate impacts (flooding, excessive heat, larger storms) that are expected to occur in the Northeast over the next 20 years.”

The report specifically did not include recommendations for how to handle train cars. “The mitigation plan we have for moveable assets – our rolling stock – is we move it out of harm’s way when something’s coming,” Gillespie said in his presentation. Still, the report suggested the Meadows Maintenance Complex (MMC), located on dozens of acres in Kearny and positioned between the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers — might have actually been in harms way in a “storm surge area.”

Gillespie gave several presentations of the report at professional conferences. He shared the report with counterparts at other transit agencies and with the Federal Transit Administration. But, requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records act for all of Gillespie’s emails referring to climate change (which filled an entire box) unearthed no evidence he sounded alarms at NJ Transit about the report, or that he even delivered it to the rail operations team.

The reporting then moves to focus on how NJ Transit ignored week-of forecasts as well:

In the days leading up to Sandy, NJ Transit was at the receiving end of a series of increasingly chilling reports from the National Weather Service that warned of record storm tides of up to 15 feet. “Very Dangerous Hurricane Sandy,” read the briefing issued Sunday, October 28. It contained a personal plea from Szatkowski to take the storm seriously. “If you think this storm is over-hyped and exaggerated, please err on the side of caution,” [National Weather Service’s Gary] Szatkowski wrote to the agency. That kind of warning “never happens,” he later told WNYC.

New Jersey’s state climatologist, David Robinson, told a panel at a January transportation conference that the forecasting was “brilliant.” “Sandy hadn’t even formed yet,” he said, “and models were showing a major storm.… We had plenty of warning.”

But despite this, NJ Transit was not prepared for the storm surge that swept in and engulfed its yards. Weinstein maintains he was at the yards at around five p.m. on Monday evening when the storm was on its way. “There was no flooding, no indication of flooding. The elevation is about 10 feet. A storm surge of six feet reinforces what we are telling you.”

But the prediction was for up to 15 feet, and even at low probabilities, Szatkowski says those numbers “convey huge, dangerous risk to both life & property.… Based on an analysis, if there was a 10 percent risk of a particular bridge collapsing over the next 72 hours, would that be deemed an acceptable risk? I don’t think so. A 10 percent risk of a catastrophe is huge.”

The real kicker though comes in the documentation. The MTA has publicly released hundreds of pages of documents concerning storm preparedness efforts. New Jersey Transit’s response to a FOIA request for its rail operations hurricane plan was a four-page document in which every single word was redacted. Did they even have a plan or did they just black out four pages to make it seem like their super-secret (and seemingly inept) plan can’t be revealed to the public?

It’s been nearly seven months since Sandy, and the same people are still in charge in New Jersey. We’ve heard story after story highlighting the poor responses, the bad decisions and the misinformed officials, and yet no one has been fired. Does Chris Christie have such a low regard for New Jersey Transit? Is he concerned that admitting an error in hurricane response will hurt his national image? Is everyone willfully ignoring what happened? Now that we know the story from Sandy, these questions demand answers.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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NJ Transit rolling stock Sandy damage to top $450 million

Posted by: · Published in 2013 | Comments (20)

For New York City and the MTA, the post-Sandy recovery has come in fits and starts. Transit managed to protect its expensive rolling stock from any storm- or flooding-related damage, but the tunnel infrastructure suffered billions of dollars in damage. The subway connection to the Rockaways and the 1 train’s South Ferry terminal remain temporarily out of service for the long haul.

For Transit officials, Sandy and the storm surge provided an opportunity to conduct a real-life test of contingency plans the agency had developed over the past half a decade. Since a strong summer rainstorm swamped the system a few years ago and since Irene’s near-miss in 2011, MTA staffers had worked to put together a plan that would provide as much protection as possible. Even though the agency got service back up and running within days of the storm, it could do only so much to protect some of the immovable infrastructure from damage. Tunnels were flooded; signals destroyed; but as I said, the rolling stock remained safe and dry.

Across the river, New Jersey Transit had no such luck. There, officials erroneously modeled storm surges, failed to heed internal warnings and suffered significant operational damage. To make matters worse, everyone involved in planning for the storm is still employed.

As more time has passed, we have come to learn that New Jersey Transit’s damage was even worse than first believed. A recent article in The Record from Bergen County reveals that damage to rolling stock alone could top $450 million, and to make matters worse, the agency has had trouble tracking down spare parts. Karen Rouse had the report:

NJ Transit said [last week] that more rail cars and locomotives — 342 — were damaged by superstorm Sandy than originally thought and that the cost of the storm to the agency has risen to $450 million. Originally, 323 pieces of equipment were reported as damaged and the costs of the storm was thought to be $400 million.

But even as the agency revised upwards its damage and cost estimates, officials could not say where the equipment would be placed if a similar storm were to occur in the near future. “NJ Transit does not speak in hypotheticals,” spokesman John Durso said, adding that the agency is “exploring both short term and long term solutions for safe harbor storage for storms on par with – or exceeding that of Super Storm Sandy.”

…Now, the race to repair the equipment is being hampered by difficulty NJ Transit is facing in finding spare parts, Weinstein said. “The major challenge right now is the repair of the multi-levels [rail cars],” said [Executive Director Jim] Weinstein. He said NJ Transit and Bombardier, a Canadian company that manufactures much of the rail equipment, will be meeting Thursday.

“We’re in the process now of fixing what we believe the price per car will be to fix it,” Weinstein said. He said there are 77 multi-levels that need to be repaired, as well as large diesel and dual-mode locomotives. “The challenge is parts. All of our replacement parts for all of those were destroyed when the maintenance facility flooded.”

You’ll have to pardon my repeated incredulity over the scope of this story, but as more information emerges in fits and starts from the Garden State, no one emerges looking as though they had a clue. New Jersey Transit keps its rolling stock and the replacement parts in the same low-lying flood plane that luckily — or unluckily — enough hadn’t flooded but was clearly vulnerable. They still haven’t identified a price per car for the repairs and seem to have no clear-cut contingency plan in place for the next big storm.

Some of these short-comings will clearly be resolved in the coming weeks and months, but to me, this shows a clear inattention to transit and a lack of understanding of the importance of New Jersey Transit in the region’s economy. Nearly 1 million riders rely on NJ Transit each weekday, but these folks are seemingly an afterthought in the eyes of planners tasked with protecting the system. Somehow, everyone in charge on the day Sandy swept through the area is still in charge today, and that should not stand.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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Reuters: NJ Transit officials erroneously modeled Sandy surge

Posted by: · Published in 2013 | Comments (9)

Even as New Jersey Transit nears its pre-Sandy service levels, stories of its storm preparation failures have continued to emerge. Despite questions concerning what NJ Transit executives knew and when, we’ve seen Gov. Christie defend his deputies in charge of the transit agency. Now, a new casts further light on mistakes New Jersey Transit made in advance of Sandy’s landfall.

The latest comes to us from Reuters where Ryan McNeill and Janet Roberts have reported that NJ Transit botched its own modeling. They report:

New Jersey Transit incorrectly used federal government software that otherwise could have warned officials against a disastrous decision to leave hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment in a low-lying rail yard before Superstorm Sandy struck, a Reuters examination has found. The agency based its decision, at least in part, on software provided by the National Weather Service that allows users to simulate an approaching hurricane and show areas vulnerable to flooding from storm surge, according to Sandy-related forecast documents obtained by Reuters from New Jersey Transit. Exactly how the agency used the software is unclear because the agency declined to answer any specific questions.

Reuters asked for the documents that New Jersey Transit relied upon in deciding to leave the trains at its Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny, New Jersey. Among the documents was a screen-shot of storm prediction software that indicated the user had the storm traveling northeast, away from the New York area, while moving at the wrong speed. As a result, the software predicted surges that were about half the levels actually forecast – errors that underestimated the threat to the Meadows complex.

New Jersey Transit takes issue with the findings. But a Reuters analysis shows that had the software been used to produce surge estimates similar to forecasts, agency leaders could have seen a different picture. The result would have pointed to potential inundation of a large portion of the rail yard, mirroring the flooding that ultimately occurred.

In a back-and-forth with Reuters, New Jersey Transit defended its actions. “NJ Transit used the most current weather forecasts and available data at that time,” spokesman John Durso said, “along with accepted analysis practices by emergency management professionals and historical experiences, to inform and guide decisions up to and through Sandy.”

Yet, despite these protests, a Reuters examination of documents made available by the agency showed that their inputs into the modeling software differed from the forecasts at the time. Additionally, New Jersey Transit did not reach out to the National Weather Service’s New York or New Jersey offices to receive updated forecasts or storm surge predictions.

Ultimately, New Jersey Transit cannot undo their costly mistakes to model the storm and protect their rolling stock, but it seems, again, that someone should be held responsible for the agency’s failures. If anything, the corporate culture seems to be one of isolationism and stubbornness, and the people who suffer the most are the riders. At a certain point, saying “Well, we tried” isn’t good enough, and we’re well past that point.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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Superstorm Sandy and what New Jersey Transit knew

Posted by: · Published in 2012 | Comments (37)

In late November, as Garden State lawmakers grilled the state’s agency officials on their responses to Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Transit executives seemed rather defensive. The rail agency had kept a significant portion of its rolling stock in low-lying areas, and employees and executives kept excusing their decision on the grounds that the areas had never flooded before so why would they know. In light of a new report, these mistakes, which I examined in November, seem even worse today.

As The Record reported yesterday, NJ Transit officials had a document on hand that warned of vulnerabilities and flood risks. The final document [pdf] had been delivered to the agency in June, four months before Sandy hit, and NJ Transit failed to act on its recommendations. That $400 million price tag for the damage continues to be a tough one to swallow.

Karen Rouse has more:

The $45,990 study included a map that shows the Kearny and Hoboken rail yards sit squarely in “storm surge areas.” Sandy floodwaters inundated both yards, swamping locomotives and rail¬cars — including 84 new multilevel passenger cars — and damaging spare parts. In those two yards, damage to railcars and locomotives was estimated at $100 million.

Nearly two months after the storm hit, NJ Transit’s rail service is still not operating at 100 percent. And the decision to leave locomotives and passenger cars in the low-lying yards has provoked a torrent of criticism from lawmakers and rail advocates. Throughout it all, NJ Transit officials, at hearings in Trenton and Washington, D.C., have maintained that they had no prior knowledge the yards could flood.

“I wish I had had the foresight and the understanding to know that a yard in the Meadowlands, in Kearny, that the western part of the yard in Hoboken, which had never flooded before, was going to flood. But I didn’t,” Executive Director Jim Weinstein told the Assembly Transportation Committee during a Dec. 10 hearing that focused largely on the agency’s costly decision not to move the equipment out of harm’s way…

NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. said the report was read by David Gillespie, NJ Transit’s director of energy and sustainability, but characterized it as “generic,” with no specific predictions for flooding of the magnitude caused by Sandy…

Weinstein acknowledged to the Assembly committee earlier this month that while the report was completed, “I confess I have not studied it…That study concluded that we had as much as 20 years to adapt to the [climate] changes that are taking place,” he told lawmakers.

He also said NJ Transit relied on weather reports that showed there was a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of flooding in the yards and that the yards had never flooded before in 30 years. Neither Weinstein nor Durso offered details on the data the agency relied upon.

New Jersey rail advocates are livid. “If someone said there is a 10 to 20 percent chance you’ll get hit crossing Route 1, would you?” Joseph Clift, a former LIRR planner and current NJ-ARP member, said. “That’s basically the equivalent risk they took in the Meadowlands.”

The report also flies in the face of public statements made by New Jersey Transit in November and makes me question current leadership’s ability to lead effectively. Yes, it’s true that these areas had never flooded before, but New Jersey Transit officials essentially played chicken with key equipment and infrastructure. With the forecasts from Sandy particularly dire and state leaders urging residents to move from flood-prone areas, New Jersey Transit left its rolling stock in a spot rather likely to flood. And then when it flooded, they were surprised it did.

To me, New Jersey Transit’s attitude toward Sandy and its aftermath speaks to the way rail is classified in the northeast. Despite the fact that more commuters rely upon commuter rail to get into the city each day than they do bridges and tunnels, rail is treated as an afterthought. It’s impossible to fight for an expansion of the rail network or additional service, and executives running these organizations don’t seem too concerned with the safety and well-being of equipment. Sandy was an absolute failure of leadership at New Jersey Transit, and someone should be held accountable.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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Sandy Updates: Friday morning train service and news & notes

Posted by: · Published in 2012 | Comments (33)

A little fish improves any signal system.

Currently, as Friday dawns and we enter Day 2 of abbreviated subway service, the bulk of Friday’s commute will be the same as Thursday’s. I have a random smattering of updates though that followed the Thursday evening press conference with Andrew Cuomo and Joe Lhota so let’s just dive in.


I outlined most of the subway service in this evening post, but there are a few key changes. First, 7 service actually came back shortly before 9 p.m. Second, 1 and 2 trains are running to 34th St.-Penn Station and not just Times Square. Third, there is no G train service because the tunnel under the Newtown Creek has flooded. It’s unclear when that IND Crosstown service will come back online. Fourth, the Brooklyn Bus Bridge will operate again on Friday. Fifth, the FASTRACK program, scheduled next week for the East Side IRT, has been canceled.

Meanwhile, at this point — and impressively enough — a good portion of subway service is simply awaiting action from Con Edison. The MTA has cleared out the Joralemon St. Tunnel for 4 and 5 train service and the Rutgers St. Tunnel for F train service. The tracks and signals have been inspected, and all that’s missing is power. Once ConEd has turned on the juice, the MTA needs two hours to run test trains and can then restore service. The same holds true for the BMT service across the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. As a reminder, all fares will be free on Friday.

Capital Projects: Second Ave. Subway, East Side Access, 7 Line

Somehow, amazingly enough, the MTA’s capital projects were spared damage from the storm. Early on Thursday, the MTA told me that the Second Ave. Subway, East Side Access project and 7 line extension were OK and spared any flooding, but that minimizes what happened. According to Ted Mann of The Wall Street Journal, East River floodwaters came within 20 feet of the Second Ave. Subway construction site at 96th St. Can you imagine if the renaissance of the Second Ave. Subway had been snuffed out by a historic hurricane? It’s almost fitting.

Metro-North, LIRR

Various services have been restored on the area’s commuter rails. The LIRR is offering hourly service to Penn Station along the Babylon and Huntington Branches in addition to services already in place. Metro-North is running trains between Croton-Harmon and Grand Central on the Hudson Line on a normal weekday schedule; between New Haven and Stamford/Grand Central by midday Friday; and between Southeast and Grand Central by the morning.

New Jersey Transit, PATH and Amtrak

New Jersey Transit is offering very limited service out of New York Penn Station on Friday. The full schedules can be found right here. Amtrak is running some modified service out of Penn Station as well on Friday but advises customers to call ahead. Finally, the PATH trains are still flooded for what Gov. Cuomo estimated was five miles out from the World Trade Center stop. PATH service has been suspended until further notice.

And that’s all she wrote tonight.

Categories : Service Advisories
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A looming fare hike highlights NJ Transit’s problems

Posted by: · Published in 2015 | Comments (50)

Although this site is largely focused on New York City transit, it’s hard to ignore New Jersey’s impact on the region. I don’t quite follow the daily ins and outs of New Jersey’s transportation scene as I do New York’s as that is a frustratingly Sisyphean, but as the state with the fifth greatest number of unlinked transit trips in the nation — and one that feeds directly into New York City — we can’t just ignore it under a more transit-friendly administration is in place. These days, we’re talking fare hikes.

The scandal of the week from the Garden State involves Exxon. The state had sued for over $8 billion in environmental damages, and the suit was headed to a damages determination when Gov. Chris Christie opted to settle for $225 million, cents on the dollars. From news stories to Op-Ed columns, The Times has covered this environmental and taxpayer scandal closely since breaking the story last week, and it’s worth paying attention here as it reverberates from a local to a national level. But that’s hardly the only story at play.

Yet again, New Jersey Transit is gearing up to raise its fares, and the hike — designed to cover an operating budget gap — could be by as much as 25 percent. Larry Higgs had the story:

NJ Transit commuters should brace themselves for possible fare hikes of 25 percent or more in addition to service cuts, a transit advocate warns, as the agency struggles to close an $80 million budget gap.

And while NJ Transit officials insist a fare increase would be lower than 2010’s fare hike and is on the table only as a “last resort,” the last time the agency faced an $80 million budget gap, in 1981, it jacked fares by 50 percent over three years and introduced significant service cutbacks. “It’s a safe assumption it will be greater than 25 percent by the amount of revenue needed to fill the hole,” said Veronica Vanterpool, Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director. “The funding structure for NJ Transit is broken. What we need is a new funding structure.”

Other factors that could affect a fare increase include the cost to settle expired contracts with 20 unions, which make up more than 9,000 of NJ Transit’s 11,000 employees. Many of those contracts expired five and six years ago. However, any fare increase under consideration will include those contract costs, said Nancy Snyder, an NJ Transit spokeswoman. “We recognize the 2010 fare adjustment was a serious burden on customers,” Snyder said. “We would not repeat that level of adjustment, which was required because of years of refusing to make tough choices including retraining costs and adjusting fares to meet needs.”

New Jersey Transit, as we know, hasn’t been a paragon of a well-run transit agency. Their utter lack of emergency flood preparedness cost them a few hundred million dollars in damage due to Hurricane Sandy, and Gov. Christie’s decision to kill ARC without a potential replacement has saddled the agency with the same operations challenges it has faced for decades. The sources of the $80 million gap, as others have noted, are numerous and include raising costs and increased spending on labor. The fare hikes to cover this gap will be steep.

Meanwhile, it’s worthy pondering how and why New Jersey’s drivers get off so easily. Even as hundreds of millions of transit riders pass through the Garden State’s transit network, drivers haven’t seen a corresponding increase in the gas tax in 25 years. The imbalance affects us all as it leads to more cars on the road and less money to maintain or even expand the transit network. It’s a strange and uncomfortable situation that isn’t going to change any time soon.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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How much is that PATH train in the window?

Posted by: · Published in 2014 | Comments (109)

Public transit subsidies are always a rather thorny issue when it comes to politics. There’s a compelling argument to be made that public transit should be subsidized to some degree or other as it allows people who can’t afford to live in downtown/center city areas relatively cheap access to job and cultural centers as well as other social services. There’s also an argument to be made that transit users should cover the operations and capital costs of the system, but until the nation’s drivers start footing all the bills for road maintenance and expansion, I have a tougher time buying into that argument.

In New York city, after years of divestment by state and city officials, riders carry most of the burden of their subway system. New York City Transit still enjoys the benefits of the MTA, but subway riders foot around two-thirds of the cost of a subway ride these days. Based on recent studies, in fact, the per-passenger subsidy is around $1. As far as American transit systems go, that’s a tiny subsidy, and we need look no further than our own city to find a transit network that seems to bleed money.

As Business Week explored recently, the Port Authority’s PATH system is woefully inefficient. PATH, noted the magazine, is more expensive than any comparable system and shouldn’t even be compared to Transit’s subway network. According to recent studies, the per-passenger cost of a PATH ride to Port Authority is $8.45, and the average fare of just under $2 doesn’t even cover a quarter of these costs. The New York City subway on the other hand relies on subsidies of around $1.11.

Business Week tried to explore why these cost discrepancies are so pronounced. As Port Authority auditors and watchdogs grow increasingly wary of the unruly agency, the money PATH is bleeding is coming under increased scrutiny. Martin Z. Braun reports:

The agency faces challenges across its portfolio of operations. Spending on policing has doubled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and now consumes almost a quarter of the agency’s operating budget, Bloomberg News reported in June. Last year, its marine terminals lost 2 percentage points of market share. PATH has been a financial millstone around the Port Authority’s neck since it took over the bankrupt Hudson & Manhattan railroad in a 1962 trade between New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In exchange for getting the Port Authority to take over the H&M Hudson Tubes, as the rail line was known at the time, Hughes allowed Rockefeller to use the Port Authority to develop the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan…

While public officials and transportation analysts have pointed to the railroad’s low fares and its lack of state and federal aid to explain its strained finances, less attention has been paid to expenses. The 2012 national transit data include the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which struck Oct. 29 and knocked out PATH service. Even so, PATH’s cost per hour the year before was also higher than the New York subway system’s, by about two-and-a-half times. Federal Railroad Administration regulations, higher maintenance costs and round-the-clock service have boosted spending compared with other transit systems, Port Authority officials say.

A major difference between PATH and the New York subway system is that the trans-Hudson rail is regulated by the FRA while the Federal Transit Administration oversees the subway. The FRA imposes stricter safety standards and labor requirements, imposing higher costs, Port Authority officials said. Before each run, PATH workers must test a train’s air brakes, signals and acceleration, Mike Marino, PATH’s deputy director, said in a telephone interview. When a train gets to its terminus, workers repeat the test. In addition, every 90 days all of PATH’s rail cars undergo a three-day inspection at a facility in Harrison, New Jersey. Brakes, lights, communications, heating and air conditioning, signals and odometers are all checked, Marino said. “It’s a very intense inspection on every piece of rolling stock,” he said.

According to Business Week, PATH has tried to lobby for a move to the FTA rather than the FRA, but the FRA has resisted the switch as PATH “runs parallel to high-speed trains operated by NJ Transit, Amtrak and freight-line CSX Corp.”

The real question is what comes next. New Jersey officials seem keen to dump PATH on the MTA, but that wouldn’t solve the cost problem. It’s not clear that New York would accept sole responsibility for a bi-state rail system, and without the FTA assuming oversight, the MTA wouldn’t readily embrace taking on a money-losing proposition that’s committed to an unnecessary multi-billion-dollar Newark Airport extension.

New Jersey Transit too remains a possible destination, but that could lead to service reductions — a scary thought for a system that has helped drive renaissance efforts in Jersey City and Hoboken. New Jersey politicians do not view an NJT merger as a solution either. This too seems simpy to shift the problem from one agency to another.

PATH’s cost issue is clearly not sustainable, but it can operate with some level of subsidy. The question now focuses around how to reduce that subsidy without decreasing service or significantly upping fares. Anyone have any brilliant ideas?

Categories : PANYNJ
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A new leader, and old scandals, for New Jersey Transit

Posted by: · Published in 2014 | Comments (13)

It’s been a rough decade for New Jersey Transit. What started out so promisingly with the ground-breaking for the ARC Tunnel has devolved into today’s mess. One of the busiest commuter rail lines in the nation and a key artery between New York and New Jersey has become bogged down in scandals surrounding inept responses to a hurricane and poorly planned Super Bowl contingencies. Even with a new leader, old stories continue to plague an agency trying to move forward against the tides of the past.

Earlier this week, Ronnie Hakim, a one-time MTA exec and former head of New Jersey’s Turnpike Authority, hosted her first board meeting as the new executive director of New Jersey Transit. After botched the Sandy prep and the Super Bowl logistics, Jim Weinstein finally lost his job at the end of February, and Hakim is the one in charge of picking up the pieces. So far, she’s saying the right things.

For the first month of her job, she’s conducting a listening tour. She’ll speak with riders and workers, with politicians and the public, about New Jersey Transit and ways to improve operations, customer service and morale. “The average service time of our employees is over 20 years” she said this week. “They are people who take a tremendous amount of pride in what they do — and that pride has been beaten on. It has been really difficult. It’s almost like you want to say, this is not ‘Groundhog Day,’ right? Every day is not about the past. Every day should be about the future, and my job is to refocus us on the future.”

Yet, the ghosts of problems past continue to haunt NJ Transit. Earlier this week, the New Jersey State Assembly held a hearing on the problems that arose on Super Bowl Sunday, and New Jersey Transit failed to show. John Wisniewski, head of the Garden State Assembly’s Transportation Committee, succinctly summarized why NJ Transit’s issues that day should be of major concern to the region’s transit advocates. “We saw what happened at the Super Bowl almost as an advertisement as to why you should not take the train,” he said.

NJ Transit officials plan to speak with the Assembly at some point this year, and the agency’s board is conducting its own review. There is no word as to when their findings will be released. Newspapers in New Jersey remain skeptical.

Meanwhile, even the ARC Tunnel, once New Jersey Transit’s savior, reared its zombie head this week in an extensive Times profile of Gov. Chris Christie’s relationship with the Port Authority:

Mr. Christie also used the agency to help him out of political jams. When he came into office, his state’s Transportation Trust Fund, traditionally financed by the gas tax, was nearly empty. But Mr. Christie, as a candidate, had pledged not to raise taxes. The Port Authority’s involvement in a major project, it turned out, presented a perfect solution.

In 2010, Mr. Christie canceled construction on a planned railroad tunnel under the Hudson River that would have eased congestion for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains, and used $1.8 billion that the Port Authority had planned to spend on it to fill the trust fund.

This isn’t really anything we didn’t know or at least surmise about the long lost ARC dollars. They never went to transit improvements, as Christie once said, and the governor’s claims that he was primarily concerned with cost overruns still rings semi-hollow. Yet, the fact that there is no ARC Tunnel, that Gateway is decades away, that New Jersey Transit is stuck with the century-old pair of tracks leading to New York City will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future.

So Hakim takes over an agency whose ship needs righting. Hopefully, she’s up for the job, but it’s a thankless one without much support for her own bosses. Is there a clear way forward for New Jersey Transit? We’ll find out soon enough.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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