Archive for New Jersey Transit
— Tri-State (@Tri_State) March 4, 2015
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.
It’s hard to say which transit agency has had a worse go of it lately. New Jersey Transit had some banner years in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy knocked out hundreds of millions of dollars of rolling stock and followed that up by being unable to cope with greater-than-expected crowds during the 2014 Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Metro-North has been plagued by derailments, collisions and deaths over the past 16 months. It’s not been a good look for either.
So it should come as no surprise then that a New Jersey Transit official who was given the boot, in part, over the agency’s response to Sandy has found a new home at Metro-North. Karen Rouse of The Record had the story:
NJ Transit’s former railroad chief, who was pushed out in March following two tumultuous years that included the flooding of nearly 400 rail cars and locomotives during Superstorm Sandy, has landed a job within New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Kevin O’Connor, the former vice-president of rail at NJ Transit, started April 10 as Metro-North Railroad’s new chief transportation officer, according to Aaron Donovan, spokesman for Metro-North, a division of the MTA that provides rail service in suburban New York and Connecticut…
O’Connor came under intense public scrutiny in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy flooded hundreds of NJ Transit rail cars and locomotives that had been left to sit in low-lying, flood prone rail yards. Documents and emails revealed that NJ Transit did not follow a plan to move the equipment to higher ground, and instead left the rail cars and locomotives in the vulnerable yards in Kearny and Hoboken as Sandy approached. The damage to the equipment was upwards of $120 million.
In February, the Christie Administration shook up NJ Transit, replacing former executive director Jim Weinstein with Ronnie Hakim – herself a onetime former special counsel at the MTA. Hakim dismissed O’Connor and Joyce Gallagher, NJ Transit’s former vice-president for bus operations, within weeks…
Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti, in a written statement, expressed confidence in O’Connor. “I have known Kevin for decades and like many in the railroad industry, I have the utmost respect for his operational skills, his leadership and his management abilities,” said Giuletti, who took leadership of Metro-North in January. “He has 37 years of experience with Amtrak and NJ Transit, both of which are partners with Metro-North, and we will benefit from his long experience.”
O’Connor, according to Rouse, will replace John McNulty, a vice president at Metro-North, who is retiring this year.
Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen O’Connor’s name pop up in the ongoing coverage of New Jersey Transit’s response to Sandy. He repeatedly excused planning that left expensive rolling stock in flood zones and shortly after Sandy, got into a war of words with some of the agency’s critics over NJ Transit’s seemingly inept response to the storm. Yet, transit is incestuous in the northeast, and O’Connor, a few weeks after getting ousted from the Garden State, has landed with New York’s troubled agency. Maybe it’s a fit for both, but it’s certainly reasonable to eye this development skeptically right now.
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.
As a new year dawns, it’s become an annual tradition these days for commuter rail lines in New York City to announce record ridership numbers and continuing growth. Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit have seen numbers not matched since the age of the automobile dawned, and with congestion in the region worsening and gas prices rising, this is a trend with upward growth that shows no signs of slacking off.
Along with higher ridership comes more crowded trains. We’ve seen this in the subways, and commuter rail passengers who are on packed trains every day live through it as well. It is starting to become a problem and one, at that, with no easy solution. Jim O’Grady at WNYC has the story, railroad by railroad:
Riders like Wadler wonder why the railroads don’t simply add more trains. The answer is limited track space. Long Island Railroad has nine branches that converge on a three-track bottleneck beneath the East River that it shares with freight and Amtrak trains. Railroad president Helena Williams says most of those trips end at Penn Station, where track space is at a premium. “We only have so many opportunities to put trains through our system and into Penn Station,” she told WNYC during an interview at the MTA’s Midtown headquarters…
Metro-North has six fewer branch lines and more rail yard space than Long Island Railroad. But it, too, has short platforms and is bursting with passengers, especially on the New Haven Line. Metro-North would like to add double-decker trains, which carry more people and are used by commuter lines around the country, including the LIRR and New Jersey Transit. But spokesman Aaron Donovan says the issue is not enough headroom—for the trains…
New Jersey Transit has dozens of double-decker trains that fit through tunnels under the Hudson River. The problem is the number of tunnels: two. Spokeswoman Nancy Snyder says those two tunnels carry all of the Amtrak and commuter train traffic between Manhattan and points west.
O’Grady’s piece drills down on each railroad’s challenges, and we know that New York City is constrained in that Manhattan is an island. But while the situation is dire, there is some faint glimmer of hope for certain commuters. First, East Side Access may eventually open, bringing more riders on the LIRR and better distributing them throughout the city. The Penn Station Access plan could follow which would help Metro-North. New Jersey Transit, though, in the ARC-less present, is relying on Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel to remove some trains from the Hudson River bottleneck, and it’s not clear when, if ever, that tunnel will become a reality.
We can wring our hands over ARC and the missed opportunities, and we should be worried that few in Albany and Trenton are actively seeking a solution to this capacity problem. We should discuss through-running at Penn Station to bolster capacity as well. But because of geography, politics and economics, these capacity concerns represent a problem that won’t soon disappear.
It has, to say the least, been a rough few years for New Jersey Transit. Over the past year and a half, the current agency leadership has overseen a disastrous response to Hurricane Sandy and, more recently, garnered bad press when football fans had to wait for up to three hours outside of Met Life Stadium when the Super Bowl ended. These were both avoidable problems, but no one seemed to care. It was surprising that no one in the upper echelons of management got the axe following the hurricane, but it seems as though the Super Bowl fallout will cause some heads to roll.
As Karen Rouse of The Record reported this past weekend, it appears as though enough is enough for New Jersey Transit. James Weinstein is ostensibly on the way out as the Executive Director of NJ Transit. As Rouse notes, Weinstein has been a loyal confidant of Gov. Chris Christie’s. He took on the burden of negotiating the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel and negotiated with the feds in coming to terms on a refund for federal funds.
Now, though, the failures have mounted — including one involving canceled NJ Transit trademarks — and amidst other scandals plaguing his administration, Christie is gearing up to cut loose Weinstein. Here’s Rouse’s story:
Weinstein now appears to be on his way out. His faithfulness may not have been enough to overcome a series of high-profile failures that occurred under his watch, most notably, the agency’s ill-fated decision to abandon nearly 400 railcars and locomotives in flood-prone rail yards during Superstorm Sandy and its clumsy handling of Super Bowl transportation. Thousands of football fans were stranded at MetLife Stadium for hours because NJ Transit was unprepared for the 33,000 football fans that overwhelmed the system.
He is expected to be replaced by Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, a former senior vice president at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction program who is currently executive director at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. His pending departure comes amid growing dissatisfaction among NJ Transit employees, who complain of low morale and favoritism in the upper ranks; tensions with Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who, as chairman of NJ Transit’s board, is Weinstein’s boss; and a commuter rail and bus system so plagued with breakdowns that some customers have told the board it’s no longer reliable.
Weinstein declined multiple requests to be interviewed, but friends of the director say Christie’s tight control over NJ Transit has prevented Weinstein from effectively managing the agency’s operations. “Larger policy decisions, larger to medium-sized, the governor’s office is integrally involved,” said Martin Robins, a past deputy executive director at NJ Transit who considers Weinstein a friend. “That is a fact of life at NJ Transit.”
Rouse’s full story is well worth the read. She charts familiar ground in rehashing the problems surrounding the agency’s preparation and response to Sandy, but she delves into the internal state politics of New Jersey Transit as well. The battles between Simpson and Weinstein seem to have been a deciding factor as well.
From Rouse’s story, it doesn’t sound as though Weinstein’s ouster will change much at New Jersey Transit. It may improve morale on a day-to-day basis, but if Trenton is going to insert itself into every major decision, the person heading up the agency doesn’t have nearly enough autonomy to affect real change. Still, such a move shows that someone is watching, albeit symbolically. New Jersey Transit needed a change, and this may be a good first step. I’m not holding my breath for the improvements the railroad needs though.
A week ago, at this very hour, tens of thousands of football fans were awaiting relief. They were jam-packed outside of Met Life Stadium, hoping that some New Jersey Transit train would show up to bring them to Secaucus Junction where they could wait for another train to get them to Penn Station. Despite New Jersey Transit’s later proclamation of a great night, it was a mess, and both New Jersey lawmakers and the National Football League have vowed to conduct investigations into the situation.
It will be some time before the results of yet another investigation into New Jersey Transit’s poor operations procedures are available, but already, stories are leaking out of something between managerial negligence and managerial incompetence. Shocking, I know, but bear with me. Here’s the latest from the Daily News: New Jersey Transit had 100 buses ready to deploy but no one thought to call upon them. Pete Donohue reports:
While tens of thousands of Super Bowl attendees waited for hours to cram into trains after the game Sunday, at least 100 New Jersey Transit buses were on standby about 6 miles away but were never deployed. “They were lined up one after the other,” a source familiar with Super Bowl transportation plans and game day operations said of the buses. “They were staged and ready to go.”
But for some reason, no one called in NJ Transit’s cavalry of commuter coaches as legions of frustrated fans inched out of MetLife Stadium and waited in horrendously long lines for shuttle trains bound for NJ Transit’s Secaucus Junction station…
One source told the Daily News that in order to have staff available, drivers were called in on overtime and NJ Transit canceled vacation days for some workers. Yet despite the planning, no one ordered the rollout of what could have been a solution to the embarrassing postgame mass transit mess. The fleet of buses was viewed merely as a contingency plan in case problems arose at the Secaucus station, sources said. NJ Transit did send about 20 buses to the stadium from a nearby highway rest area, and they arrived not long after the game ended.
I don’t have too much to add here. Snarky comments don’t do this justice. It is, rather, yet another example of New Jersey Transit’s inability to operate a transit system into and out of some of the most densely populated areas of the country and some of the areas that most rely upon transit. Rolling out the buses wouldn’t have solved the problem for all 29,000 people, but such a measure would have been a no-brainer to attempt to tackle the problem.
Ultimately, still, everyone at New Jersey Transit who was employed before the Super Bowl still has his or her job just like all of those upper-level executives were completely botched the agency’s response to Sandy still have their jobs. There is no accountability at New Jersey Transit, and this carelessness seems to run all the way up to Trenton where Gov. Chris Christie said he was “really proud of the work” New Jersey Transit did during the Super Bowl. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, New Jersey Transit is a vital part of the network that ensures congestion in New York City and its environs is kept to a minimum. It deserves better than this.
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.
Much like New Jersey Transit apparently did after the Super Bowl, I’m taking tonight off due to hosting duties. I’ll be back in the morning with a post on the potential fare hikes that may await us in the event the MTA cannot realize its dreams of net-zero wage increase. It ain’t pretty.
Meanwhile, mull on the fact that at nearly 1 a.m., there are still football fans trying to get a New Jersey Transit train from the Meadowlands to Seacuacus. The last trains of the night to various areas are leaving soon, and the so-called mass transit Super Bowl has highlighted the limitations of the areas transit network. This is embarrassing and should be a wake-up call. It probably won’t be though.
A few years ago, shortly after the NJ Transit spur to the Meadowlands opened, I attempted to take the train to a Springsteen concert. Heading there, I had no problems, but on the way home, the trip was a veritable disaster. Crowds surged against barriers; trains came and went; and what should have been a 30-minute trip took two hours.
Since my first attempt at taking the train to what was then Giant Stadium, I haven’t done so since. I’ve seen a few football games and another concert, and each time, I’ve driven. With MetLife Stadium and its higher capacity, the problem hasn’t gone away, and each Sunday, football fans are dismayed to find the train situation little improved since its early days. It will soon find its day in the spotlight though when the Super Bowl arrives in New Jersey in a few weeks.
For all the stadiums in New York City these days, MetLife is frustratingly inaccessible compared to the rest. It’s close to the city but on the wrong side of a bunch of choke points. When 80,000 fans — and 400,000 people — descend upon New York for Super Bowl week, they’re going to have to get around, and the region’s transit agencies are working together to make the process as smooth as possible.
For starters, New Jersey Transit yesterday announced a commemorative Super Pass for Super Bowl week. For $50, riders can enjoy unlimited travel from Monday, January 27 through Monday, February 3 on all New Jersey Transit rail, bus, light right and Access Link services. It’s part of a plan that New York and New Jersey officials hope will see 80 percent of those in the city for the big game use mass transit to get around.
“This is the first ‘Mass Transit Super Bowl, and we’re thrilled to be able to partner with Governor Christie and NJ TRANSIT to offer this convenient, cost-effective pass to efficiently and safely transport hundreds of thousands of visitors to events in New Jersey and across the region during Super Bowl week and for the game itself,” Al Kelly, Jr., CEO of the New York-New Jersey Super Bowl Host Committee, said in a statement.
As for the game itself, with limited parking going for $150 a spot, a special $51 bus will run to the Meadowlands, but these plans are untested. The Times runs down the options and the concerns:
New York City subways, New Jersey Transit and PATH trains will have about the same level of service as during weekday rush periods. For the game, the host committee will operate a bus fleet called the Fan Express to carry people to and from five sites in Manhattan and four in New Jersey. The buses will cost $51 round trip, and one lane of the Lincoln Tunnel will be dedicated to them.
“The bus piece is different and new,” Mr. Kelly said. “It’s like the Olympics model.”
Public transit is especially crucial to this year’s Super Bowl because only about 13,000 parking spaces will be available at MetLife Stadium. The rest of the more than 28,000 spaces there will be taken up by trucks used to televise the game and to provide entertainment. In addition to the buses, New Jersey Transit trains will be operating, with game-day service from Secaucus Station to the stadium…“If there’s any region that knows how to deal with public transportation issues,” said Jonathan Tisch, an owner of the New York Giants and one of the chairmen of the host committee, “it’s this region.”
The comparison to the Olympics is apt because this, with the 7 line extension, is how the city would have addressed congestion concerns had Bloomberg won his 2012 bid. Now, we’ll see this play out on a smaller scale for the Super Bowl. Hopefully, everything runs a bit smoother than my early train rides to the Meadowlands.
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.