Home New Jersey Transit A new leader, and old scandals, for New Jersey Transit

A new leader, and old scandals, for New Jersey Transit

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Jack Gold March 14, 2014 - 12:34 am

I thought the Feds said that Christie had to give back those bucks he “re-purposed.” Not so?

Benjamin Kabak March 14, 2014 - 12:38 am

The federal contributions he had to give back. The state money went back into the transportation pot.

al March 14, 2014 - 11:24 am

Much of the work completed to that point was of the paper and computer file type, and not metal and concrete.

3ddi3 March 14, 2014 - 7:04 am

If the head of the fish stinks, the fish is bad.
This Gov has shown himself to have an anti-transit and anti-environmentalist view every chance he gets. He just proved it again by refusing to allow Tesla to sell cars directly, “by protecting the consumers from the auto manufacturers” by strengthening the auto dealership protection law.
Christie needs to go.

al March 14, 2014 - 11:26 am

Apparently Christie’s people assured Tesla that they would take care of the dealership problem for them. Somewhere along the way, the political calculus changed.

Nathanael March 18, 2014 - 7:47 pm

The law in NJ is pretty clear: Tesla is allowed to sell cars directly, because it isn’t a “franchisor” or “franchisee”, and the “franchised dealership law” explicitly does not apply to Tesla.

Christie and the auto dealers leaned on the Motor Vehicle Commission to illegally change the law without going to the legislature. That’s what happened.

SEAN March 14, 2014 - 8:05 am

Scandals plague NJ to the point that they have even infected condo associations such as Galaxy Towers.

lawhawk March 14, 2014 - 9:45 am

Hakim says that she’s trying to improve the Trans Hudson capacity issues. Going to be impossible when there’s no money in the budget to do that – nothing for Gateway is on the table in NJ.

And capacity issues start well before the tunnel. It starts at the Dock Bridge and extends through the Portal Bridge. Both ought to be replaced – with the Portal Bridge being a far bigger issue.

Again, no money in the pipeline.

So far this year, on time performance has been abysmal – and yet the ScoreCard reports from past quarters seem to think that on time performance is fine. Delays are an everyday occurrence, particularly in the winter months on the NEC, where midday travel is beset by delays due to daily ice clearance checks (again pointing to the need to upgrade critical infrastructure).

NJ needs to spend more – a lot more – on infrastructure. The DOT finally came around to recognize the need to repave the Palisades after their head drove it, even thought they’ve got to scrounge up the money to do it. Multiply that by other needs statewide, and the transportation trust fund is out of money, and that comes even as miles driven on the Turnpike/GSP are down, meaning revenues are down as well even after toll hikes.

Something has to give, and that means finding other revenue sources to fund critical infrastructure.

I still think canceling ARC was right move since NJT is incapable of managing any project on time or on budget. Their largest project in recent years was the Secaucus Transfer, and it went from $80 million to more than $450 million, and they then had to spend even more to extend platforms to handle traffic for MetLife. Cost containment isn’t an issue, and I have little faith in Hakim to do any better, particularly with her inability to do so at MTACC.

The funding structure of the project should have been spread to NY and the feds, and not just solely on NJ for any overruns, which were going to be inevitable.

ARC would have created infrastructure that NJT is ill-equipped to manage, but it would have been in its fiefdom, which is why it wanted it.

For the moment, fixing trans Hudson capacity needs to be addressed by through-running trains. Make that happen, and you’ll find that capacity can be eased significantly. But because both Christie and Cuomo are uninterested in transit, especially mass transit, the MTA wont get on board with this either.

al March 14, 2014 - 11:39 am

There is one thing she could push for, prioritize overhead wire replacement at bottlenecks. Issues with the old catenary create many delays on NEC. She should work with NJ Congress members (and NEC Congress members) to put together a package for reliability and capacity upgrades. That’s 16 Senators (18 if you count North Virginia) and many more House members.

Bridge replacements, South Brunswick loop, and higher speed realignments are other projects NEC pols could work on.

As for ice, consider coating the surfaces with Teflon like polymer paints. They last 30+ years, shed water and snow, and prevent ice buildup.

Michael K March 14, 2014 - 2:10 pm

Maybe the British model is what can work – where the state maintains all the infrastructure and private carriers take care of the rolling stock and operations.

Anonymous March 14, 2014 - 3:02 pm

The unfortunate reality is that there will be no new tunnel for at least another 40 years. The Feds will not pay for the Gateway. For all its flaws and likely cost overruns the ARC was the only way to improve transit from NJ into NYC. Was ARC expensive? You bet. Was it perfect. No. But the Gateway will not happen. Yes, Amtrak got $200MM to build a tunnel box to 11th Ave, but that is Sandy money. Nobody has any idea where to get the rest for the tunnel box to 12th Ave and the private developer will not wait forever for before building on that block. Congress will not give money for Gateway — why should some Congressman from Idaho vote for money for mass transit so far from his district? Idaho has little if any transit and receives little money for transit from the Feds. You can substitute Idaho with any other state not on the Amtrak’s North East Corridor.

The sad reality is that the money for anything like that has to be local and that means NJ and NY (with some luck you might get PA and CT to pitch in if you promise Metro-North into Penn to CT and the Lackawana Cutoff to PA). NY really has no incentive to pay much — NY already collects the state taxes of anyone who commutes under the Hudson, so the only benefit is for the few riders (e.g. voters) on the Port Jervis and Spring Valley Riders who will get a faster one-seat ride. Compare that to the East Side Access — it benefits lots of voters on Long Island, so politically NY cannot pitch much money for the project because the voters will question why NY is paying for the commuters coming in from NJ. So slice it or dice it, NJ needs to pay the lion share of any tunnel costs or it just won’t happen. The only other option seems to be to redraw the state lines, so that Northern NJ becomes part of NY, but that is really fiction.

One unknown is the price of oil. If oil was to triple some time over these 40 years, so that half of the population cannot afford to drive any more, then things could be different, but with all the shale oil that is not happening either.

As for Secaucus Transfer, most people have no clue that the station itself was cheap — it is just a building with a few elevators and escalators. What made the cost so high was the track to get to the station. On the upper level, the third track from Portal Bridge to the station(the one furthest south) is effectively a bridge! That is a mile long bridge. Well I have got news for you — bridges are not that expensive, but when you build miles of them the costs add up really fast. On the lower level after the Bergen Line splits from the Main Line until it reaches the bridge over the Hackensack River the line is again on a bridge — it is a low bridge, but the designers were not allowed to do a fill, so they had to build a bridge for probably another half a mile. And this is the story of how the station cost as much as it did — the early estimate included only the station, while the final cost actually had to include getting the trains to and from the station.

Rob Durchola March 14, 2014 - 9:04 pm

Another reason Secaucus Transfer was so expensive is that, in order to get to use the land, NJ Transit had to build the station in a manner that would allow development above the station. That required a foundation that could handle much more construction than the station itself.

And, as suggested, there were environmental restrictions that further complicated the design of the station.

techmo March 18, 2014 - 12:33 pm

If the new tunnel could be made for freight use as well then NY would have a reason to kick in a lot of funding. I don’t know if FRA would allow this, or if the tunnels could be set up to have multiple sets of tracks (passenger and freight).


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