Saturday, October 8, 2016

New Jersey Transit: The Disaster That Was Waiting to Happen

Twenty-six years ago, when I worked briefly for a company on 12th Street in Manhattan, I linked up with the PATH train that took me to my office by taking a New Jersey Transit commuter train from Bergen County, NJ, to Hoboken.

In many ways, riding the Pascack Valley line was the most satisfying time of my day; I could eat, talk to other passengers, and most of all, not worry about overcrowding or getting stuck in traffic. “New Jersey Transit has the best on-time performance of any railroad in the tristate area,” a fellow passenger told me once.

New Jersey didn’t have much to crow about then, but that passenger and I--and I would wager nearly every other passenger on that line and that rail system--knew we had a good thing going. A change of jobs in a new location closer to midtown led me to start taking the bus into the Port Authority station in midtown, and though I didn’t regret the job switch, I had often wished in the quarter-century since that I could continue taking the train into work.

That is, until last week, when a train on the very route that I took long ago crashed inside Hoboken Terminal, killing one passenger and injuring hundreds more.

My initial “There but for the grace of God, go I” reaction and sympathy for the victims of the accident soon gave way to horror over the disruption that the massively damaged terminal was causing for area commuters. More recently, I was filled with a sense of angry déjà vu over how institutional rot led to long-term deterioration and this sudden, savage exposure of that system’s ills.

The news of this catastrophe, you see, occurred at the height of a closely watched trial in New Jersey, featuring testimony by Gov. Chris Christie’s former enforcer at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, the mastermind of a September 2013 scheme to retaliate against the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee by closing two of three of the borough’s lane approaches to the George Washington Bridge during rush hour for a fictitious “traffic study.”

Christie has already seen his hopes for the GOP Presidential nomination evaporate because of Bridgegate. But he had to be seriously sweating that a new, needless disaster could be laid at his door, because—within 32 hours of the train crash—he announced a compromise that ended his two-month stalemate with the state legislature over funding public transit.  (Even then, the 23-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase was passed so quickly that the public had little time to weigh in.)

Naturally, for the several years he was planning or conducting his Presidential campaign, he refused to approve any legislation that might allow GOP primary opponents to charge him with raising taxes. And, to be fair, Republican and Democratic predecessors also did not adequately maintain the transportation trust fund at acceptable levels.

But allowing NJ Transit steadily dwindling transit-specific funding—from $285 million in 2012 to $33 million this year—was all on Christie’s watch, and utterly unconscionable given higher mass-transit ridership during this time. Increasingly, rather than using funds as intended for capital projects, the agency has had to dip into them more immediately for ongoing operational needs.

During his prolonged standoff with the legislature, Christie would only allow work to proceed on emergencies. This meant that he froze hundreds of ongoing projects, including $2.7 billion worth of New Jersey Transit work. That doesn’t begin to measure the true cost of inaction, either, because, with deferred maintenance, expenses rise as the condition of a site deteriorates.

At the same time it has suffered funding shortfalls, New Jersey Transit has also experienced a vacuum in leadership. Its executive director resigned last November to become head of the New York subway system, and since then the agency has been managed on an interim basis by its former chief of bus operations. Moreover, New Jersey Transit has canceled every public board meeting since June, so it is also operating without oversight.

Although, for a few years, Republicans nationwide couldn’t get enough of Christie’s in-your-face style—and the media, to his handlers’ delight, responded—few noticed what a hash he was making of the fiscal stewardship that the GOP long claimed as one of its hallmarks. In terms of New Jersey transit, that involved funding legerdemain: moving dollars away to the agency from where it had been originally intended (e.g., other state financial pools such as the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and a state clean energy fund), as well as raising New Jersey transit fares twice since Christie took office). And still, the agency experienced massive funding shortfalls.

Now, New Jersey commuters are reaping the whirlwind of this neglect:

*New Jersey Transit now has 12 times more equipment failures than any other commuter railroad in the country, according to a CBS News New York report.

*A leader in the 1990s in developing the automatic braking system known as Positive Train Control (a technology that many believe might have averted this latest crash), New Jersey Transit has now fallen far behind other states in implementing this technology.

* A late-September collision between two NJ Transit buses in the Lincoln Tunnel injured more than two dozen people.

* In August, a high-speed crash between two NJ Transit buses in downtown Newark left two fatalities.

*This past summer, the agency cut service on the Pascack Valley Line by reducing the number of trains and running trains with fewer cars, with a predictable outcome: overcrowding.

*In August, New Jersey Transit regularly canceled its second morning express train.

*Early this summer, sparked by commuter complaints, the Federal Railroad Administration investigated NJ Transit’s safety practices, finding multiple violations.

Perhaps in no other realm has Chris Christie’s Washington ambitions caused more damage, now and in the near future, for so many as transportation. Commuters suffer the consequences on a daily basis. In the end, neglect of infrastructure will only make individuals and businesses reexamine whether they really want to deal with the endless hassles that come with living and working in New Jersey.

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