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NJ Commuters’ Summer of Hell Just Got Even Hotter

NJ Transit plan includes up to 45-minute delays each way for almost 7,000 daily riders

penn station rush hour
Credit: Luke Waltzer
Homebound New Jersey commuters waiting for NJ Transit trains in New York City's Penn Station, on a typical rush-hour evening.

The “summer of hell” awaiting New Jersey commuters got even more hellish yesterday, as New Jersey Transit officials outlined a plan that could add as much as an hour and a half to the roundtrip rides of nearly 7,000 commuters who travel on the agency’s Morris and Essex lines into New York City.

The new details about NJ Transit’s plan were revealed during a lengthy joint Assembly and Senate hearing in Newark yesterday. It comes as Amtrak is getting ready to close three tracks on weekdays to make repairs at New York’s Pennsylvania Station in the wake of two recent derailments. The repairs will reduce the station’s hourly capacity from 21 to 15 trains between July 10 and September 1.

The lawmakers also heard yesterday from angry mayors who represent towns located along the Morris and Essex lines, which normally have direct service into Manhattan during peak hours but will instead be redirected to Hoboken Terminal. And several lawmakers also complained loudly about NJ Transit’s planning process and communications during and after the hearing, casting blame directly on Gov. Chris Christie.

“Every one of us would say the governor is doing nothing but trying to obfuscate his catastrophic transit policy,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, one of the leaders of the joint panel. He was referring to a policy that has included fare hikes and the cancellation of an earlier trans-Hudson commuter-rail tunnel, as well as to Christie’s frequent blaming of Amtrak for many of the problems.

No opportunity for appeal

NJ Transit’s plan to deal with the Amtrak repair work was first announced by Christie last week, but it’s already being considered final, with no opportunity for reconsideration. To help cushion the blow, NJ Transit is planning on offering passengers on the Morris and Essex lines a roughly 50 percent discount during the disruption. The agency is also setting up cross-honoring arrangements with the ferry operators and the Port Authority, with both the discount and cross-honoring expected to cost $15 million out of NJ Transit’s own budget.

The expedited repair work at Amtrak-owned Penn Station was first announced in late April after two train derailments caused major disruptions and brought new attention to the station’s failing infrastructure. Amtrak officials said they previously identified problem areas inside the station, but were originally planning to do the maintenance work over a longer period of time in an effort to ease any disruptions at the busy commuter hub.

“Because this work is occurring in the western part of Penn Station where trains are sorted to and from the Hudson River Tunnel, Amtrak, and New Jersey Transit will be the most directly impacted during this phase of the program,” said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s executive vice president for planning, technology and public affairs, during yesterday’s hearing.

Gardner said his agency is planning to cancel three daily Northeast Regional roundtrips.

“Amtrak is taking ample precautions to ensure that we are able to get this work accomplished on schedule and provide extra support to passengers in the station and on our trains during this summer period,” Gardner said.

The plan comes together

NJ Transit executive director Steve Santoro said his agency’s plan to disrupt service primarily on the Morris and Essex lines came together after NJ Transit’s professionals were able to fully review the plans for Amtrak’s repair project. Hoboken Terminal — which is still undergoing repairs after a fatal rail accident occurred there last year — provides an alternative way into New York for roughly 7,400 Morris and Essex line passengers thanks to the PATH trains and ferry service. Officials from the Port Authority and NY Waterway also appeared before the lawmakers yesterday to explain how their agencies can help pick up the slack.

“The best place we can move them because we have capacity is into Hoboken,” Santoro said while explaining his agency’s plan, which will still allow for direct service to New York City during early morning hours. He also said NJ Transit is under difficult time constraints because monthly passes for commuters go on sale in mid-June.

“My job today is to convince you … there is no better option,” Santoro told the lawmakers.

But the mayors who testified during the joint hearing said they first heard of the NJ Transit plan from press accounts. Many also went to the agency’s headquarters for a meeting on Tuesday, but said they were told it was rescheduled while waiting in the lobby.

No sense of urgency

“I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency here,” Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca said. “It is very, very disappointing how we’ve been treated.”

“There was not a single call about this disruption,” said Madison Mayor Robert Conley. “I would have had town-hall meetings to explain what’s going on.”

After the hearing ended, Assemblyman McKeon said he was considering employing the Legislature’s little-used subpoena authority to get more information out of the Christie administration about how the NJ Transit plan came together. Santoro initially said during the hearing that Christie asked the agency to increase the size of the discount for Morris and Essex line commuters, but at first Santoro wouldn’t say by how much. Later, Santoro came back and said the discount was increased from 25 percent to about 50 percent upon Christie’s request.

“Let’s see what the documents say,” said McKeon (D-Essex), who’s been leading a series of hearings on NJ Transit’s safety record and finances in the wake of last year’s fatal accident in Hoboken. “I think it’s political science as much as anything else, I really do.”

Shifting the blame

McKeon also questioned whether Christie’s repeated criticism of Amtrak is an effort to shift blame for the recent problems from his own administration. Christie’s record on mass-transit includes fare increases, frequent raids of capital funds to cover operating expenses, and the canceling in 2010 of the long-planned Access-to-the-Region’s Core trans-Hudson tunnel project. Under the original plan, that tunnel to a new station in New York that was to be located near Penn Station would be opening sometime next year.

McKeon also noted that the $15 million cost that NJ Transit will take on by offering the discount and cross-honoring to Morris and Essex riders will hit the agency’s fiscal year 2018 budget, which means the burden of keeping it in balance will fall to the incoming governor. And he pointed to testimony from Gardner yesterday that indicated NJ Transit contributions toward shared capital reinvestment along the Northeast Corridor have been uneven up until recently, including during the 2015 fiscal year, when he said the state contributed nothing at all toward capital projects.

Christie’s office referred questions about the capital-funding issue to NJ Transit, and a spokeswoman there took issue with Amtrak’s figures, saying some matters are still in dispute and in other years Amtrak didn’t spend the full amount that was agreed upon by the two agencies.

“Amtrak has to keep its tracks safe for New Jersey citizens and for its own customers,” said NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder.

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