Two recent derailments and Friday’s stalled train inside a rail tunnel have sparked off a round of finger-pointing between Gov. Chris Christie and Amtrak about who is responsible for the commuting nightmares the breakdowns have triggered.
Christie has been blaming Amtrak because the federal government owns Penn Station and the aging infrastructure the rail line shares with New Jersey Transit. But yesterday, New Jersey Transit executive director Steve Santoro said the cause of Friday’s incident still remains under investigation. And later in the day, Amtrak said it appeared to be caused by a faulty part on the NJ Transit train, contradicting an earlier statement issued by Christie.
In an effort to highlight the positive, state lawmakers yesterday tried to bring more attention to a key state-owned transportation hub, Hoboken Terminal, which is undergoing major repairs following a fatal NJ Transit rail accident last year.
The lawmakers toured the terminal to get an update on the ongoing repair effort, learning an important concourse inside the station could be reopened to pedestrians in a few months even as the entire project is expected to take years to complete.
Making headlines for the wrong reasons
Their tour came just weeks after lawmakers passed a measure that’s now providing an additional $140 million in capital funding to NJ Transit. But it also came as the region’s transportation infrastructure has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks: two derailments at Penn Station in New York, and Friday’s stalling of a train inside the rail tunnel that connects New Jersey to New York. Friday’s incident left NJ Transit passengers stuck in their seats for hours.
During the tour in Hoboken, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said it was time to end the finger-pointing for the sake of New Jersey commuters who rely on convenient access to New York City to get to their jobs. He called for stepped-up infrastructure-funding commitments by both the state and federal governments, saying the region’s economy depends on it.
“We have people who need to commute and we’re starving both agencies,” Sweeney said of NJ Transit and Amtrak. “It doesn’t help commuters when we’re back-and-forth fighting with each other.”
Hoboken Terminal serves as a key end-point for commuters from North Jersey who are traveling into New York City to catch buses, ferries and the Port Authority’s PATH trains. But the facility was the site of a crash last September that left one person dead.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation, and it may be months before any conclusive findings becomes available. But state lawmakers have been holding a series of hearings in the wake of the fatal accident to bring more attention to NJ Transit’s finances and safety record.
Yesterday they also toured the terminal to see for themselves how the repair work is progressing. Though the entire project may not be completed until 2019, lawmakers said they found out during the tour that a much-used concourse that has been shut off to pedestrians in the wake of the accident is now scheduled to be reopened in June.
“This isn’t a lack of NJ Transit moving forward,” Sweeney said.
He also pointed to a $400 million supplemental appropriation that was recently approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Christie that will provide an additional $140 million in capital funds to NJ Transit to pay for safety improvements. Those dollars are coming out of the state Transportation Trust Fund, an “off-budget” account that was renewed last year with a 23-cent gas-tax hike.
At $35.5 billion, Christie’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year would be the largest in state history. But right now, the governor is calling for state aid to support NJ Transit’s operating budget to remain flat at $427 million. The allocation includes $140.8 million out of the state budget, along with $204 million transferred from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and $82.1 million diverted from the state’s Clean Energy Fund. But transportation advocates have repeatedly said NJ Transit needs more robust support from the state budget, and ideally a dedicated source of revenue.
The recent commuting problems have also brought new attention to Christie’s 2010 decision to cancel the long-planned Access to the Region’s Core trans-Hudson rail tunnel. That tunnel would be opening next year if Christie hadn’t stopped construction over concerns about cost overruns. The funds were instead used to prop up the TTF, holding off an unpopular gas-tax increase until after Christie ran for reelection in 2013.
Sen. Robert Gordon, who chairs the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, said yesterday that it should come as no surprise that the region’s transportation infrastructure has been faltering in recent months given Christie’s questionable commitment to funding mass transit and a lack of investment at the federal level. It will cost more than $20 billion to build new rail tubes under the Hudson River as part of a tunnel project that’s been dubbed Gateway but the recent federal budget proposal from President Donald Trump put the federal funding for that project in question.
“We can only do so much with the resources that we have,” Gordon said. “The time has come to turn this around.”
Gordon (D-Bergen) is hosting the latest legislative hearing on the commuting problems at the end of the month, with top officials from both Amtrak and NJ Transit signed up to attend. And Sweeney yesterday left the door open to lawmakers working to get more dollars for NJ Transit in the fiscal 2018 state budget, though that task could be difficult since Christie has prioritized funding for the public-employee pension system and lawmakers have also been looking for ways to increase aid for local school districts.
“We absolutely have to have those conversations,” Sweeney said.