Is NJ Transit Ready for Mass-Transit Armageddon?

Lawmaker worries about impacts of having to shut down trans-Hudson train tunnel

NJ Transit’s transportation system, a network of buses and trains that moves almost a million people a day around the state and across the river, is critical to the region’s economic and social health. But it’s a fragile system — its functionality often at the mercy of weather, labor relations and a creaky, century-old infrastructure, including the Hudson River tunnels.

“In 2016, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said we’re really living on borrowed time when it comes to the tunnels,” said Janna Chernetz, the director of NJ Policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “He said one of those tunnels is going to need to be taken out of service, whether it’s 15 years from now, 15 months, 15 weeks or even 15 minutes.”

So, a contingency plan is probably a good idea. The agency, supposedly on the mend after years of decline, is focusing on just that, issuing a request for proposals last month for an outside vendor “to provide services in the development and assessment of potential near-term incremental contingency strategies and improvement projects to address existing and future travel needs for the Trans-Hudson Network and Contingency Planning Strategy.”

That is transit-agency speak for worst-case scenario.

“We are kidding ourselves that we’re not heading towards some sort of an Armageddon here if those tunnels close down — if, God forbid, we have another Sandy and another flood there,” added Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “It’s still almost beyond my comprehension that the people in Washington don’t recognize this as what should be the major infrastructure program in the United States of America.”

‘…alternatives and contingency plans’

Lawmakers like Weinberg and commuter advocates like Chernetz have been calling for a contingency plan for years. Their ideas center on the expansion of bus service, including getting a new Port Authority Bus Terminal built in New York, more ferry service and extension of PATH capacity, more cars on longer platforms.

The last time NJ Transit had to do some real thinking about this was in 2016 when it almost had a strike. The agency says it is working with the Port Authority, Amtrak, buses, PATH and ferries all would be on the table in a contingency plan.

“We look forward to working with them on this process,” said Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schulz. “We would be doing a disservice to ourselves and to the region, to the nation as a whole, if we did not think about alternatives and contingency plans.”

But none of this is going to be easy. PATH service into Manhattan is at capacity. For NJ Transit, it’s pretty much the same. Ferries? At $9 a trip, they are expensive for most commuters. Outside-the-box — and outside-the-state — thinking will be necessary.

“This is a regional problem, so we need somebody to convene all of the players and to come up with a plan because it doesn’t only affect New Jersey, it affects New York and it affects the entire region should something like this happen,” said Chernetz.

And, said Weinberg, until the agency gets back to its glory days of in-house Doomsday-type expertise, it’s going to need to find that expertise outside.

NJ Transit said it has an up-to-date contingency plan. NJTV News asked to get a look at it, but, citing security concerns, NJ Transit told us to file a request through the Open Public Records Act.