NJ Transit Seeks Help on American Dream, Sees More PTC Delays

The beleaguered agency, which continues to face service disruptions and deep money woes, is under increasing pressure from riders and lawmakers to up its game
NJ Transit will seek a “public-private partnership” to build a wholly separate complement to its Meadowlands rail link after acknowledging that it lacks the capacity to handle the added load of the soon-to-open American Dream complex at the site.

Also Thursday, NJ Transit’s chief contractor on the already delayed Positive Train Control installation told the agency’s board of directors that critical testing of the federally mandated safety system would be delayed by five months due to what were described as software anomalies.

The news comes as the beleaguered agency is under increasing pressure from riders and lawmakers to up its game, amid service disruptions and deep money woes.

“We may be digging ourselves out of a little bit of a hole,” said state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who’s also a NJ Transit board member. “But there is daylight at the end of that.”

Insufficient resources

American Dream mall
The American Dream, opening soon after numerous delays

NJ Transit officials dug that hole five years ago, promising hourly rail service for the new American Dream Meadowlands mega-mall, which opens next week. But currently the cash-strapped agency lacks enough resources to deliver.

Last night, the agency announced it was seeking solutions from private firms to build a new, innovative system capable of handling some of the 40 to 50 million customers American Dream is hoping to draw.

The Meadowlands Rail link, built at a cost of $185 million, was originally touted by state officials as a key part of a plan to transform the Meadowlands Sports Complex, an effort headlined by the construction of the retail/entertainment complex then known as Xanadu. The link, built as a spur off the rail agency’s Pascack Valley line, was funded chiefly by the Port Authority.

NJ Transit has also taken heat over significant delays in service on the rail line during high-profile events, like Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014.

A public-private partnership

Officials said they planned to entertain responses to its “Innovation Challenge” at a special event it will host on Nov. 7. Officials acknowledged that any development on this scale would take years to complete. Meanwhile, the agency hopes its plan to expand bus service to American Dream will handle the crowds as the mega-mall opens in stages through next spring.

“Through this challenge, we’re exploring the possibility of a public-private partnership to move approximately 20,000 people per hour between Secaucus and MetLife stadium, which is about double our current maximum capacity on rail,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s president and CEO.

Among the proposals the agency is hoping to elicit are such concepts as a monorail, like Newark’s Air Train, a magnetic levitation train like the one in Shanghai or even aerial gondolas running in a continuous loop to connect the seven-mile gap.

Clean technology, scalable system

Gutierrez-Scaccetti said officials were working within certain parameters. “That it would be autonomous. That it would be green. It would be clean technology, and it would be scalable, so that we’ll be able to vary the size and capacity as we need to, based on events,” she said.

Officials also said a public-private partnership would help get the service in place without burdening the agency’s finances.

“This is the only way to go about this right now, because NJ Transit does not have the money to support the expanded transit infrastructure needed to provide more public transportation options, specifically rail,” said Janna Chernetz, director of NJ Policy at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an influential mass-transit advocacy group. “Right now, the agency is already dipping into their capital budget to meet their operating needs — if you remember, it’s $460M just this year alone that was moved from capital to operating.”

Representatives of American Dream did not respond to a request for comment.

Federal deadline looms

Meanwhile, with NJ Transit facing a hard federal deadline for full installation of its Positive Train Control system, a representative of contractor Parsons Transportation Group told board members Thursday that a critical testing phase of the safety system would have to wait until March of next year, a delay of five months. He attributed the holdup to software anomalies.

“This is not the kind of news that Parsons nor myself would like to be presenting to you, clearly, today,” said William Krull, a Parsons vice president. “I am sure that there are concerns about whether we can make this schedule or not make the schedule.”

NJ Transit is facing a federal deadline of the end of next year to finally certify the system. It barely made a 2018 federal interim deadline.

The agency is one of nine railroads across the nation where no PTC-equipped tracks are currently in service for testing. The system provides an override control of trains in the event of operator problems.

Three years ago, a NJ Transit train slammed into the end of a platform in Hoboken, leaving one woman dead, 100 people injured and the train station seriously damaged. Federal investigations laid blame for the crash partly on the fact that NJ Transit did not have PTC installed.

NJ’s Sierra Club warned the consequences for missing the final federal deadline could be dire.

“NJ Transit can lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and may even have to close down all or some of its train lines,” the group said.

But the Parsons representative said the deadline could still be met.

“This situation we’re in right now is not desirable,” Krull said. “But it is not at the level that we were in 2018. We still have a very doable schedule, that can get made.”

Gutierrez-Scaccetti was not as sanguine.

“I appreciate your confidence,” she said. “I am a little bit more cautious. I think we all are. “

NJ Transit officials said they want regular PTC updates from Parsons.

The Federal Railroad Administration expects to start its own safety testing on the system by next June.