NJ Transit’s board of directors awarded more than $50 million in contracts Thursday to help implement a rail-safety system, as environmental advocates pressed them for a commitment to totally transform the agency’s bus fleet to electric power.
“It is loud, it is dirty, and it is unhealthy,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment NJ, of the agency’s existing fleet of buses, mostly powered by diesel engines. “And the reason we are joined here today is cause we are calling on NJ Transit to join the rest of the country to make a commitment to electrify its full bus fleet by 2040. This is a goal more than 60 other transit agencies have started to take.”
Buses roared past as the critics stood on the corner next to agency’s headquarters at Penn Plaza for a press conference before heading inside for the public portion of the meeting. They noted vehicles are responsible for nearly half of greenhouse-gas pollution in New Jersey, and that Newark is a city where a federal study showed one in four kids suffers from asthma.
“And it’s quite unfortunate that NJ Transit does not understand the importance of ensuring that they electrify their buses,” said Kim Gaddy of Clean Water Action. “We need immediate action now. This is an environmental justice health crisis.”
NJ Transit is buying eight electric buses for a Camden pilot program in 2021, the agency says, noting that electric vehicles costs roughly $700,000 more than a diesel bus. Advocates say the state would reap savings in maintenance and health-care costs.
NJ Transit’s current capital budget includes $100 million to buy several hundred buses, as it updates its fleet of 1,200 vehicles.
CEO Kevin Corbett says he supports going electric in concept, but he’s unsure about charging an entire fleet.
“It’s one thing if it’s in your garage — it’s when you’re talking up to 500 buses at a depot that’s an incredible electric load, [when] you look at the charging times, etc,” he said.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg said she supports the call for an all-electric bus fleet, and said NJ Transit should be able to complete the changeover by 2040. But she said the agency had to make an increased commitment to buy electric buses in the near future. She also noted that mass-transit agencies elsewhere in the country have a shorter timeline.
The contracts awarded by the board Thursday were for its Positive Train Control safety system, which must be in place by a 2020 deadline set by the federal government. NJ Transit has spent $302 million on the system thus far.
Transit advocates demanded more transparency about the process.
“What are we getting? What’s been done?” said Steve Thorpe. “Since the new administration has taken over, it has become more and more opaque here. So opaque here that I feel like my cataract surgery never helped me. It’s really bad.”
Others made note of the approaching federal deadline to get the safety system up and running.
“But the clock is ticking,” said Randy Glucksman, a member of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “You have only 15 and a half months to get the job completely done or else the agency will face the potential of massive fines.”
Riders also complained to board members about trains still out of service — mainly due to a chronic lack of engineers. NJ Transit has recruited about 100 new engineers and has seven training classes running concurrently. Experts say the courses are extremely difficult, and the drop-out rate usually runs high.
“You’re talking about probably 1,000 pages that [have] to be digested, in some cases memorized and clearly understood by every locomotive engineer in order to operate safely,” said Michael Weinman, managing director of PTSI Transportation.
Critics have accused NJ Transit of letting struggling students stay in the program despite multiple test failures, because of the dire need for more engineers.
Corbett says that’s not the case.
“We’re taking, what I view as, a more progressive approach — without any way lowering the standards,” he said. “That once we get them in, we screen them, we want to see.”
Corbett maintained that the testing for an engineer is more complicated than that for an airline pilot, and that the agency is helping the trainees meet the standards.
“So we anticipate a certain amount of fallout from a class,” he said. “But in no ways are we cutting, compromising the standards. We do want to help those who are as they go along, to get the coaching that they need to make sure they do pass.”
NJ Transit says it hopes to graduate the new engineering classes within the next four months, which will be the key to lowering the number of train cancellations.