NJ Transit faces an $80-million budget gap, and fare hikes and service cuts are on the table as possible ways to fill the gap, according to reporting by Larry Higgs of NJ Advance Media and published in the Star-Ledger (Feb. 26). On Feb. 25, Governor Christie unveiled his fiscal 2016 budget without mentioning transportation. NJT said it was preparing proposals for the Governor's consideration. Meanwhile, the state's overall allocation for transportation is set to decline by 8.4 percent, from $1.4 billion to $1.293 billion in the coming fiscal year. Fare hikes are a likely way to fill NJT's deficit; the last fare increase, five years ago, increased fares overall by 25%, but hit occasional travelers with a whopping 46% average increase, combining the general fare hike with abolition of the popular off-peak-round-trip tariff. Service cuts would be another way to balance the NJT budget. Transportation advocates insisted that any fare increase was really a tax increase; but that term is anathema to the Governor as he courts conservatives out-of-state in his quest for the Republican Presidential nomination. The transportation trust fund, in major financial trouble, was not mentioned in the Governor's budget address; many have said that a motor fuel tax increase is a logical way to begin to restore its solvency.
Read the complete NJ Advance Media story here.
Additional reporting by Meir Rinde for NJSpotlight on March 4 here.
The recent grade crossing disaster on Metro-North Railroad in Valhalla, New York has put the spotlight on grade crossing danger. But where are the most dangerous crossings? Reporting by Russ Buettner and Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times (Feb. 13) listed the most dangerous crossings in the tri-state area, as determined by a Federal Railroad Administration index. The index takes into account grade crossing physical characteristics and recent accident history, but does not include other possible contributing factors such as traffic congestion. Significantly, none of the top ten crossings on this "accident prediction value" index were on Metro-North, which has the fewest crossings of any New York area commuter railroad. But four of the crossings predicted to be in the top ten for accident risk are on NJ Transit lines; and the worst one of the ten, Midland Avenue in Elmwood Park, is on NJT's Bergen County Line. That particular crossing, which since 1975 has experienced 29 accidents including two fatalities, involves an acute angle crossing with nearby street intersections adding to risk factors. The other three NJT crossings cited are also in North Jersey: rated fifth in the list is the Main Street crossing in Ramsey on NJT's "Main" Line, with six accidents and three fatalities since 1975, and two crossings on the Pascack Valley Line in Hackensack: Main St. (7 accidents, no fatalities) and Anderson St. (6 accidents, one fatality); the two Hackensack crossings are however at the bottom of the list of ten in terms of risk.
The remaining crossings rated in the top ten for accident likelihood in the New York area are on the Long Island Rail Road, mostly on the railroad's Main Line between Bethpage and Central Islip; the line was upgraded to electrified operation decades ago, allowing many more trains to operate; and the line typically runs through towns with streets that closely parallel the tracks, leading to tricky grade crossings particularly dangerous for drivers turning into or from the parallel street. Some disasters were narrowly averted: the article reports that, 30 years ago at the Midland Avenue crossing, a school bus became stuck on the tracks and narrowly escaped with its load of students. Drivers are cautioned not to stop on tracks, but as safety expert Rick Campbell said, quoted in the article, "Even good drivers can get stopped on the tracks." Improving grade crossing safety can be difficult; funds for crossings typically comes from the federal government, and available funds are quite limited, according to the Times article.
See the complete article here.
In the aftermath of the Feb. 3 disastrous grade crossing accident involving a Metro-North commuter train and a sport utility vehicle, drivers and rail riders wonder whether they could be next. Grade crossing accidents have been declining nationally, but in the New York metropolitan area, not so much, according to reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Russ Buettner in the New York Times (Feb. 5). Since 2003, there have been 203 such incidents on the major New York commuter carriers, and NJ Transit leads the list with 125 grade crossing accidents; Long Island Rail Road had 105, and Metro-North only 30. NJT also has the most grade crossings, 330 out of a total of 750 for all three carriers. Many observers placed the blame for the Metro-North accident on the SUV's driver, who died in the crash, for being on the crossing at all. But the vehicle was apparently stuck in traffic when the gates came down, striking the rear of the car. Observed by a following driver, the SUV's operator seemed to be confused as to what to do, raising questions about how well drivers are acquainted with grade crossing procedures. Railroad engineering expert Augustine Ubaldi said it's clear what to do: "The gates are designed to break. If you get stuck at the crossing, floor it." But how many drivers are aware of these facts? And railroads may not be eager to encourage motorists to smash their gates.
After it became known that all five fatalities on the train were passengers in the first car, some Metro-North trains running after the accident ran with the first car nearly empty. On both Metro-North and NJ Transit, the front car is often the "Quiet Car," favored by travelers who want some respite from the cacophony of talk, cell phone conversations, and video game-playing. In an accompanying Times article chronicling the lives of the victims of the crash, an acquaintance of noted Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Walter Liedke, who died in the crash, said "He liked riding in the front of the train. It's the quiet car."
Read the New York Times article here.
Everyone feared the recent snowstorm, which New York Mayor DiBlasio predicted would be "historic" in its effect. The actual storm did not reach that level of intensity or devastation in New Jersey or New York City, but it is shaping up to be one of the worst winter storms of all time in New England and on Eastern Long Island.
We believe that New Jersey Transit made some errors in their storm response and in communicating their plans, but we also believe that NJT also did many things properly. We are concerned that NJT shut rail service down so early on Monday, and we question the adequacy of notice to the public of the impending shutdown. We do not see why service could not have continued until 11:00, the time when non-emergency motor-vehicle use was banned. We are also concerned that some passengers, especially from outlying areas, could have been stranded.
When NJT originally announced that they expected service to be suspended for two days, we were deeply concerned. Transit providers in New York and even Boston expected to shut down for only one day. We were relieved when that announcement was rescinded, but it should never have been posted in the first place.
We commend NJT for getting most of its service up and running by mid-day on Tuesday. Considering that Tuesday was a "snow day" for most people, the week-end level of service was sufficient on many lines. NJT may have been overly cautious in shutting down all service on Monday, but the information we saw at the time leads us to believe they acted reasonably and prudently. We have criticized NJT for its lack of care when management left hundreds of locomotives and railcars to flood during Hurricane Sandy. This time, NJT prepared for a disaster. NJT and the rest of us are lucky that the anticipated disaster did not happen here. We continue to express our hope that the people of New England will survive the storm with as little damage as possible.
We believe that NJT performed well in this situation, but we are still concerned that service did not return to the Montclair, Gladstone or Port Jervis Lines on Tuesday.
Overall, NJT performed well under difficult conditions, and we believe it has earned a rating of "B" for its performance.
The members of the Lackawanna Coalition also wish to thank our Vice-Chair, John Bobsin, and our Communications Director, Donald Winship, for monitoring the situation throughout this emergency. Without their efforts, the rest of us would not have been as well-informed as we are.
Dated: Tuesday, January 27, 2015
DAVID PETER ALAN
NJ Transit resumed normal service on all lines on Wednesday, Jan. 28, after halting service early on the evening of Monday, then restoring limited service on most lines on Tuesday after the expected snowstorm largely failed to materialize. Wednesday morning service was largely normal, although there were scattered delays and cancellations, and service into New York was delayed up to 20 minutes, attributed to Amtrak signal problems at Metropark on the Northeast Corridor.
After the shutdown, as of 9:00 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27, plans were afoot to restart the area's transit services. Road travel bans had been lifted by early Tuesday. The Governors of New York and New Jersey then announced they would try to get transit services running quickly. By 9 a.m., NJ Transit was announcing that Northeast Corridor service would return about 10 a.m., as would the Raritan Valley Line; the Atlantic City rail line was said to be already in service, all three lines on a weekend schedule. Other lines returned to service by midday, mostly using weekend schedules.NJT light rail service was reported to be operating. In New York, MTA services would return "gradually" Tuesday morning on a weekend schedule, with full service on Wednesday.
Previously, in anticipation of a major snowstorm that generally did not materialize, New York area transit services were shut down during the evening of Monday, January 26. NJ Transit had announced that the last trains and buses would leave terminals at 8 pm; in the event, trains continued to depart New York Penn Station for another half hour or so, with one trip to Raritan leaving around 9:15. Inbound trains mostly left until about 8 p.m. or a few minutes thereafter. PATH went to a weekend schedule at 9 pm before shutting down completely at 11 pm. New York's MTA shut down subways, buses, and suburban rail at 11 pm also. A travel ban on road travel was also instituted, first in New York City and surrounding counties, then in New Jersey (and in New England) as well. The Port Authority shut down its interstate road crossings.
As Tuesday dawned with the realization that the storm had tracked east and, with the exception of Long Island, the forecast major event had not occurred, attention focused on how soon services could return. The road travel ban in New York and New Jersey was rapidly lifted early Tuesday. State officials began saying that they would see how fast rail and bus service could be restored, with New York officials quoted as saying that they would try to get MTA and PATH service back Tuesday morning; NJ Gov. Christie was quoted as saying he would try to get NJT service back Tuesday as well. Some confusion surrounded NJ Transit rail service, as apparently at one point NJT had issued an alert that rail service would not return before Thursday, at the earliest; this statement was quickly retracted, but some media continued to carry the not-before-Thursday statement until late Monday (WCBS-Channel 2 had it in their "crawl" until nearly midnight, when it was replaced by a less specific wording). NJT's website statement during this timeframe said that service would be restored as soon as possible.
Service on Tuesday was planned to be on a weekend schedule, but not all trains ran as planned. On the Northeast Corridor, only one train per hour operated, half the normal weekend service at most times. Trains did not run at all on the Montclair line or the Gladstone Branch; NJT said that crews were not available to run them. West of Suffern, the Port Jervis line also had no service on Tuesday; NJT did not explain a reason for this. All of these services returned to normal on Wednesday.
The weather reports have gotten worse throughout the day, so the meeting originally scheduled for tomorrow evening has been postponed.
The new meeting date will be Thursday, February 5th. We plan to meet at the regular time and place, 7:00 at Millburn Town Hall. If the conference room where we normally meet is not available, we will inform you of an alternate location for the meeting. We will feature a presentation by the two presenters originally scheduled: Robert Serlin, CEO of RIM (RailInfrastructure Management) and James Michel, Technical Chair of the APTA Committee on High-Speed and Intercity Rail. They will present their proposal for a privately-funded infrastructure management company that would operate the Northeast Corridor and other infrastructure currently owned and operated by Amtrak.
We hope you can join us.
New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has announced a general across-the-board fare increase, effective March 22, on New York City Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and MTA-operated bridges and tunnels. The average increase is 4%, less than the 7.5% previously envisioned; the MTA attributed the lower hikes to a better financial situation. However, some fares will increase as much as 10%. The "base fare" on NYC Transit, which not many users actually pay, will increase 10% to $2.75, but a single cash fare will actually increase from $2.75 to $3.00. Most riders, however, use multiple-ride or unlimited use Metrocards. For multiple-ride cards, the "bonus" for adding at least $5.50 in value will increase from 5% to 11%; the MTA says that the effective fare with the bonus is actually $2.38. Monthly Metrocards would rise by $4.50 to $116.50; weekly cards would go up a buck to $31. Express bus cash fares would rise by 50 cents to $6.50; the new Access a Ride paratransit fare would match the base fare at $2.75.
MTA commuter rail fares would also rise by an average of 4%, although individual fares will rise more or less, in order to keep the fares at an even 25 cents. If the increase works out to over 6%, it would be capped at 50 cents.
The MTA's announcement did not mention any increase in the Senior/Disabled Metrocard fare, which may remain at $1.25, which would be half the "base fare" rounded down to the nearest 25 cents. There will be no change in the one dollar fee for issuing new Metrocards.
Fares on bridges and tunnels are more complicated, because drivers can pay cash, or use the E-Z Pass electronic tag system. Here the MTA draws a distinction between E-Z Pass tags issued by the New York Customer Service Center, and those issued elsewhere, for example in New Jersey. Apparently, only New York E-Z Pass holders benefit from a discount, which can be substantial. The round-trip cash fare on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, for example, will go to a whopping $16.00, which apparently applies as well to non-New York E-Z Pass customers. Those who hold New York tags, however, pay only $11.08, except for Staten Island residents, who enjoy a price of just $6.60, which decreases even further if used more than twice a month. Similar discounts apply to other MTA bridges and tunnels, again apparently only for New York E-Z Pass travelers. The MTA says the purpose of the increasingly divergent pricing is to encourage the use of E-Z Pass, but again, apparently only for its own favored customers.
A New York Times article on the fare increases can be read here.
The MTA's own announcement is here.
NJT has announced that,starting next Tuesday (January 20th), all trains will have "Quiet Commute" Cars until 8:00 PM on weekdays. Currently, trains running to and from Hoboken have them during those hours, but trains to and from Penn Station Newark or Penn Station New York only have them during peak-commuting hours. The change brings cars where a quiet atmosphere is request to mid-day service on New York, Newark and Atlantic City trains. This includes Midtown Direct trains running during mid-day hours.
Coalition Technical Director Stephen E. Thorpe, who has led the campaign for the expansion of a quiet atmosphere for riders, hailed the move as a positive step. There is more to be done, however. NJT should make a quiet atmosphere available to riders on all trains, including evening and week-end trains. Quiet conduct by riders should also be required as policy, not merely phrased as a request. The Coalition agrees that these policies should be implemented.
The story was also reported by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 16), who quoted Mr. Thorpe as saying he's happy that the service has been expanded; "My wish is to see every NJT train have a quiet car." But Thorpe also pointed out that the service is basically voluntary; he'd like to see it as a firmer policy. "I have been pushing NJ Transit to have clear and simpler language like MARC (Maryland commuter rail), which simply reads NO cellphone or electronic devices that make noise or loud conversation. NJ's language clearly couches it in terms of a request when they state 'Customers are asked'." According to Higgs' story, online media discussions reveal that some riders are unhappy with the situation, reporting that unruly riders refuse to quiet down even when asked. Train crews, for their part, feel caught in the middle, being expected to enforce what is not official policy. Meanwhile, NJT officials think the current arrangement is working just fine, based on customer feedback.
Read the Star-Ledger story here.
WNYC Radio reports that John Degnan, Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has announced that PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) trains will continue to operate at overnight hours, at least for the foreseeable future. A report released by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had recommended that service between 1:00 and 5:00 in the morning be eliminated, as a cost-saving measure. The recommendation, found at pages 81 and 82 of the 99-page report, was the only one that would have adversely affected mobility in the region. It was not received positively by residents or elected officials in Hudson County, where PATH trains run.
The Lackawanna Coalition also opposes eliminating the service, and suggests that there will be an increasing need for late-night transit service in an around New York City, including on New Jersey Transit's rail lines such as the Morris & Essex Line.
Riders on the Raritan Valley Line (RVL) now can ride a train directly to or from New York Penn Station on weekday evenings, without having to change trains at Newark. The new service went into effect on Monday, January 12th. "One-Seat-Ride" service between the western terminals of Raritan and High Bridge and New York began on March 3, 2014 during mid-day hours. The new service enhancement will encompass four round trips that arrive at or leave Penn Station after 8:00 pm, although the last departure of the evening will still require a change at Newark.
We congratulate our colleagues at the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition (RVRC), which was formed in 1998 to advocate for one-seat-ride service to New York. The RVRC has campaigned for this service throughout its history, as its primary objective. They continue to advocate for such service on week-ends and during peak-commuting hours, and we join them in supporting that goal.
We note that through service in the evening was supposed to begin last October, but New Jersey Transit had difficulty funding the enhanced service. We express our deep concern that the new service was delayed by a lack of available funds, and we call on decision-makers of appropriate authority to make sufficient funding available to give New Jersey's transit riders a better level of service than they have now. They deserve no less.