On April 20 NJ Transit unveiled a long-rumored plan to increase fares, and is proposing limited service cuts as well. In line with NJT Executive Director Veronique Hakim's promise to limit any required increase to "single digits," the increase would be about 9%, just under the double-digit boundary. As reported by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and printed in the Star-Ledger (April 21), a typical trip, Metropark to New York on the Northeast Corridor, would rise from $10.00 to $10.75; the one-zone local bus fare would go from $1.50 to $1.60. Two trains apparently would be cut from the schedule, reportedly the last trains at night on the Montclair-Boonton and Pascack Valley lines (the Boonton line cutback apparently involves only service west of Montclair State University, although there is some confusion on this point). On the bus side, a number of routes would be affected: the #655 Princeton-Plainsboro route would be eliminated, along with two seasonal routes, from Philadelphia and Freehold to the Great Adventure amusement park. There would also be service reductions on several routes, including numbers 419 and 463 in south Jersey, as well as the #872, which runs between Morristown and the Livingston Mall. Advocates and commuter representatives reacted in opposition to the proposed increases and service cuts; Lackawanna Coalition chair David Alan, quoted in the Star-Ledger article, said the late-night cuts would discourage discretionary riders, saying "there's not many commuter rail lines with a last run going out (as early as 11 p.m.); most have some trains after 12:30 and 1:00 a.m." Politicians predictably blamed the opposition, but Alan said that Republicans and Democrats are equally at fault for the last two fare increases, and warned drivers that traffic could get worse as commuters shift to driving, saying "Every fare increase on NJ Transit, when there is no similar increase on users of the highway, causes some migration." Seemingly to prove Alan's point, the NJ Department of Motor Vehicles announced that there would be no increase in license fees this year.
Read the full story here.
While NJ Transit has hedged on whether there will be a fare increase this year, a report says that the increase might need to be 9 percent to balance the NJT budget, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (April 14). The estimate comes from analysis of a review of NJT finances performed by the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), which noted that the NJT budget estimates an increase of fare revenue of 8.8%, but that ridership has been increasing only by about 2% each year. Simple arithmetic suggests that the 8.8% that NJT is relying upon can't be achieved without a fare increase. Meanwhile, Higgs reports, the Wall Street Journal has reported that a nine-percent hike will be announced as early as this week. NJT Executive Director Veronique Hakim has said that if an increase is required, public hearings will be announced by the end of April. One worry for NJT is the likelihood that the railroad will have to pay additional rental fees for the use of the Northeast Corridor and New York's Penn Station; this might add $20 million to NJT's expenses. The increase, paid to owner Amtrak, seems mandated by a 2008 law passed by Congress, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which requires Amtrak to operate "more like a business," with less subsidization of commuter railroads that use its tracks.
See the complete story here.
While NJ Transit has been widely expected to propose fare increases in 2015 because of a reported $80 million budget shortfall, the agency seemed to be hedging its bets in recent days. According to reporting by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger (April 7), NJT Executive Director Veronique Hakim has told state lawmakers that a fare increase would be a last resort; NJT spokesman William Smith said the fare increase issue would not be on the agenda at NJT’s April 8 board meeting. Some legislators had objected to any fare incrase. Regarding the budget deficit, NJT seems to have found some remedies: $22 million in clean-air funds apparently will be applied to help fill the gap, and NJT has also found internal cost-cutting efficiencies, all of which have cut the apparent deficit in half. Service reductions are another way to balance the budget, but Smith said that no specific service cuts will be announced at this time, but “that continues to be looked at as part of meeting our budget goals.” The fare increase was not apparently on the agenda at the April 8 Board meeting, but afterwards, Hakim told reporter Higgs that NJT would decide whether a fare increase is necessary by the end of the month. If the increase becomes necessary, there will be a statewide public process of hearings.
Read the April 7 story here.
Read Larry Higg's report on Ms Hakim's comments here.
Monthly commutation fares on NJ Transit's rail lines may be the highest in the country for equivalent distances, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and published in the Star-Ledger (March 28). Comparing fares for a typical 48-52 mile one-way commute, the article said the NJT fare was a whopping $414 a month; other rail lines in the New York area were cheaper, even after recent fare hikes by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the two other principal commuter lines serving the metropolitan area. MTA's Metro-North Railroad was close behind NJT in fares, charging $407 a month for roughly the same distance, and MTA's Long Island Rail Road was somewhat cheaper at $377. Other lines surveyed by the article include Metrolink in the Los Angeles area, quite a bit cheaper at $321.50 a month, and Virginia Railway Express, serving the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where fares are a more reasonable $287 a month. And NJT's fares haven't been raised in five years; NJT management has recently raised the possibility of an increase this year, which might put NJT even more out of line, nationwide.
See the complete article here.
NJ Transit has established a new position to direct policy and strategic planning, and named Michael Drewniak, a longtime spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, as its first occupant. The appointment of Drewniak as chief of policy and strategic planning was announced on February 27 by NJT executive director Veronique Hakim, and reported by Ted Sherman for NJ Advance Media in the Star-Ledger (Feb. 28). Hakim said the appointment was "an integral part of my commitment to maximize our resources around safety and efficiency, and move the organization forward in such areas as technology, fare collection and capacity -- all with an eye toward improving the overall customer experience." Drewniak's last day in the Governor's office was Feb. 26, and he expects to start his new post on April 1; he will be paid $147,000, a $13,000 raise over his previous salary working for Gov. Christie. Drewniak earlier worked for the Star-Ledger for 12 years as a reporter, leaving in 1998 to work for the U.S. Attorney's office; Christie kept him on when Christie became U.S. Attorney in 2002, and Drewniak then moved on with Christie after Christie became governor.
See the complete story here.
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.