Finally comfirming rumors that have been circulating for weeks, news reports on November17 confirm that NJ Transit Executive Director Veronica Hakim has accepted a new job, that of President of New York City Transit. Hakim in her new position will be responsible for bus and subway operations at NYC Transit, a division of New York State's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Hakim is no stranger to the MTA, having spent 23 years there. Before becoming NJT's director, she had served for four years as executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Hakim will take up her new post on December 28.
Read here a story about the transfer in the Asbury Park Press.
In an analysis of what Hakim's departure means for NJ Transit, Larry Higgs reported on Nov. 18 for NJ Advance Media. The article includes quotes from Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who said "It seems like a revolving door for NJT leadership."
The "nine challenges" facing NJT, according to Higgs' article, include a broken financing system, including raiding capital funds for operating purposes, and a possible fare increase on the heels of this year's hike; unhappy riders who cite frequent delays; expiring union contracts and the possibility of a strike early in 2016; and growing ridership with no where to accommodate them in an aging fleet of equipment.
Read the full article here.
Regular weekend shuttle train service returned to the Gladstone Branch on Saturday, Nov. 14, for the first time in nearly eight months. Bus service was provided starting March 22 as NJ Transit cleared the tracks for its continuing maintenance program, which has interrupted Gladstone train service on and off for years. For several months during the summer, midday trains on weekdays were also replaced by buses. A main objective of the program is replacement of wooden poles that support the overhead wires which supply energy to the trains; the replacement structures are of steel. The project is still not finished: the latest NJT timetable notes that buses will return "in late winter or early spring." The replacement bus service provided a slower ride for most riders, with inbound departures ten to 15 minutes earlier than with train service, and unchanged times for the trains east of Summit. Outbound buses were schedule to run at approximately the same times as the trains they replaced, but in our experience the buses usually ran about ten minutes late, particuarly for outlying stations.
President Obama has appointed a second Presidential Emergency Board to continue mediation between NJ Transit's unions and the carrier. The process establishes a second 60-day cooling off period, during which strikes are prohibited by Federal law. With this action, the earliest a strike could occur is approximately January 10. Reporting by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger can be read here.
On November 12 Govs. Christie (R-NJ) and Cuomo (D-NY) and US Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced a comprehensive funding plan to enable the Gateway trans-Hudson tunnel and rail improvement project to move forward. 50% of the funding will be provided by Federal sources, including grants and other sources. It was clear, however, that a significant portion of the funding will come from loans, not grants, and the financing plan is structured so that payment of debt service will be deferred until the project is in operation; reports say that Amtrak does not expect the project to be complete before the year 2030, although some sources suggest that the tunnels themselves could be complete in just ten years. According to an announcement released by Gov. Christie's office, the Federal 50% share would come from various Federal programs and loans that the federal government would repay; the sources include Amtrak capital funds and profits from Amtrak's Northeast Corridor operations.
To implement the program, a Gateway Development Corporation will be created under the auspices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The governing board of this corporation will have members from both states, the US Department of Transportation, and Amtrak. Any "new assets" created by the corporation (presumably, including the new tunnels) will be owned by the corporation itself, and use of them by the railroads will involve "appropriate terms." The structure of the financial project is said to allow access to low-interest funding sources that would not be easily available to all the individual participants. Reportedly, the two states could raise their share of the project by issuing bonds, or by tapping into a Federal low-cost loan fund with interests rates of less than two percent.
The full scope of the project was not immediately clear, although the Trenton press release referred to the Amtrak "Gateway" project, which has been previously described to include not only the tunnels themselves, but a major expansion of Pennsylvania Station in New York (under the city block immediately to the south); replacement of the Portal drawbridge over the Hackensack River; and construction of two additional tracks between the new tunnels and Newark on the Northeast Corridor. Most of the existing infrastructure dates from about 105 years ago, although there have been many incremental improvements over that time span. Larry Higgs' article mentioned construction of two additional tracks as far as Newark as part of the project.
While the states together would be responsible for half the total funding, it was not clear how the two states would split that half, as Capital New York observed in an article posted online on Nov. 12. The article reported that Sen. Schumer commented, in an interview that day, "They haven’t worked out between themselves if they each match each other, or New Jersey does more than New York, or vice versa."
The Wall Street Journal commented that "It remains unclear how the local, state and federal governments will fund the tunnel project in an era of tight budgets." The possibility that Amtrak Northeast Corridor profits might be used reflects a proposal currently being considered in Congress to use such profits within the Northeast Corridor; identification of the size of any such funds depends on Amtrak's complex accounting system, since both Northeast Corridor and long-distance trains operating outside the Northeast share facilities. But it is widely understood that Amtrak may be using Northeast Corridor "profits" to subsidize operations outside the Northeast. Thus, any diversion of funds to projects such as Gateway might pose a threat to Amtrak operations in other areas.
There was also some political fallout from the announcement; an article in the Star-Ledger (Nov. 13) by Brent Johnson and headlined "Will U.S. Funding for Tunnel Hurt Christie?" speculated that Gov. Christie's Presidential aspirations might suffer if Republican primary voters see the tunnel project as an expansion of Federal funding.
The Lackawanna Coalition strongly supports construction of new tunnel capacity as soon as possible, and believes that if funding continues to delay the project, a single track tunnel could be built quickly with funds already available, and could potentially avoid a disaster should one of the two existing tunnels need to be taken out of service.
We commend New Jersey Transit for allowing its riders, who are also our constituents, to leave New York City and Dover later on Monday through Friday nights than they could for the past several weeks. We complained to our elected officials and to the media about the service reductions, and about the lack of notice to us and to the riding public about the elimination of the last trains on several routes.
We credit our advocacy on behalf of our riders as a significant cause of those concessions by NJT. We will continue to advocate for the restoration of service from New York later at night. Riders on Long Island and the areas served by Metro-North can leave New York City later than riders on our lines of concern, which inconveniences our riders and makes New Jersey less competitive with suburban areas or New York State for people who want access to New York City and everything the City has to offer.
If we had known that NJT had planned to eliminate the last trains on our routes of concern, we could have fought to keep those trains before the initial damage was done. We continue to call for public notice of any service eliminations, whether or not NJT management considers those service cuts to be significant. We and the public we represent have a right to know if NJT plans to curtail their mobility.
Our riders now have half of the late-evening time in New York City that they lost in September. They also have an 11:30 inbound departure from Dover, but using that train to access local stops in Essex County now requires a half-hour wait in Summit for the next trains. These improvements constitute steps and the right direction, and we appreciate any improvement that NJT makes. These improvements constitute a good start toward restoring mobility for our riders, and the is much more to be done.
We will continue our campaign until our riders have the level of service they deserve, and until there is a policy in place that will prevent NJT from cutting service without prior notice to us and to the public that would be adversely affected by such service reductions.
US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said on October 1 that officials of both the federal government and New Jersey were taking significant initial steps to move the long-delayed Hudson River rail tunnel project forward, according to reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times (Oct. 2). According to Secretary Foxx, Amtrak will oversee engineering work on the project, while NJ Transit will lead environmental studies. The Port Authority might be designated to oversee the project, and Foxx said his department will expedite the project by shortening permit intervals and enter into discussions about federal grants and other financing options. Mr. Foxx said he wanted to move quickly because of the deteriorating condition of the existing century-old tunnels. NJT spokeswoman Nancy Snyder confirmed NJT's role in the environmental impact phase, but said the role still must be confirmed by NJT's board of directors; the review could take two to three years. NJT has agreed to share its studies from the earlier Access to the Region's Core (ARC) tunnel project with Amtrak. Secretary Foxx said the environmental and engineering study work is essential to determine the true scope and cost of the project, a necessary preliminary to creating a funding plan. It is not totally clear from the reporting just what the scope of the project is currently assumed to be, but the Times article appears to assume that it will be Amtrak's Gateway proposal, which, as the Times reports, includes not only a two-tube rail tunnel under the Hudston but also an expanded Penn Station, a replacement for the Portal bridge over the Hackensack River west of the Hudson, and "other upgrades." Secretary Foxx said, however, that the project could be executed in phases, with the new tunnel being the first priority.
Read the complete Times story here.
As federal and state officials continued to feud over who should pay for new rail tunnels under the Hudson, an Amtrak official said that the ARC tunnel canceled by New Jersey Governor Christie in 2010 would not have solved emerging problems with the century-old tunnels under the river. Stephen Gardner, Amtrak VP of Northeast Corridor infrastructure investment, said that ARC would have provided limited benefits because it would not have gone to Penn Station, instead to a separate station under 34 Street in Manhattan a few blocks north of the existing station. "If ARC were built, we would still be in this situation," Gardner said, quoted by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger (Aug. 11). Advocacy groups, including the Lackawanna Coalition, have maintained that ARC was a waste of money because it did not integrate with Penn Station and the existing tunnels, and Gardner's statement agrees with their position.
Meanwhile, state and federal politicians continued to debate who should pay for new tunnels, with the governors of both New York and New Jersey saying that it should be paid for with federal, not state funds. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said "It's not my tunnel. Why don't you pay for it? It is an Amtrak tunnel that is used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit." Amtrak has committed $300 million, a small fraction of the project's estimated $14 billion cost.
Higgs' online story also quoted Al Papp Jr., a director of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers and past Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, as saying that the federal government has to pay a larger share (of the tunnel cost) since the tunnel literally allows connection to every state (via) Amtrak service. Papp noted that the tunnels are similar to the Interstate highway system: originally built to move people across state lines, but today primarily used by commuters.
Gardner warned that recent delays in service through the tunnels might become the norm, even if the new tunnels are built; they might not be done for ten years. Amtrak's plan once the new tunnels are complete, roughly in 2025, is not to increase service but instead take the existing tunnels out of service for rehabilitation, which might take until 2030. In Senate testimony, Gardner exhibited a charred section of power cable removed from the Hudson tunnels; it was installed in the 1930s, and its failure during the week of July 20 was one of the causes of extensive delays.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that construction of at least one new tunnel under the Hudston needs to start immediately. The Coalition has advocated that a single track tunnel could be built first at lower cost, and allow the existing tunnels to be taken our of service for maintenance one at a time. But at least one, and preferably two, tunnels should be started at once.
With ongoing publicity about the precarious condition of the tunnels that carry thousands of commuters and casual riders under the Hudson River into Manhattan every day, pundits and riders alike have been wondering what would happen if one of the two tracks had to be taken out of service for an extended period for repairs. Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, has warned that three-fourths of the trans-Hudson capacity would evaporate if only one tunnel were available: trains would have to be run in fleets, six at a time each hour in either direction. This is what happens today on weekends, when schedules allow for one track out of service for maintenance. In a weekday rush hour, most of the usual riders would be unable to reach Manhattan.
So, does NJ Transit have a plan to deal with a tunnel closure? According to reporting by Larry Higgs of the Star Ledger, NJT has a solution for one-third of the 165,000 NJT riders who use the tunnels on weekdays: they would likely stay home. Of the remaining 110,000, NJT figures that 60,000 could ride ferries, and the rest, or about 50,000, could be accommodated by a "robust bus program," even though NJT's existing bus service into Manhattan is already at capacity, constrained by limits at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Meanwhile, politicians continue to ruminate and plan meetings about how to build additional tunnels, and who would pay for them.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story inaccurately claimed that the Star Ledger had reprinted a report from Bloomberg. The Star Ledger's Larry Higgs was in fact the original source of the reporting.
We have some exciting presentations lined up for our next two meetings.
There are other constituencies that care about better transit, in addition to advocates who represent riders directly. Our next two guests come from the Labor and the Environmental movements.
On Monday, August 24th, Raymond W. Greaves will tell us about his vision for A New Role for Labor. Greaves is State Chair of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents bus drivers and other employees at NJT, and is Labor's delegate to the NJT Board. He opposed the upcoming fare increases and service cuts.
Our presenter on Monday, September 28th will be Doug O'Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey. He is interested in working with rider advocates which, of course, includes us. We invite you to hear his ideas and present him with some ideas of your own.
Our meetings take place on the fourth Monday of each month at 7:00, at Millburn Town Hall, 375 Millburn Avenue. Our location is within walking distance of the Millburn Train Station. We hope you will join us.
DAVID PETER ALAN
At its regular meeting on July 27th, the Lackawanna Coalition called for secure, stable and sufficient funding for operations at NJ Transit, as well as for community transportation in New Jersey. In doing so, we have recognized the need for appropriate funding for transit operations, to avoid future fare increases and service cuts, as NJ Transit approved earlier this month. In addition, we recognize the importance of community transportation in connecting with scheduled transit, which provides additional mobility for the people who need it the most.
We are aware of the current initiatives concerning highway legislation in Congress and renewing the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) in New Jersey. We recognize that these are primarily highway-oriented pieces of legislation, with some benefits for the capital side of transit. We are also aware that transit operations must be funded separately, and that the lack of sufficient funding for transit operations leads to increases in fares and cuts in transit service. These lead, in turn, to increased highway use and to less mobility for people who depend on transit. We call for sufficient, stable and secure funding for transit operations to insure that all New Jerseyans will have as much mobility as possible, and at affordable fares.
We also recognize the community transit in New Jersey is mostly operated by counties, whose ability to fund services is constrained. Grants from the Casino Revenue Fund, which paid for many such services, have fallen to less than half of the level of 2008. We understand the potential for community transit to provide connections with our trains and other scheduled transit and take customers the "last mile" to their destinations. We also understand that many seniors, persons with disabilities and other persons who depend on public transportation need these services. Accordingly, we call for sufficient, stable and secure funding for community transportation, as well.
We believe that we are the first rider-advocacy organization to call for sufficient funding for community transportation in New Jersey, along with sufficient funding for operations at New Jersey Transit.
DAVID PETER ALAN
Chair, Lackawanna Coalition