An early step in Amtrak's plans to rebuild rail infrastructure in the area is replacement of the aging Portal drawbridge in Kearney; the bridge spans the Hackensack River and opens occasionally for marine traffic, but frequently has malfunctioned, leading to delays in train traffic. The current plan is first to replace the existing bridge with a high-level bridge that could accommodate marine traffic without a drawbridge. This first stage is estimated to cost $1.5 billion, and finding financing has been a problem. The bridge is part of Amtrak's Gateway project, which would build a four-track railroad between Newark and New York, including a second Hackensack bridge, two new tunnels under the Hudson, and expansion of Penn Station in Manhattan into the city block to the south of the existing structure.  Advocates of the project thought they had a commitment from Washington to pay for half of it, but President Trump has backed away from that, and the Federal Transit Administration has criticized the project for its lack of local funding participation.

On Wednesday, June 13, the NJ Transit board of directors approved a resolution committing the state, through its Economic Development Authority, to borrow up the $600 million as the state's portion of the new bridge project. The action was reported by Larry Higgs for the Star-Ledger (and printed in the June 14 edition of the paper).  The action was applauded by the Regional Plan Association, which gave credit to NJ Gov. Murphy, and by NJ Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who said that the commitment would allow the state to refile the project plans with the federal government and would demonstrate that the state is behind the project.

Critics of the plan note that there is very little marine traffic on the Hackensack River; that it has decreased markedly recently and consists only of occasional barges hauling sewage sludge; and say that impact on rail passengers could be made very low simply by negotiating with the barge operators to do their shipping in the middle of the night.

As a federally-mandated deadline of December 31 approaches, NJ Transit's installation of the advanced Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system has been lagging. Originally, a law passed in 2008 required nationwide compliance by the end of 2015, but after widespread protests by the nation's railroads that the deadline was unreasonable, the date was extended by three years.  Further extensions on a case-by-case basis are possible, but the railroad has to show that it is well on the way to completing installation. The cost-effectiveness of PTC has been controversial, but each time a rail accident occurs the result is to mute opposition and solidify the political support for PTC, which is federally-mandated but whose costs are borne entirely by the rail systems that must implement it.

In the New Jersey areat, Amtrak has completed installation of PTC, as has the Philadelphia-area commuter carrier SEPTA.  Installation of PTC on the PATH rail system is continuing, with service interruptions scheduled to facilitate the installation work (see article below). However, NJ Transit's installation has lagged, and the consequences of non-compliance became more significant when Amtrak announced that it might not be able to allow non-compliant equipment to operate on its tracks; Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and New York Penn Station are used by a large fraction of NJ Transit trains. While it seems politically unlikely that Amtrak or the federal government would actually force NJT to stop operating trains on January 1, 2019, the pressure is clearly on NJT management to achieve compliance by the deadline.

At the NJT board of directors meeting on May 9, NJT Executive Director Kevin Corbett said he has verbally warned the railroad's PTC contractor, Parsons Transportation Group, that they must deliver a compliant system by year's end. (Parsons had once had a PTC contract with the Caltrain commuter rail system in suburban San Francisco, but lost it last year due to lack of progress.) The status of NJT's compliance, and Corbett's actions, was reported by Ralph Spielman in the Trains Magazine Newsletter online on May 14; further coverage by Larry Higgs and Jonathan D. Salant appeared on nj.com on May 16 (and in the Star-Ledger on May 17).  Spielman's article reported that, since Corbett's announcement, Parsons is operating two equipment installation facilities, both using multiple work shifts, in an effort to comply. And, writes Spielman, initial field testing has begun on NJT's Morristown Line, on the six mile double-track, electrified stretch between Morristown and Denville.

According to the Higgs/Salant article, as of a March 31 Federal Railroad Administration report, only 172 of 1100 NJT employees have been trained on PTC, just 37 of 124 required radio towers have been installed, and only six miles of track equipped; presumably, this is the Morristown-Denville segment referred to in the Spielman article. Only 13% of PTC hardware has been installed by NJT, ranking NJT as fourth lowest among 26 commuter railroads required to install PTC. The PATH system was 86% complete as of the March report. NJT reportedly has made progress since March, equipping 43 locomotives for PTC, installing 44 radio towers, and training 309 employees; apparently these figures are in addition to the numbers reported by the FRA.

As reported by Spielman, Corbett said that NJT was working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, and area freight carriers (NJT's Raritan Valley Line uses Conrail freight tracks between Cranford and Newark, which also require PTC compliance). Corbett said, "This is the most complex project I've ever seen."

NJ Transit has ranked high in Forbes Magazine's list of good places to work, America's Best Employers 2018. NJT came in at 459 nationwide; only 20 New Jersey employers reportedly made the list. Amtrak was even better rated, coming in at 279. The highest two employers in NJ were NRG Energy with a nationwide rating of 7, and Johnson & Johnson, rated at 59. Nationwide, the best two employers were found to be the Michelin Group, followed by Trader Joe's. “This honor is a reflection on the hard working men and women who keep New Jersey moving every day,” said NJ TRANSIT Executive Director Kevin Corbett.
 
NJT, which has experienced a "brain drain" of employees including locomotive engineers, was quick to publicize the Forbes rating in a press release, quoting Corbett: “Now is the perfect time to join this great organization.  We are currently recruiting and hiring for positions throughout our system.  This is an exciting time to be a part of NJ TRANSIT.” NJT the nation's third-largest transit operator and has almost 11,000 employees.

 

 

 

NJT riders who travel to Hoboken or Newark Penn Station and continue their trip to Manhattan via PATH trains will have to cope with shutdowns on weekends all summer. According to PATH, the shutdowns are necessary to facilitate the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment, which Federal regulations require for federally-regulated rail systems satisfying certain criteria; the installations are supposed to be completed by the end of 2018, although extensions are possible. PATH had similar closures in 2016 in the first phase of PTC installation. In 2016, PATH operated a special bus service between downtown and midtown Manhattan for passengers who could not travel to or from their desired destination; this year, instead, PATH will provide two-trip Metrocards so passengers can use the subway or regular NYC Transit buses instead. The special Metrocards will have to be used the weekend they are issued.

This year, the first phase of closures will take place the weekends of May 19 and July 7, when the World Trade Center and Exchange Place stations will be closed. Information in published accounts and on the PATH website is incomplete at the time of writing, but it appears that during these weekends PATH trains will operate on two routes: between Newark and Journal Square, and between Journal Square and 33 St, via Hoboken.  Passengers can receive the free two-trip Metrocard at the 33 St PATH station.

PATH's website does not appear yet to have the schedules for the remaining closures, but according to reporting by Patric Villanova in the Jersey Journal, the "uptown" Manhattan PATH stations on the 33 St PATH line will be closed on weekends between July 14 and October 28. On Saturdays, PATH will provide direct service from Hoboken to World Trade Center, which does not normally operate on weekends; but on Sundays, the only way for riders to get from Hoboken to World Trade will be to take a Journal Square-bound PATH train at Hoboken and transfer at Grove Street, often a lengthy journey. Not specifically announced yet, but apparently the free two-trip Metrocard would be available at the World Trade Center PATH terminal on these days.

Not found on the PATH site, but reported in the Jersey Journal article: it is said that on three Sundays, Sept. 15 and 22, and Oct. 13, the Hoboken PATH station will be closed completely.

When New Jersey PATH stations are closed, PATH tickets and passes will be cross-honored on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, apparently so riders can travel between Hoboken, Newport, and Exchange Place PATH stations; it's not clear whether the cross-honoring would be in effect outside this zone.

Service will apparently be normal on the Labor Day weekend.

 

Bridges on highways need to be safe, and information about their condition is publicly available.  Train bridges need to be safe too, and many of them are very old, some of the oldest structure's in the nation's transportation infrastructure. But, according to reporting by Curtis Tate in the Bergen Record and other Gannett papers (April 30), there is one big difference: NJ Transit refuses to disclose the condition of its bridges, despite reporters' requests through the Freedom of Information Act. NJT cites security concerns in stiffing the requests.  After all, if a bridge were about to fall down . . . it might encourage a terrorist to give it that last shove. NJT's refusal to disclose the information began under the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, and has continued into the Murphy administration, according to Tate's article.  NJT says that the Department of Homeland Security advised that release of bridge information could be used to "identify and exploit vulnerabilities" in the 600 or so rail bridges that NJT maintains.  NJT further cites the 2007 collapse of the I-35W highway bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people, as an example; but that event seems irrelevant, since it was ascribed to construction flaws, not terrorist attack.  In campaigning for office, Gov. Murphy said NJT was "a national disgrace" and also promised more open government, citing NJT's obfuscation of financial data. But the secrecy regarding bridges has continued under Murphy, despite the openness pledge.

The earlier stories prompted an editorial (May 3) in the Star-Ledger, headlined "NJT's dodge on rail safety is disturbing," and quoted NJ Association of Railroad Passengers president Len Resto, "Riders have a right to know the conditions of the entire infrastructure. It allows them to make an informed decision as to whether to ride the system or not. This includes concrete stairs, viaducts, archways, bridge steel, platforms, rail equipment, etc. Whether it's a safety issue or a reliability issue of being (able) to get to work on time, a rider has a right to know as they are paying for their service."

The attempt by reporters to secure rail bridge information continues.  Meanwhile, perhaps rail riders might consider riding a bus instead: buses use highway bridges, and information regarding their condition is readily available.

Advocacy is about more than only technical or political issues.  At the Lackawanna Coalition, we want to help you stay educated, as well as informed, about our transit.

We feature presentations on various topics of interest at the beginning of our meetings, and we have some exciting talks coming up during the next few months.

 

At our May meeting, which will be held on the 21st (third Monday), our presenter will be Mike Slack, I.T. Director at NJ Transit. Mike will update us on the agency's latest technical innovations.

Our meeting on June 25th will feature Samuel Turvey, Chair of the Steering Committee for Rebuild Penn Station. He will give us a report on the efforts of his organization to rebuild the original, magnificent, 1910-vintage Penn Station as a centerpiece of a “new” grandeur for Midtown Manhattan.

On July 23d, we will focus on internal matters, as Chair David Peter Alan presents an overview of our plans for the next three years.

Our presenter on August 27th will be Legislative Director Sally Gellert, who will give us an introduction to Twitter, tailored for those of us who, unlike Donald Trump, are not regular Twitter users.

We meet at Millburn Town Hall, 375 Millburn Avenue, only a few blocks from the Millburn Station, on the fourth Monday of the month (except when holidays intervene, as one will next month).  We start at 6:45 pm, and we normally adjourn at 9:00.

We are thoroughly familiar with transit in the area, but you don't need to be.  If you are interested in transit, want to learn more about it and want to join us in our efforts to improve our transit, we will be glad to have you.

We invite you to come to a meeting, enjoy an educational presentation, and join us in our efforts to improve the transit that all of us ride.

 

We always make statements when the New Jersey Transit Board of Directors meets.  The managers, reporters, and other advocates hear what we have to say, too.

You can also make statements at these meetings, but most of them take place at 9:00 in the morning, so it is not always easy to get to Newark at that time.

On Wednesday, May 9th, NJ Transit is giving you an opportunity to be heard in the evening.  The meeting starts at 6:00, and this only happens once a year.  As with all NJ Transit Board meetings, it will take place at NJT Headquarters, located at One Penn Plaza, Newark, behind Penn Station.

So come and make your voice heard.  There is strength in numbers, and we look forward to seeing you there.

In 2017, Amtrak performed major work on the track approaches to New York's Penn Station. For commuters, the required schedule changes, including diversion of weekday Midtown Direct services to Hoboken, amounted to what was popularly called the "Summer from Hell."  This summer, Amtrak's work program at Penn Station will continue, but disruptions will be much less, according to reporting by Patrick McGeehan in the New York Times (April 11). This summer, Amtrak plans to replace sections of Track 19 in the station, a track used only by Long Island Rail Road trains. Some work has been going on since January, and both NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road have made schedule changes to accommodate the current work.  LIRR said that its altered schedule will remain in effect through the summer's work, and NJ Transit said that it hadn't yet decided that the altered schedules would continue; the NJT changes affect the Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line. But the major diversions of last summer, including trains diverted to Hoboken on the Morris & Essex lines, won't be happening this time around, and other than possibly continuing its current alterations, NJT says no schedule changes are contemplated.

The main effect of this summer's work will be on trains run by Amtrak itself. During the summer, Amtrak plans to rehabilitate the "Empire Connection," a line that connects Penn Station with the rail line to Albany and points west and north of Albany. This connection will be taken out of service for the work, requiring diversion of all Amtrak trains to and from Albany to Grand Central Terminal. It's difficult to service long-distance trains, with their sleeping cars and dining cars, at Grand Central, so for the first time in memory, there will be no direct service from New York to Chicago: passengers will have to travel from Grand Central on coach trains and change at Albany.

In 2016, 27 year old Ramsey resident Thomas "Tommy" Ryan died in a train accident as he was trying to catch a Hoboken-bound train. A bill making its way through the state legislature in Trenton would provide crisis counseling for the families of victims killed in NJ Transit accidents, according to reporting by Tom Nobile (April 10) for the North Jersey Record. Ryan's death was ruled an accident, but the family reported that its interactions with state detectives were "sparse and unsympathetic." Police detectives are the normal point of contact for next of kin in such tragedies. The unhappy experience of Ryan's uncle Jamie Ryan, which included difficulty in securing the return of Tommy Ryan's personal effects, led Jamie Ryan to launch a personal crusade, which included lobbying then-governor Chris Christie and state Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R-Demarest), who sponsored the bill, S-862.  The bill would provide aid for the relatives of anyone injured or killed in an accident involving NJT trains or buses, provides for skilled counselors who would interact with family, and the return of personal belongings. The bill cleared the Senate Transportation Committee in late March and currently awaits action by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Meanwhile, NJT has acted to improve safety at the site of the accident, the Main Street grade crossing in Ramsey, including improved signals and audible warnings, and "gate skirts" which drop down and discourage pedestrians from ducking underneath lowered gates.

Amtrak's ambitious Gateway project has been much in the news of late. The full project, which would take many years to complete, aims to build new tunnels under the Hudson for rail service, and then rehabilitate the storm-damaged existing tubes; add new bridges across the Hackensack River in New Jersey to replace the aging Portal drawbridge; and expand New York's Penn Station with a seven-track annex which would replace the city block to the south. Where the estimated $30 billion to do all this would come from has been the sticking point.

There had been a plan to secure the money, or so local politicians thought.  During the Obama administration, local pols met with the federal government and thought they had secured an agreement for the Feds to pony up half the total, the rest to be local responsibility, although the fine print was that the local funds would mostly come from federal loans.  "Fine print" is just a metaphor, it turns out, because the deal was never documented, and the Trump administration eventually denied that any such deal ever existed. Skeptics demanded "show me the document!" but none was forthcoming. Nonetheless, advocates met with President Trump and thought they had his backing to proceed, and bipartisan support included $900 million in the omnibus spending bill that was needed to keep the government operating after March 23. But as the clock wound down, the president reversed course, declaring his opposition to federal funding for Gateway and threatening to veto the entire package if the Gateway funds were included.  Advocates were baffled; speculation was that a feud with Sen. Schumer (D-NY), the Democratic senator leader, was behind the sudden change of heart.

In the end, the president signed the bill, which is reportedly about 1000 pages and almost nobody has read in detail.  It has some provisions that Gateway could potentially draw on, and advocates quickly declared success, claiming that $540 million in the bill is destined for Gateway, enough to keep it moving forward, they said. In addition, they said, Gateway could apply for some of $2.9 billion in additional money being made available.

Not so fast, said skeptics. They pointed out that all of the money being made available in the bill needs to be competed for, and that Gateway has been rated very low in priority by Department of Transportation scorekeepers, mainly because the "real" local money committed by New York and New Jersey was insufficient.  Relying on federal loans doesn't get you much credit for putting skin in the game. The area's representatives weren't listening, claiming that the funds for Gateway were in the bag.

Critics of the massive program have begun to question whether it will ever be built; see story below. Amtrak has maintained that the existing tunnels need to be taken out of service, one at a time and for an extensive period, to repair damage from flooding during Hurricane Sandy.  Without new tunnels to keep trains flowing during the repairs, Amtrak says, it would be impossible to run the density of trains that peak-hour service demands; one tunnel would limit trains to just six trains an hour in each direction, crippling the commuter rush hours. But is Amtrak crying wolf, just to get funding for a gold-plated solution? Skeptics note that only about half a mile of each tunnel was flooded, and that the damage is to the "bench walls" on the side of the tunnels, not to the basic structure; can't Amtrak fix these during weekends, just as tunnel work is done currently, when train density is lower?  We may only find out the truth if the funding for Gateway does eventually dry up and all the participants face reality.

 

 

 More than at any time since it was first proposed in 2011, it is doubtful that the Gateway Project as planned will ever be built. The project includes new tunnels on a route near, but separate from, the existing Northeast Corridor (NEC) line, a new “Penn South” station for NJ Transit trains, and additional infrastructure at Secaucus Junction. Although it has always been unclear who would pay the currently-estimated $30 billion cost of the entire project, recent developments have essentially ensured that the any federal contribution will be minor, while New Jersey is notoriously cash-strapped. Despite this, the Lackawanna Coalition continues to believe that the useful components of the project can still be built, at a cost saving that would come from concentrating on needs, and postponing or simply not building what is not necessary.

 

For more than seven years, many elected officials and representatives of the engineering and construction industries have advocated for the project, which would build a separate railroad into Midtown Manhattan near the existing line, a new “Penn South” station at 30th Street for NJ Transit trains, and a new station near the existing Secaucus Junction Station in the Meadowlands. It is similar to the final version of the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) Project, which underwent significant changes from the time it was first proposed in the mid-1990s until former Governor Chris Christie terminated it in October, 2010. By that time, it called for a line to Midtown separate from the existing NEC and a dead-end deep-cavern station twenty stories below Macy's basement under 34th Street. Christie killed the project for two reasons: the deep-cavern terminal was not a useful place to drop commuters and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) had estimated the cost of the project to lie between $12 and $15 billion, far more than the $8.7 billion that New Jersey and the Feds could raise at the time.

 

Now, history is repeating itself. The Gateway Project uses the same alignment as the former ARC Project of 2008–10 to get under the Hudson River, and most NJ Transit riders would be relegated to a new station, rather than the Penn Station that they use today; a station further from subway connections and from most Midtown offices. The cost for Gateway, which always exceeded the final cost for the ARC proposal, has increased to an estimated $30 billion.

 

On December 29, 2017, K. Jane Williams, Depute Administrator at the FTA, told Gateway Project officials in New Jersey and New York State that the Obama Administration had never promised to pay half the cost of Gateway, so there was no agreement that would commit the current administration to such funding. She also said that 90% of the riders who would use the project to get to and from Penn Station would be local rail riders, rather than Amtrak customers, so the project was more concerned with local, and not regional or national, mobility. The following week, an editorial appeared in the New York Daily News, calling for a scaled-down project that would not cost as much as the entire Gateway proposal. Then, on February 12th, President Trump unveiled his infrastructure plan for the nation. He proposed a total of $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending of all kinds, but with the federal government chipping in only $200 billion of that, which is only 2/7, or 13.3% of the total. Although it has been customary for the feds to pay 50% of project costs with a “local match” for the other half, it now looks like the new percentage from Washington will be 20% at best, and probably more like 10%.

 

That news alone is probably enough to make sure that the complete Gateway, as its proponents envision it, will not be built. To make matters worse for the project, the FTA recently downgraded the project from “medium-high” to “medium-low” priority; essentially a downgrade from a B to a D. Competition for federal grants from many applicants across the nation is fierce, and the few projects that receive a “medium-low” rating generally do not receive federal grants. So, as far as Washington is concerned, the Tunnel Project and the Portal North Bridge Project, two major and essential components of Gateway, have received low grades and will probably flunk the funding test.

 

We see a number of reasons for this funding failure. One is that the overall project is too expensive compared to the overall national budget. Even if the federal government pitched in with $15 billion (half of the estimated cost of the entire project), that would use up half the money available for the entire country. There is also very little “local” funding commitment for the project elements in question, which is always a problem when asking for federal funds. There has been very little capital money from NJ Transit committed to the project, even though it is New Jersey peak-hour commuters who would get the most benefit from it. In addition, the project has a serious flaw. The Gateway plan does not allow any increase in peak-hour capacity at Penn Station until the entire project is built. That means increased capacity comes last, not first. To get that increase in capacity under the Gateway plan would require Penn South, the extra infrastructure at Secaucus, and all other elements that are not otherwise necessary or desirable. In short, the Gateway Project as presently conceived is an overpriced enterprise that would not improve mobility in the advertised manner.

 

There are ways to improve the rating for the project, but that would entail improving it and committing more local funding for it. It should deliver additional capacity to Penn Station as soon as the first new track is placed into service. It also needs more local funding, so the FTA will know that New Jersey is serious about the project, not simply looking for a handout. Federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said that using “local” money to repay federal loans does not count toward the “local” match. A strong local match would encourage the federal agency to commit funding.

 

The Gateway Project may be facing additional political difficulties. The Washington Post and New York Times reported on Saturday, March 3d that President Trump has asked House Speaker Paul Ryan not to support funding for the project. It was also reported that the request may be a consequence of the wrangling between Trump and Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York, a Gateway backer.

 

Despite these difficulties with both performance and funding, many local elected officials and Gateway proponents maintain that there is no Plan B. That is not correct. We at the Lackawanna Coalition have proposed and expressed our support for a Plan B that we call “A Better Gateway.”  Our current plan is an update of a proposal developed in 2012 by Coalition member Joseph M. Clift and our former Legislative Director, the late James T. Raleigh.  We call for at least one new tunnel and track directly into Penn Station, New York, with a second track if there is enough money available to build it.  It should be built along the same alignment as the existing line, rather than on a separate alignment.  We call for the aging Portal Bridge to be replaced with one new bridge, either with four tracks or with three tracks plus room for fourth to be added later, as funds become available.  We do not see any reason to build two new two-track bridges, when one larger bridge will cost less and perform better. We also call for the southernmost two platforms in Penn Station New York, which serve Tracks 1 through 4, to be extended to the West End Concourse at Penn Station and the Moynihan Train Hall, currently under construction.  There should also be enough "vertical access" at the station to allow riders to get from the platform to the station concourse quickly.  That improvement is a component of the Gateway Project.  We also object to the proposed Penn South station and the proposed Secaucus South infrastructure and station, which are not needed, as well as building two new bridges instead of one.

 

We will have more information about this initiative, including a plan for saving money by scaling down the Gateway Project to a manageable and affordable size. There is not enough money available from either federal or local sources to pay for the current proposal, and we need to spend our tax money wisely. This is especially true in light or the recent increase in federal income tax that most New Jerseyans will pay, starting next year.

 

We are also beginning to think about Plan C; a plan for moving riders into Manhattan if nothing is built and the existing tunnels must be taken out of service for repairs caused by flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We think that it is critical to avoid Plan C, which would be quite difficult for riders if it becomes necessary because of a tunnel shutdown. Thus, we call for scaling Gateway down to our “Better Gateway” size, eliminating unnecessary projects from NJ Transit's capital program, and concentrating on the tunnel capacity, bridge, and Penn Station improvements that the local area and the region need. In short, there is a Plan B, and we have it. Otherwise, our only choice will be to go to the emergency Plan C.