Just three months after he said that NJ Transit fares wouldn't increase in the coming year, NJ Gov. Phil Murphy said on Tuesday, June 26 that he could no longer rule out an increase in the coming fiscal year. The story was reported by Curtis Tate for the North Jersey Record and appears in the Gannett papers on June 27. Murphy said the increase was possible if he can't resolve his differences with state legislators, a situation which has threatened a shutdown of some state functions on July 1, only days away. Murphy's budget proposal proposed a $242 million funding boost for NJT; the legislature's proposal has only a $167 million increase. (The actual increase for NJT is subject to some debate, owing to various account transfers, and because some revenue sources are declining, including fares from a declining ridership.) Murphy also refused to rule out an increase in the gasoline tax, which last year was increased by a large amount after years at a constant per-gallon rate.  Meanwhile, the budget impasse continues, with the governor insisting on a "millionaire's tax" and an increase in the sales tax to 7%, and the legislature refusing to go along.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy promised in his election campaign to fix the problems at NJ Transit, notably the transit agency's perpetual funding shortage. He said to expect a $242 million increase in funding, 110 new employees, and, for now, no fare increase.  All this, of course, depended on Murphy's ability to secure a source for the required money, and he has emphasized that there needs to be a long-term solution: no more short-term gimmicks or moving money around between accounts. Great plans, but there's just one problem: the state legislature, controlled by Murphy's own Democratic party. And with a budget deadline looming on June 30, the governor is at loggerheads with the legislature, notably with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester County). Murphy wants a "millionaire's tax" on the wealthy, and an increase in the state sales tax from 6.625% to 7%.  Sweeney is reluctant to increase state taxes, already some of the highest in the nation, and has proposed instead some more short term solutions, which Murphy despises, such as increasing taxes on the largest corporations, coupled with audits designed to root out unnecessary costs. If they don't reach agreement by June 30, the state could shut down many functions, including state beaches over the July 4 holiday.  NJ Transit would keep running, for now, but plans to put transit on a more level footing would continue to be postponed. The Governor insists that his plan would be better for NJ Transit in the long run, saying "This one investment in NJ Transit is the beginning of a journey. When you're digging out of a mess that's been made for eight years, you can't turn this thing around overnight. We're gonna need year-in, year-out sustainable sources of revenue."  Appealing directly to commuters, Murphy held his press conference at the train station in Trenton.  Reporting on this issue can be found by Nick Corasaniti in the New York Times and Brent Johnson in the Star-Ledger.

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.