After a brief but all-too-familiar fracas between New York City Mayor de Blasio and the NY State-owned Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA on February 22 approved the upgrading of eight subway stations.  The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 23, reported by Paul Berger) confirmed that among the eight stations are the two which serve commuters connecting at New York's Penn Station, among which are many NJ Transit riders. The Journal noted that the upgrading of the two stations caused an extra bit of controversy, since MTA Chairman Joe Lhota is also a director of the company that runs Madison Square Garden, which sits above Penn Station and whose patrons could also benefit from better subway stations. The MTA's counsel and its ethics officer said they had reviewed the situation and believed there was no conflict of interest. Improved subway stations would also benefit riders of the Long Island Rail Road, which also uses Penn Station and is also part of the MTA, so Lhota clearly has multiple interests at play in voting for the improvements. The entire plan to spend money on subway station improvements had recently sparked controversy when the Mayor questioned the wisdom of rehabilitating stations when the overall performance of the subway system is in question, and is often blamed on lack of spending on basic maintenance. The New York Times reported (Sarah Maslin Nir, Feb. 22) that criticism of the overall station program included the fact that no money was provided for elevators for handicapped access. NYC Transit president Andy Byford, recently arrived from Toronto, noted that some of the stations to be rehabbed but which are not accessible are close to other stations that do have access, while in some cases adding accessibility would unduly delay the rehabilitation work. 

NJ Transit will add 40 passenger cars to its rail fleet, according to an announcement on February 15 by Gov. Phil Murphy, in an effort to alleviate crowding on some trains. The announcement was reported by Larry Higgs for nj.com and appears in the Star-Ledger, Feb. 16. 20 of the cars will be leased from a Maryland commuter operator, presumably MARC, and the other 20 will be NJT cars that had been awaiting installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) hardware. It was unclear whether the PTC equipment has been installed; NJT faces a nationwide year-end deadline to implement the PTC safety system. In related news, Amtrak announced that commuter railroads that do not comply with PTC might be banned from its track at year end; many NJT trains operate over Amtrak, which owns the Northeast Corridor, including New York Penn Station.

NJ Transit has a new executive director, Kevin S. Corbett, as of Wednesday, Feb. 14 when Corbett was officially confirmed by NJT's board of directors. The transit agency has been roundly condemned by riders and observers alike, some saying that the system it operates is the worst in the country.  So what should Corbett do? According to reporting by Larry Higgs for nj.com (and published in the Star-Ledger, Feb. 15), NJT customers have an earful for the new boss. Reliability and overcrowding tend to be at the top of the list. Morris & Essex Line commuter John Ohlson, summed it up: "Forget cleanliness and prices. Just get me to work on time. Do whatever it takes for trains to follow their schedules." Rail rider Gary Kuppinger said "I take the Montclair-Boonton Line and there are always delays due to 'operational issues' on trains."

Bus riders voiced concerns about an aging fleet of buses that breaks down all too frequently, and often does not provide enough service to accommodate riders on some routes. Bus route 156 rider Ellen Herb said "NJ Transit needs to listen to customers when they're told there are not enough buses on a route, or when a route needs to be changed to accommodate changing passenger needs." Route 177x rider Eric Goebelbecker said "If there's one thing, it's 'fix the bus fleet.' Too many of them are breaking down and too many trips are canceled for operational issues, which I assume means no buses are available." Bus rider John Medway, who rides a bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, criticized both bus reliability and the maintenance of the special bus lane that his bus uses. "You can't have buses breaking down twice a week in the Xclusive Bus Lane (leading to the) Lincoln Tunnel . . . you can't have breakdowns causing 60-minute delays. Work with the Port Authority to stop this manual delineator replacement madness. They did it twice (on Monday)."

Customer relations also came under fire. Northeast Corridor Line rail commuter Paul Bell said that the top priority should be "courtesy, especially in making station announcements and not relying on the automated announcements, which may or may not be turned on, and conveying information to passengers during train delays." Jean Cook, a Main-Bergen Line rider, echoed Bell's concerns. "I'd start with customer service. (NJT should have) employees walking the "pit" (the waiting area at New York Penn Station) when there are delays, not standing in the corners with their cellphones. Answer questions with helpful answers, not 'I don't know.'"  But maybe it's all beyond NJT's management to control, George Young of Rahway feared: "To me it is the aging of an inadequate infrastructure and general lack of commitment in Washington to rail service."

New Jersey's new governor, Phil Murphy, on January 22 ordered a "full scale" audit of NJ Transit, an agency he has previously called a "national disgrace," saying "this agency must be boiled down to its essentials and put back together again." "Our goal must be a new New Jersey Transit," Murphy said at a press conference held at the Summit train station. The event was widely reported, including in the Star-Ledger by Brent Johnson and Larry Higgs (printed Jan. 23). To carry out his plans, Murphy will need a new executive director at NJT to replace incumbent Steve Santoro, who has tendered his resignation; on January 23, Murphy announced he planned to nominate Kevin Corbett, North American VP for AECOM, an infrastructure firm that had previously worked on NJT projects including the ARC trans-Hudson tunnel, canceled by former Gov. Chris Christie. Corbett was formally  nominated on January 30, according to reporting by Nick Corasaniti in the New York Times.  Corbett got kudos from Regional Planning Association executive director Tom Wright, who said that Corbett "has been a senior executive at the world's largest infrastructure firm for many years, and before that worked in the public sector -- including helping New York recover from 9/11 when he worked at the Empire State Development Corporation." "Kevin knows how to manage large institutions -- and how to run things on time.  It's a great selection." Corbett faces considerable problems, including a declining ridership: NJT rail trips decreased 2.3% in 2017, while bus trips fell by 3.4%. Corbett is no stranger to NJT, having commuted on NJT for more than 20 years. Of his commute last summer from his home in Mendham to Manhattan, Corbett said, "Every day we felt it was like fricking Dunkirk. Maybe your train got there, maybe it didn't."

The audit that Murphy plans at NJT includes reviewing the agency's finances, leadership, hiring practices, and culture; its relationship with Amtrak; and its lagging implementation of Positive Train Control. Murphy said he hoped to complete the audit quickly, perhaps within three months, saying "the public cannot be left waiting for answers." Murphy's nominee for state commissioner of transportation, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, would oversee the audit, once she is confirmed by the State Senate. Murphy, who even before his inauguration had created controversy when his transition team demanded that top NJT officials offer their resignations, said "People are mad as heck.  And they deserve a better experience."

The following column, which I wrote, was published in the Star-Ledger on January 18.

Murphy stumbles with NJT purge

 

By David Peter Alan  Guest Columnist

 

I have been a frequent rider on NJ Transit throughout its entire 39-year history and a citizen-advocate for 33 of those years, and I have seen the agency go downhill firsthand.  Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly criticized NJT and the service it has provided to its riders lately.  He has rightly blamed the policies of the Christie Administration, including a lack of funding.

 

Citizen advocates have made the same complaints for years, and we were hopeful that a new governor would make meaningful, positive reforms.  However, we cannot agree with Murphy’s initial action before he took office: firing innocent employees who did not cause the agency's internal woes or the difficulties that riders face daily.

 

Part of the Murphy plan is to fire employees who were Christie patronage appointments.  Star-Ledger reporter Larry Higgs and reporters for other media outlets named some of them last month.  We  know who they are, too.  If the new administration wants to use appropriate legal means to remove them, we will be glad to see them go.

 

Last month’s firings, however, bear no resemblance to any such legal method..  A number of NJT employees were given “resign-or-else” letters on orders from the Murphy transition team – not the same list of hangers-on of which we read, but also employees who have given long and distinguished service to the agency, including some who never had policymaking authority.  This was not the standard housecleaning of a new administration, but executive overreach into the inner workings of an agency designed by statute to be independent from state government.

 

The Transportation Act of 1979 chartered New Jersey Transit, specifically establishing it as a corporation independent of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which previously had direct authority over the state’s transit.  NJT is not a state agency under the direct control of the governor.  Instead, it is an independent body, with its own board of directors, and its own rules and procedures.  The governor has influence at NJT and appoints the members of the board, but the statute does not allow the governor to micromanage the agency through such decisions as hiring and firing employees.

 

Despite this legally-mandated separation, a number of NJT employees were given ultimatum letters, on orders from the Murphy transition team, through the office of NJT's departing executive director.  They should not have been coerced into giving up their jobs.

 

The managers at issue joined NJT before Christie took office, so they are clearly not his protégés.  We believe they are doing the best they can, especially since the Christie administration never gave them the funding or the backing necessary for the level of service that we riders need and deserve.  Other employees targeted are secretaries with no line authority, whose duties are strictly administrative.  They are not political hacks and do not deserve to be forced out of their jobs.

 

This purge designed to improve the agency may, in fact, have the opposite effect.  Eliminating experienced and dedicated managers would wipe out institutional knowledge that enabled NJ Transit to survive years of abuse and neglect.  This could lead to even worse performance.  Murphy's action may also give the public the illusion that the central problem is simply bad management due solely to political patronage.  In reality, citizen transit advocates strongly believe that the underlying problem is the chronic lack of funding.  Even the best managers can only do so much with limited, dwindling resources.  If Murphy is serious about fixing NJ Transit, he will make a major commitment to adequate, stable funding.  Otherwise, the daily delays and breakdowns, and the risk of accidents, will increase.

 

We hope that Gov. Murphy will rescind the mistake made by his staff, allow the innocent people who are slated to lose their jobs to continue in the service of the riding public, and enable the sort of transportation professionals who gave NJT the good reputation that it once had to operate the transit we need and deserve.

 

David Peter Alan is chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent organization that has advocated for better transit since 1979.  He lives and practices law in South Orange.

 

 

 

 

 

NJ Transit board meetings are usually sleepy affairs where the politically-appointed board members almost invariably vote in unison, ignoring public input. But the one on January 15 set some kind of record for controversy. The meeting had been postponed from January 10 due to a lack of quorum, then rescheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a state and federal holiday -- an unusual time for a meeting.  But these are unusual times: January 15 was the last full day of the Christie administration, which had made it clear that it wanted a Hoboken land deal to go through.  Incoming Governor-elect Phil Murphy, who takes office on January 16, had voiced opposition to the deal.  In the end, for reasons that may remain mysterious, the NJT board took the controversial deal off the agenda, dealing a victory to opponents that included both the former and new mayors of Hoboken, where the land in question is located.

Central to the controversy is the private ferry service operated by New York Waterway; the company operates ferries from a number of points on both sides of the Hudson, but an important link, certainly in NJT's estimation, is its service from NJT's  Hoboken rail terminal to points in Manhattan. The ferry company needs a place to maintain its fleet; it had one, in Weehawken, but 20 years ago sold that facility to a developer but while continuing to lease it back for its maintenance base. Apparently the company did not foresee its expanded future role in marine transportation, and now the real estate developer wants the land for development. This leaves the company potentially without a maintenance base, which it hints could be the end of its services.

One of the few remaining riverfront land tracts in the area is the Union Dry Dock property in Hoboken.  The city of Hoboken has plans to complete its waterfront park system by acquiring the property through eminent domain. The ferry company would love to use it for their maintenance base. Enter NJ Transit, a state agency which arguably has the right to trump Hoboken's ability to condemn the land for its planned park. NJT wants to buy the property and lease it back to the ferry company, preserving the ferry operation, which NJT sees as vital to its commuter services. The ferries could become even more important if a tunnel failure handicaps NJT's trains to Manhattan; during construction last summer, many NJT trains were sent to Hoboken, and many riders then used NY Waterway ferries to reach Manhattan. NJT picked up the fares for the rerouted riders.

With the issue unresolved, and the Governor's mansion changing hands, the issue is  bound to crop up again. Reporting on the issue can be found by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and Patrick McGeehan for the New York Times.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the influential House Appropriations Committee, returned fire to the Trump administration on January 4 with a letter to Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams, saying that the Gateway/Hudson River Tunnels project was the "most important infrastructure project in the country" and saying that "It is the responsibility of the House Committee on Appropriations to assure that such national priorities are met."

The Congressman's letter was in response to a December 29 letter from Williams to the governors of New York and New Jersey, which asserted that the states' belief that they had an agreement to split the costs 50/50 with the Federal Government was fiction. "There is no such agreement," wrote  Williams. "We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent 'agreement' rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders." Frelinghuysen's rebuttal, citing the national impact of the project, said that "It is also imperative we pursue Gateway to ensure millions of Americans continue to access this vital economic Northeast Corridor that enables safe transportation of more than 800,000 daily riders, from Washington to Boston, in an area that supports approximately 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). Further, this rail project serves as a critical choke point for Amtrak's entire operation on the East Coast from Florida to Maine."

Williams' letter did not rule out Federal participation in the project, provided the assistance did not include loans to the states; the states had relied on Federal loans to meet part of their obligations on the project.

The back-and-forth in Washington on the tunnels project has sparked spirited debate among advocates and other observers, including whether a cheaper version of the project would suffice to keep the trains running (see articles below), or whether new tunnels are mandatory to avoid crippling commuter and long-distance rail service while damage to the existing tunnels from Hurricane Sandy flooding are repaired. Amtrak, which owns the tunnels, has stated that the tunnels will need to be removed from service, one at a time, for extended periods for the repair. With only one tunnel available, Amtrak says that peak-hour commuter capacity would be crippled, if new tunnels are not built first.

Congressman Frelinghuysen has represented New Jersey's 11th District since 1995. The district includes a considerable portion of the Morris & Essex Lines  and Montclair-Boonton line commuter territory of NJ Transit, and has generally  been considered a safe district for Republicans. However, the controversial Trump administration and renewed enthusiasm by Democrats may place it in play in this year's midterm elections.

In an editorial published on Thursday, January 4th, the New York Daily News called for new tunnels to Penn Station, but without some of the features of the full Gateway proposal.  The paper's position is similar to the one that the Lackawanna Coalition has been advocating.  

The editorial began: "Albeit on wrong-headed political grounds, the Trump Administration has thrown deserved cold water on Amtrak's exorbitant Hudson River rail tunnel project called Gateway."  The editorial was published six days after K. Jane Williams, Deputy Administrator at the Federal Transit Administration, told New York and New Jersey officials that the Feds would not fund $11.3 billion toward the tunnel project and said that the Obama Administration had reached "no agreement" to do so.

The editorial called for a new tunnel, saying: "The region badly needs a new train tunnel in order to repair those damaged by Superstorm Sandy and increase commuter capacity between New Jersey and New York" and went on to criticize the Trump Administration, but added: "what's needed is a change in scope and scale."  The paper criticized the proposal for a separate "Penn South" station and the need to demolish a city block to clear the land to build it.

Instead, the editorial called for optimizing Penn Station, which includes lengthening platforms and bringing them into the Moynihan Station, which is currently under construction in the Post Office Building across 8th Avenue from the existing Penn Station.  It also called for "a tube" costing $11 billion, rather than the entire Gateway project, with an estimated cost of $30 billion.  It is not clear whether that "tube" would contain one or two new tracks.  In addition, the editorial called for a four-track "mid-height" bridge.  The current Portal Bridge sits 23 feet above mean-high water, while plans call for two two-track bridges sitting 55 above the water.

The editorial concluded: "Get the essential parts done without waste.  God knows even sane infrastructure plans cost way too much in this city."

The proposal from the Daily News is similar to the Lackawanna Coalition's suggestion, which comprises two new tunnels into the existing Penn Station, improvements that would allow NJ Transit trains and riders to use the West End Concourse and the Moynihan Station when it is completed, and either one new bridge that would carry all trains into Penn Station, or a single new two-track bridge and rehabilitating the existing Portal Bridge for peak-hours and during outages on other tracks.  The Coalition has called for "Penn South" not to be built, citing excessive cost and the inconvenience to riders, who would be dropped an additional block from their offices and from the subways that take them to their offices.  We stated our position in the November-December, 2017 issue of our newsletter, the Railgram.  We summarized it as "Build What We Need and Don't Build What We Don't Need."

The Coalition welcomes this development.  Our constituents do not need "Penn South" or the proposed "Secaucus South" station.  The do need "another tube" into Penn Station, and they need more capacity at Penn Station, including the beneficial use of the Moynihan Station now under construction.  

 


 

Former New Jersey Governor Brendan T. Byrne died on Thursday, January 4th.  He was 93.  

Byrne began his career in local politics in Essex County and served as a county prosecutor and a judge before being elected Governor in 1973.  He served two terms in that office.  He was a Democrat and his party controlled the Legislature, but he presided over contentious politics in the state during his eight-year tenure in office.  Byrne was known for establishing the sports stadium in the Meadowlands, facilitating voter registration and surviving the establishment of the state income tax, but he is best-known to transit-riding community for the Transportation Act of 1979, which established New Jersey Transit (NJT).

Before NJT was founded, New Jersey's transit was in a state of crisis.  Train service was unreliable and funding for rail service, then operated by the Consolidated Rail Corp. (ConRail), was problematic.  Public Service Electric & Gas Co. wanted to get rid of its bus subsidiary, which it had renamed Transport of New Jersey.  Former Sen. Francis X. Herbert, who sponsored the Transportation Act, said that Byrne strongly supported establishing a new transit agency, and that he worked hard to overcome political opposition to the proposal.  The bill to establish NJT passed by a one-vote margin.

NJT started by taking over the TNJ bus service, and added NJT Rail Operations 35 years ago, when ConRail was forced to discontinue its commuter train operations throughout the Northeast region.  NJT then went on to become a leading agency in the transit industry during its early years.

 

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) dealt a severe blow to the prospect of securing large-scale federal funding for the Hudson Tunnels Project, a component of the Gateway mega-project.

In a letter released near the close of business Friday, FTA Deputy Administrator K. June Williams outlined "the serious concerns raised by the updated financial proposal" for the project, according to the agency's press release.  Williams sent the letter to officials from New Jersey Transit, the New York State Division of the Budget, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Gateway Program Development Corporation.  

"The revised plan seeks at least $11.1 billion from the Federal government and makes the Project 100% reliant on Federal assistance" according to the FTA Release, which also said that there is no "50/50" agreement between New York, New Jersey and the U.S. Department of Transportation to finance the project.  Williams' letter went on to say: "We consider it unhelpful to reference a non-existent "agreement" rather than directly address the responsibility for funding a local project where 9 out of 10 passengers are local transit riders."  NJ Transit riders use a portion of the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Penn Station and Trenton, or they ride trains to and from Penn Station that use part of that route.  The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) also uses Penn Station as a major terminal.  Amtrak passengers, who ride north of New York or beyond Trenton account for about 10% of total Penn Station riders.  The other 90% ride on NJT or LIRR trains.

The financing plan called for a 50/50 split of federal funding between loans and Capital Investment Grants (CIG).  In the letter, Williams added: "the assumption that $5 billion or more in CIG grant funds will be available to New York and New Jersey for this one project lacks recognition of the impact that such funding would have on the availability of funds for the remainder of the country" and said that such a large grant "could exhaust the program entirely."

The estimated cost of the Hudson Tunnel Project was lowered from $14.9 billion in October to $12.7 billion, purportedly without an explanation for the reduction.  Williams criticized the reduction, saying: "We understand this new plan does not address the rehabilitation of the existing tunnels, and now only addresses the building of two new tunnels. Given the age of the existing tunnels was the impetus for the project, we question the decision to ignore any funding commitment to that critical component, and to omit billions in other costs previously acknowledged to be part of the overall project cost."

New tunnels between New Jersey and Penn Station, New York are necessary, since the existing tunnels were damaged in flooding from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and must be taken out of service for major repairs.  Amtrak has said that the work should be performed no later than 2034.  Current projections for the Gateway Project say that it should be completed in 2030; only four years before that deadline.  

The Hudson Tunnel Project is a component of Gateway, which also includes other features such as the proposed Penn South, which would be a stub-end terminal at 30th Street for NJ Transit trains, new infrastructure near Secaucus Station, and a loop around Secaucus Station for trains coming from Bergen County.  Current cost estimates for the entire Gateway Project run around $30 billion.  To date, there has not been any financing plan proposed for Gateway in its entirety.

The Lackawanna Coalition has consistently expressed deep concern that there will not be sufficient funds available from federal or local sources to build the entire Gateway Project.  Instead, we have called for a less-ambitious and less-costly plan that would include two new tunnels into Penn Station, a new bridge with enough tracks to handle all trains into and out of Penn Station (or a new two-track bridge and rehabilitating the existing Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River) and improvements at Penn Station that would allow more trains to enter and leave that facility, especially at busy commuting hours. 

Supporters of the Gateway Project, including the Regional Plan Association and the Gateway Program Development Corporation, have expressed the hope that the entire Gateway Project will be built someday.  Given the new stance by the FTA, the likelihood of that outcome appears to be diminishing, and it is looking more likely that the more modest project that we propose could be built, instead.

New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy has announced his new Secretary of Transportation, and made no bones about what will be her top priority: tear down NJ Transit and rebuild it. Murphy used the large central hall at NJT's vast Secaucus Junction station to introduce the new Secretary, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti; the event took place on Wednesday, Dec. 20, and was reported by Larry Higgs for nj.com (Star-Ledger, Dec. 21) and Curtis Tate for northjersey.com (Gannett papers -- USA Today Network). Murphy slammed NJT, calling the vast bus and rail agency a "national disgrace," and referred to questionable office space deals and "undeserved pay increases" at NJT, both of which have featured in recent journalism.  Introducing Gutierrez-Scaccetti, Murphy said "We need a strong leader to take hold of the national disgrace that is NJ Transit, turning it upside down and shaking it up so we can make it right again."  Murphy also alluded to other duties of the Department of Transportation, saying that the state's roads and bridges "are ranked worst in the nation."  Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the fifth woman of six appointees to the governor's Cabinet, joins the state government from her most recent job as executive director and CEO at Florida's Turnpike; previously, she had worked 21 years at the NJ Turnpike Authority before retiring in 2010. For her part, the new Secretary, who must be approved by the State Senate, declined to commit to specific plans of action before she studies the situation, but said, "It's not going to be easy, it is not going to be simple; but I promise you 100 percent of my time and dedication to the task." Murphy backed her up, saying that neither he nor she had had time to study the workings of NJ Transit. But Gutierrez-Scaccetti will have a lot to deal with at NJ Transit, including federal safety investigations of NJT's rail operations; a "brain drain" of senior supervisors and front-line employees, including a shortage of locomotive engineers that has caused train cancellations; the recent firing of NJT's chief compliance officer, who then took the witness stand in Trenton to attack NJT; and NJT's behind-schedule installation of Positive Train Control, mandated by Congress.

Governor Chris Christie began his time in office with a fare increase on New Jersey Transit, and he is ending it by calling for another one.  

Shortly after he took office early in 2010, most riders on NJT were subjected to massive fare increases.  For most rail riders, it was 25%, while customers who rode trains outside of peak-commuting hours were forced to pay 47% more for their rides.  On short rides, the increases ranged up to 64%.  Although fares have risen again during Christie's tenure, he has proposed a new increase: a 90-cent surcharge on all rides between New Jersey stations and Penn Station, New York beginning in 2020.  That charge would increase to $1.70 in 2028 and $2.20 in 2038.

The object is to provide revenue that would pay for New Jersey's share of the cost of building the proposed Gateway Project.  The entire project goes far beyond building new tunnels into the existing station.  Instead, it calls for construction of "Penn South"; a new and separate station near Penn Station.  It would also include new infrastructure at Secaucus, a loop that would allow trains from Bergen County to go around Secaucus Station on the way to New York, and other features.  The Lackawanna Coalition has called for new tunnels into Penn Station for more than twenty years, but has also expressed strong doubts that other components of Gateway will ever be built.  The cost of the entire Gateway project has been estimated at $30 billion; a large amount for a fiscally-conservative administration and Congress to spend on a single transit project.  Instead, the Coalition has called for a more-affordable project that would include two new tunnels into Penn Station, a new bridge with three tracks and room for a fourth to handle the trains that will go to Penn Station, and improvements at the station itself.  The cost of a project of that scale would be about one-third of the estimated cost of Gateway, or less.  

A press release issued by Christie's office bore the headline: "Governors Christie and Cuomo Announce Commitment to Fund 100 Percent of States' Half of New Gateway Tunnel" and went on to say that New York would contribute $1.75 billion, while the Port Authority would add another $1.9 billion, for a total of $5.55 billion.  That money would be used as the "local match" that would pay 50% of the cost of the project.  The Release, along with supporting letters by New York State Budget Director Robert F. Mujica, Jr. and NJ Transit Executive Director Steven H. Santoro, give some details of the transaction.  It would involve a Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) over a 35-year payout period.   Project proponents expect a cash grant from USDOT for the Federal share.  The Release did not mention financing for any related projects, including a replacement for Portal Bridge or rehabilitation of the existing tunnels.

There are differences in the states' approaches to the financing plan.  New York would pay $1.75 billion toward the project, which would be provided by state funds.  New Jersey would contribute $1.9 billion, all obtained from riders through fare increases, which amount to user fees.  The release and letters did not explain why NJ Transit's riders would pay $150 million more toward the project than New York State would, under the plan.  At this writing, NJ Transit has not disclosed how it or Christie's office arrived at the precise amount of the proposed fare increase, or what sort of forecasting models for ridership demand and revenue-capture were involved.

According to Christie's office, the scope of the Hudson Tunnel Project, which would be covered by the funding announcement, includes a new two-track tunnel, the Hudson Yards Concrete Casing, and the rehabilitation of the existing Amtrak North River Tunnel.  The release stated that the entire cost of construction for those components would be $12.7 billion, while the new tunnel and Hudson Yards Concrete Casing would use up of $11.1 billion of it.  There was no mention of funding for the other $1.6 billion, which would be the cost of rehabilitating the existing tunnels into Penn Station, which were damaged in flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.    

Christie's announcement leaves a number of other questions unanswered.  

We do not know how this new charge will be applied.  Will commuters get a discount on it?  They  will if the charge is added to the base fare, because monthly tickets on NJ Transit currently cost 28 to 30 base fares, which means commuters get a discount after 14 or 15 round trips during a calendar month.  Riders who travel outside peak-commuting hours would pay the most in that event, because they would receive no discount, while they do not need whatever capacity at Penn Station that new tunnels might give them.

We also do not know what effect the proposed Penn Station charge might have on other travel modes.  If commuting to Penn Station becomes relatively more expensive, how many riders would take a bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal instead?  How many would be willing to pay the tolls and parking fees to take their automobiles into the City?  On the lines that go to Hoboken, how many would take the train to Hoboken and either a PATH train or a ferry to Manhattan?  Riders on the Morris & Essex Line and Gladstone Branch did not complain about making that commute for eight weeks last summer, but the weather was warm and they got a low fare and free transfers on PATH or the ferry.  Would reducing fares for the Hoboken commute ease the capacity constraint at Penn Station, or would NJ Transit consider it counterproductive to charge more for the ride to Penn Station and then encourage riders to use the "competing" terminal at Hoboken?   

The biggest question of all is whether or not Governor-elect Phil Murphy will go along with Christie's plan when he takes office next month.  It is not clear that he will.  Murphy has called for change at NJ Transit, but he has not released details at this writing.  

The Lackawanna Coalition and other observers of the local transit scene have conjectured that there may be another fare increase soon for the Garden State's transit riders.  NJ Transit's fares are among the highest in the nation, and service has been plagued lately with delays, crew shortages and other problems.  If there is a fare increase coming, the proposed surcharge for New York trips would add an additional increase in cost, and probably an additional increase in frustration for riders who must pay it.  

Trenton-watchers are waiting to find out what Murphy will do about this and many other issues concerning NJ Transit when he takes office, and the riders are certainly anxious to know, too.