Railgram

The Railgram is the Coalition's official newsletter, published every two months and packed with in-depth coverage of the issues. For past issues and printer-friendly versions, click here.

Publisher’s Note: Few events in the recent history of the Morris & Essex Line have brought as much praise or as many new riders as the inauguration of Midtown Direct service to Penn Station, New York. Trains began running over a new track connection, specifically built for the purpose, 20 years ago. The initial ridership greatly exceeded NJ Transit’s predictions (but not ours), and the service remains highly popular with riders. Midtown Direct trains run on the Montclair and Gladstone Branches, too. Al Papp was Chair of the Coalition for many years during our early history, and he was heavily involved in the effort to make Midtown Direct service a reality. Starting in this issue, we will share his memories about Midtown Direct with you.

On June 10, we celebrated the Twentieth Anniversary of the inauguration of NJ Transit’s iconic Midtown Direct service; one that we now take for granted. Perhaps that was a principal reason for many of you to relocate to one of the communities served by New Jersey Transit’s (NJT) Morris & Essex (M&E) Lines.

The Lackawanna Coalition, which I had the honor to Chair for a decade, was instrumental in making this transportation enhancement a reality. Both the Coalition and I were recognized at the introductory ceremony held at the Maplewood station on June 10, 1996 by Shirley DeLibero, who was Executive Director of NJ Transit at the time. The direct service was made possible by the $70-million, three-year construction of the “Kearny Connection,” a one-half mile track link between the M&E Hoboken trackage and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) mainline between New York City and Washington, DC.

A new junction was built immediately below the New Jersey Turnpike. It is called “Swift Interlocking” and, along with high-speed switches, this permits trains to enter and diverge from the NEC at 70 mph in order to facilitate rapid train movements. Another $100 million was spent acquiring ALP44 dual-mode electric locomotives, all of which have now been retired.

Results have been gratifying. According to NJT, M&E ridership totaled about 28,000 on an average weekday prior to the inauguration of Midtown Direct service; in FY 2015 (which ended one year ago), that number had doubled to 59,000. Home values benefited, too. According to a Regional Plan Association study, values within a two-mile radius of an NJT station increased by about $23,000 after Midtown Direct service began. Those homes within a half mile of a station rose in price by an average of $34,000.

In contrast to many commuter railroads in our region, New Jersey Transit lacks any dedicated funding source from state revenues. The carrier has regularly run into budget deficits, which have caused two substantial fare increases and numerous rounds of service cuts over the last several years. This year is no different: direct state support to the operating budget slightly increased, but one of a patchwork of “creative” secondary funding sources came off the books and left a $56 million hole. This doesn’t account for two other major funding pressures on the operating budget: a new contract for rail employees, and a federally mandated increase in the rent NJT and other carriers pay to Amtrak for use of the Northeast Corridor under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA Act). For these reasons, the Lackawanna Coalition has been pushing for dedicated funding for NJT operations.

Operating v. Capital, or: Why the TTF Need Not Apply

Like most commuter lines, NJ Transit has two segments to its budget: capital and operating. The capital side pays for major projects and the purchase of new equipment. The operating side, as the name suggests, pays for actually running the trains: salary of employees, everyday maintenance, electricity, etc. Shortchanging the capital budget is bad for NJT’s future, but the impact of operating budget cuts is more immediate: fares go up, trains get cut, and institutional knowledge bleeds away as employees (particularly non-union, who have had their salaries frozen for seven years) leave for greener pastures. To make matters worse, NJT currently diverts capital dollars to the operating budget to the greatest extent that federal regulations allow, which a former Coalition officer once described as “stealing from the future to pay for the present.”

New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund is one of the contributors to NJT’s capital budget, but beyond the aforementioned diversion of capital dollars it doesn’t do anything to support operating; and frankly, it shouldn’t. In the longer term, both sides of the budget need to be shored up, but given the growing support for a TTF funding fix, we’re concerned that the operating side could easily get lost in the shuffle.

A Study in Contrasts Across the Hudson

Our closest neighbor, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is in much better shape in this regard. For all their problems, and all the funding uncertainty on the capital side that has been much in the news lately, they have a number of tax revenues directly dedicated to them. In addition, they operate several of New York’s road bridges into the city, which bring in substantial toll revenue. None of this insulates them from the ups and downs of those revenue sources, but it helps protect day-to-day operations from massive overnight cuts. In contrast, New Jersey Transit has to fight a losing battle for funding every year.

NJT riders already pay the highest commuter fares in the nation, and costs show no sign of going down even as ridership grows. But year after year, the budget gets cut and NJT is left scrambling. We call on our elected officials to dedicate a portion of state revenues to NJT’s operations. Until then the budget beatings will continue, and morale will not improve.

If you were to check New Jersey Transit’s website for news releases at press time, you would not believe that anything has happened at our transit agency. A check made last Wednesday, May 4, indicated that the most recently posted news release came from April 4 and concerned the expansion of NJT’s Mobile Ticketing App to interstate buses. There was no mention of the unsuccessful attempt to hire William Crosbie as Executive Director, the rejection of the proposed labor agreement by the unions representing the engineers and crews on our trains, or NJT’s newly-announced policy of recording the sounds made by riders on board the company’s light rail vehicles and some buses. In reality, it has been a very difficult month for NJT and its riders, and one in which “cool heads” failed, rather than prevailed.

When the labor dispute between New Jersey Transit and rail labor threatened to halt our trains in March, we called for “cooler heads” to prevail, so the lives of New Jersey’s rail riders would not be disrupted. The strike threat is back, and NJT’s Board of Directors and management appear to have handled the hiring of a new Executive Director in a lessthan-professional manner. So now, it appears that “cooler heads” must prevail in both the labor and management camps. This is now even more important than it was in February and early March.

Part One: The Labor Dispute Continues

On the labor front, we at the Lackawanna Coalition were shocked to learn that the unions representing NJT’s engineers and train crews had voted down the proposed contract. We had been pleased that the labor coalition that represented all of NJT’s rail unions had reached agreement with management only 29 hours before the strike deadline. It appeared to us, as it appeared to union leaders, that the members had been offered a favorable settlement; especially given NJT’s financial condition, which continues to deteriorate.

There is a cooling-off period in effect now, and we continue to hope that whatever difficulties caused the members of the two unions to reject the contract, which the members of the other unions accepted, can be resolved soon. We, New Jersey’s rail riders, deserve to have our trains available, as they always have been.

Part Two: Not Hiring a New Executive Director

The bad news on the labor front comes at a time when NJT was supposed to have hired a new Executive Director, but did not. We do not understand how events actually unfolded, because there has been little information released. Still, we can talk about the procedure that was followed, and why that procedure appears questionable, at least to us.

On Wednesday, April 6, the NJT Board of Directors held a special meeting. The sole item of business was to hire William Crosbie as Executive Director. The resolution adopted by the Board was different from those presented and approved when then-Executive Directors James W. Weinstein and Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim were hired. Those resolutions specified the compensation that each of the new Executive Directors would receive. The resolution concerning Crosbie did not. It is an elementary principle of contract law that the parties must agree to all material terms, or else there is no agreement. The Board resolution left the issue of Crosbie’s pay indefinite, so there is reason to believe that he and NJT had not agreed on his compensation. We wonder why the NJT Board had called a special meeting to announce that a new Executive Director had been hired, when it appears that there had not yet been a “meeting of the minds” about his pay.

We also do not understand why NJT officials decided that they needed a special meeting to announce that they had hired Crosbie (even though it is questionable whether they actually had), when a regular Board meeting was scheduled only six days later. Crosbie was not supposed to join NJT until Monday, April 25, so there was plenty of time to hire him officially at the regularly scheduled Board meeting. Could the special meeting have been added for the express purpose of making it inconvenient for advocates for the riders, as well as the riders themselves, to attend and comment on matters like the omission of the pay that Crosbie would have received?

The Lackawanna Coalition has consistently called for increased transparency on the part of the Board and management at NJT. The events of April represent a step backward from that goal, and a series of events that should never be repeated. It has been reported that it was the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJ DOT), and not NJT itself, that was negotiating with Crosbie. If that report is correct, than there was a flagrant breach of NJT’s right to hire its own managers. If the NJT Board had exercised its fiduciary responsibility in an appropriate manner, it would have insisted that NJT, and not NJ DOT, had the sole authority to negotiate with Crosbie concerning his pay and other issues pursuant to any offer . Then it would have exercised that authority by directing NJT management to negotiate with Crosbie.

As it turned out, Crosbie did not take the job, after all. We can only conjecture about the reason. In any event, it would not make sense for a similar scenario to play out in the future, under any circumstances.

It would make more sense to allow Dennis Martin to keep the job officially, with the same compensation that the last two Executive Directors received, until Gov. Chris Christie leaves office at the beginning of 2018.

It appears highly unlikely that an “outsider” could exercise the required leadership in the immediate run. NJT is in trouble in many ways, from lack of funding, to riders who are angry about the high fares they pay and the unreliable transit they receive for those fares. Martin did well as a manager on the bus side: he improved the flow of buses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal during the afternoon peak-commuting hours, and he has not done any harm to the rail system. He has experience at NJT; and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone with comparable experience who could lead NJT effectively in the time left for the Christie Administration before the next governor names a new Executive Director in 2018.

Part Three: “Big Brother” NJT is Listening as We Ride

Another announcement that came from NJT last month was shocking, at least to some members of the Lackawanna Coalition. NJT is now using audio surveillance, in addition to video surveillance, on light rail vehicles, and is beginning to use it on buses, too. There is no imminent threat to expand it to our trains, but there is no reason why NJT would refrain from doing so.

At the NJT Board meeting of April 12, this writer had prepared a statement that included a personal welcome to Executive-Directordesignate Crosbie, who was not present and ultimately did not take the job. So, instead of welcoming Crosbie, this writer made a personal statement objecting to the newly announced audio surveillance of NJT’s riders. The Coalition membership had not acted on the item yet, so the statement was not made on behalf of the organization.

At our April 25 meeting, the members voted to agree with this writer’s position and to object to such audio recording of transit riders. We understand that a video camera can capture aggressive behavior that can lead to a crime. What we say, rather than our visual conduct, is different. It is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Our protection against unreasonable searches by lawenforcement personnel is expressed in the Fourth Amendment.

Our conversations are our own business, and not New Jersey Transit’s business. NJT has not proposed any guidelines about what would be recorded, who would make or keep those recordings, how they would be used, and when they would be deleted and destroyed, if ever. Under those circumstances, it not only makes no sense to pursue such a policy; it is also so invasive as to violate the Constitutional rights of transit riders.

There are many places where “cool heads” need to prevail, and this must start now, in all of them.

[Publisher’s Note: This article is extracted from a longer one which appeared on our website, www.lackawannacoalition.org, and can still be found there. John Bobsin is our Online Editor and lives on the Gladstone Branch, which always seems to be the last rail line to have service restored. The snow fell on Saturday, Jan. 23. NJT canceled all service on Friday evening, and the process of bringing service back was slow.]

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, all NJT services were finally operating with a semblance of normalcy, roughly 75 hours after system-wide services were suspended at the close of service Friday night, Jan. 22, in anticipation of the big blizzard that struck the area on Saturday, Jan. 23. Most NJT services returned on Monday, but the Gladstone Branch rail service remained suspended until Tuesday morning.

Elsewhere in the New York area, the Long Island Rail Road also returned to full service on Tuesday; a number of branches of the LIRR were unable to operate on Monday, although the major LIRR lines did return to service. By Tuesday, the only major service in the area not yet operating was the PATH rapid transit system, which remained suspended between Jersey City and Newark; by noon Tuesday, PATH had announced plans for full service in the evening rush hour. NJ Transit had “led the way” in suspending service, announcing early that no trains or buses would run after the close of service on Friday night. Other railroads in the New York area tried to keep running but eventually shut down during the storm; underground services on the New York subways continued. On Sunday morning, NJ Governor Chris Christie told media that the state had weathered the storm “remarkably well,” and said that bus and light rail service would return by noon Sunday, with the regular rail system also “shooting for” service at noon. NJT’s own website was silent on its plans until later in the morning, eventually announcing that rail service would start to return at noon, “beginning with the light rail” system.

Trains did start to run on several lines, including Morris & Essex service between New York and Dover; the weekend service from Hoboken to Bay Street Montclair; on the Main/Bergen/Pascack lines; and on the Northeast Corridor to and from Trenton. But other lines lagged, and eventually NJT conceded that there would be no service Sunday on the Gladstone Branch, the Raritan Valley Line, or the North Jersey Coast Line. Finally, on Monday morning, all trains were said to be coming back, with the notable exception of the Gladstone Branch, where substitute bus service was to be offered; private bus operators other suburban rail lines, Metro-North had the best service, with all lines returning to normal during the afternoon on Sunday. Long Island Rail Road was able to restore many of its lines on Sunday, but no trains were running on several branches; as of Monday service on the Port Washington, Hempstead, West Hempstead, and Long Beach lines remained suspended, as was Montauk service east of Speonk; there was also no service to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.