Super Bowl Transit Vision at Risk After Commuter Mayhem

It was billed as the first mass-transit Super Bowl, with 400,000 tourists gliding to the game in New Jersey by bus and train. Instead of enjoying a star turn, the region’s rail system has seen a week of equipment failures, unexplained delays and riders stranded in the cold.

“Our train this morning had one less car,” said Joshua Crandall, 48, the inventor of Clever Commute, a crowd-sourced travel application, who rides to Midtown from Montclair, New Jersey. “Last night, I dodged the bullet and got out before things got bad. The context is, it’s 12 miles away.”

The National Football League championship between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks happens at MetLife Stadium, a place surrounded by swamp with a single train connection. NJ Transit, the third-largest U.S. commuter rail and bus operator, said customers were warned weeks ago to expect crowds and longer trips as the game neared.

Ticketholders are being directed to use mass transit to get to the game and festivities, such as 14 blocks of Manhattan’s Broadway that were turned into an entertainment district called Super Bowl Boulevard. Taxis and drop-off service are banned at the stadium, which is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Times Square. The $150 private-car parking passes are almost sold out.

Travelers’ Travails

Alongside the crowds this week are commuters in the New York City, New Jersey and Long Island area, whose average trip, 34.6 minutes, is the country’s longest, according to data released in 2011 by the U.S. Census Bureau. And the system that moves throngs every day faced struggles.

On Jan. 29, an 800-passenger Midtown Direct train, stranded for 90 minutes near Secaucus, was towed to Hoboken. The night before, 27 passengers on the Northeast Corridor line were stuck for four hours in the Hudson River tunnel. Nancy Snyder, an NJ Transit spokeswoman, said the agency was reviewing the incidents.

Official alerts this week for Manhattan-bound NJT service included delays as long as 30 minutes due to power problems and checks for ice. Yesterday, service was disrupted because of operations at the Portal Bridge, which opens to accommodate boat traffic on the Hackensack River between Kearny and Secaucus.

Eureka Moment

“I’m not a transportation engineer or a planner BUT could we just not open the portal bridge between 7-9 a.m.?” posted one Twitter user, Megan Carolan. Some Twitter users tacked the hashtag “#TransitBowl” to their complaints.

Snyder said she was “not commenting” on whether the transportation plan, devised over two years with the New York-New Jersey Super Bowl Host Committee, was running as anticipated.

Snyder said the agency’s on-time performance figures for the week weren’t available. For trains, they were 96 percent in 2012, up from 95 percent in 2011, according to its most recent annual report.

The sclerosis hasn’t been confined to New Jersey. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro-North line, which serves areas north of the city ground to a halt Jan. 23, stranding 50 for two hours.

The cause was “an unacceptable series of human errors,” Adam Lisberg, an authority spokesman, said by telephone on Jan. 30.

Swamp Thing

The Super Bowl, in its 48th year, has never been played in an open-air stadium in such cold. The New York-New Jersey Super Bowl Host Committee, which includes the National Football League, the team’s owners and corporate sponsors, forecast as much as $600 million in metropolitan-area spending related to the game. Area hotel prices, though, have dropped in the past week, and air travel demand is down 20 percent from that for last year’s game, in New Orleans, according to Hopper.com, a vacation-planning site.

MetLife, home of the New York Giants and New York Jets, is an 82,500-seat, open-air stadium that opened in 2010 across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Organizers turned the game’s location -- in former swamplands amid one of the most densely populated areas of the U.S. -- as a marketing plus, calling it a “mass-transit” Super Bowl.

Secaucus Junction

Rail to the game will run on a single line, between Secaucus and the stadium. NJT created a $50 unlimited-ride pass for rail and bus lines, valid from Jan. 29 through Feb. 3, including travel to Newark Liberty International Airport and Manhattan. Snyder didn’t have sales figures for the tickets.

“We’re ready for Sunday,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 51, a longtime Dallas Cowboys fan who picked the Broncos to win the game, said today during an interview on WFAN-AM, a sports-radio station. “Everybody’s going to have a safe, secure and enjoyable time.”

Carolan, the Twitter user, said in an interview that every ride this week was fraught with delays -- and her commute is between Jersey City, where she lives, and New Brunswick, where she is a researcher for Rutgers University. The 26-year-old hopped an early train, and even that arrived late.

“I’ve taken the train to sporting events and once wound up waiting for two hours,” Carolan said. “On game day, people are going to be unfamiliar with the system, and they’ll be drinking. I don’t think the organizers are going to get the patience and the understanding they’re expecting.”

This morning, NJT trains to and from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan were delayed for as long as 45 minutes as Amtrak crews removed ice from tunnels beneath the Hudson River.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elise Young in Trenton at eyoung30@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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