NJ Transit’s Struggles Anger Riders, Spur Epic Commutes
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says it’s time to “get back to normal and back to work” after Hurricane Sandy. For commuters who depend on the state’s rail system to reach Manhattan, that’s easier said than done.
Two weeks after the storm slammed into the East Coast, New Jersey Transit isn’t sure when it will resume full service. The agency, the nation’s largest statewide mass-transit network, is running reduced schedules on 10 of 12 commuter-rail lines, and plans to restore service on one more tomorrow while the other remains suspended for repairs.
The Oct. 29 storm washed out some of the system’s 500 miles of track, brought down overhead wires and flooded control points. That created a commuting nightmare as managers jury- rigged a collection of buses and ferries. James Weinstein, the agency’s executive director, said yesterday that he hopes to have the full system functioning within two weeks.
“That’s a realistic assessment,” he said. “I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but we’re pretty confident.”
That day can’t arrive soon enough for Ramaswamy Variankal, 36, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) executive director from South Orange.
“It’s horrendous right now,” Variankal said yesterday. His normal commute takes an hour. “It was a good three-and-a- half hour bus and ferry ride today. It’s not sustainable.”
Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced the reopening of the 9th Street PATH station in lower Manhattan, starting at 5 a.m. today. People won’t be allowed to enter the station until 9:30 a.m., the governors said late yesterday in a statement. Restoring service to stations in the Wall Street area will take several more weeks, they said.
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority got its subway system, the nation’s largest, running less than a week after the storm. Unlike the MTA’s underground network of tracks, New Jersey Transit’s infrastructure is mostly above ground and more exposed to flooding, falling trees and floating debris, said Nancy Snyder, an agency spokeswoman.
Christie, who in 2010 canceled a project that would have built a new Manhattan rail tunnel by 2018 to ease congestion as trains travel under the Hudson River, said yesterday that New Jerseyans must tough it out.
“Sorry. We had a disaster,” Christie, a 50-year-old Republican, told reporters in Lincroft when asked what his message was for commuters. “Take the ferry. It won’t take you two to three hours.”
The system is hamstrung, said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the New York-based Regional Plan Association.
“Congestion and delays will be the norm,” Barone said. “We’re pushing things, and there really isn’t the replacement capacity to handle what was carried on the railroad.”
During a normal weekday peak period, New Jersey Transit runs 63 trains into New York, Weinstein said. Yesterday, the figure was 33.
“We’re doing the best we can to make this work,” Weinstein said. “Under no circumstances do we think this park- and-ride service and ferries are a replacement for train service.”
Power outages, repairing tracks and removing obstacles are the main hurdles, Snyder said. A substation in Kearny, about 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) west of Manhattan, that provides power and controls trains running between New York and New Jersey was also heavily damaged by flooding. A separate New Jersey Transit operations center was engulfed in water, affecting backup power supplies and the main computer system, she said.
New Jersey Transit shares the Kearny substation with Amtrak, which runs trains from Washington to New York along the Northeast Corridor rails. The agencies are running a combined 24 trains per hour in both directions, about 63 percent of normal weekday capacity, said Cliff Cole, an Amtrak spokesman.
Limited service will resume at 6 a.m. tomorrow on New Jersey Transit’s Montclair-Boonton lines, which serve western suburbs, Christie said today in a statement. The agency said it would post a schedule at its website at 6 p.m. today.
“While the tunnels are open, and we can get trains through the tunnels, the capacity capability for both organizations still does not reach 100 percent,” Cole said. “If we ran all of our trains, we would probably overload the system.”
Some challenges are more humble. Yesterday, as the agency tried to restore service to the line that serves the Short Hills area, it warned of 60-minute to 90-minute delays thanks to slippery leaves on the rails.
Weinstein said the transit system shouldn’t be blamed.
“I’m not sure anyone could have planned for a storm as devastating as this one,” he said, referring to Sandy. “It discombobulates the entire region, the entire state and the economy.”
New Jersey Transit had an average weekday ridership of 276,459 on 727 trains in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011. Its weekday buses carried an average 482,517 riders. Weinstein said New Jersey has the highest percentage of residents who commute by public transportation of any state: one in 10.
Two years ago, Christie canceled the $8.7 billion project to add a Manhattan rail tunnel, saying the state couldn’t afford $5 billion in potential extra costs. The project was designed to double commuter capacity between New Jersey and the city.
Independent congressional investigators later said that New Jersey commuters would continue to suffer workday delays, miss job opportunities and forgo $4 billion in personal income thanks to the decision.
Sandy has shown that New Jersey needs to find stable funding to update its infrastructure, said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey advocate for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“New Jersey has been reluctant politically to do anything about the fact that we’re not funding transportation adequately,” she said. “This situation really highlights that. Especially from an economic standpoint -- transportation is the lifeblood of the economy.”
Christie told reporters today in Trenton that he won’t support raising the state’s gasoline tax to fund repairs to the mass-transit system.
“I still oppose it,” the governor said. “This is the appropriate time for the federal government to stand up and to help us replace and repair the things that need to be replaced and repaired as they did for Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi after Katrina.”
John Daidone, 51, of Maplewood, a digital-content manager in Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS)’s corporate office near Manhattan’s Union Square, said he opted for the bus yesterday morning. The commute, delayed by road accidents, took five hours. He took a train home, the first running to his village since the storm.
“I literally wanted to kiss that seat,” he said. “My God, if anyone ever hears me cursing out the train again, they have my permission to punch me in the face.”
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