Hoboken Crash Tests a Railroad Beset by N.J. Fiscal Crisisby
Crash at Hoboken station while capital funding is on hold
Positive train control still lacking at third-biggest railroad
A fatal train crash that caused structural damage to a major Manhattan-area station exacerbates troubles at New Jersey Transit, which operates one of the nation’s biggest railroads and has been besieged by aging equipment and slipping reliability.
The agency is without a fiscal-year spending plan after the state in August exhausted its $8 billion account for road and rail work. Non-essential projects have been suspended since July as Republican Governor Chris Christie and Democratic legislative leaders squabble over a proposed gas-tax increase to replenish the fund.
The crash at Hoboken Terminal on Thursday, involving a morning rush-hour train from Spring Valley, New York, caused one fatality and 108 injuries, Christie said during a news briefing. Trains were halted and the terminal evacuated as federal transportation investigators headed to the scene, where steel beams, wires and part of a roof rested atop a rail car.
“Christie and the lawmakers don’t seem to to realize how insolvent their state is,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow who studies urban issues and finance at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which promotes limited government. “He’s happy to raise the gas tax for transportation but he wants the legislature to cut another tax in return. New Jersey can’t afford any tax cuts. They don’t have money for infrastructure. They don’t have money for pensions.”
Federal Railroad Administration records show that none of the passenger fleet is fully equipped with positive train-control technology, designed to prevent the kind of derailment that killed eight Amtrak passengers in Philadelphia last year. New Jersey Transit and other railroads successfully asked Congress for a three-year extension on the October 2015 installation deadline.
Christie said that while it’s clear the train was traveling too fast, it’s too soon to speculate on a cause. The engineer, who was injured in the crash, was cooperating with investigators. The person who died was on the platform, not in the train, he said.
Reliability at the nation’s third-largest rail operator is crumbling, with trains breaking down more often as governors paid for daily expenses with money intended for capital improvements. Crowding and delays are routine.
While the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North and other New York City-area commuter lines poured billions of dollars into new equipment, New Jersey Transit since 1990 has diverted at least $6.6 billion from its capital account to pay for salaries, health benefits and other costs. In recent years, as state and federal transit aid declined, the agency raised fares five times.
“The biggest challenge New Jersey Transit has is a predictable set of financial parameters,” Jishnu Mukerji, a member of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers board of directors, said by telephone. “They’re stuck in a bad place. They don’t have any money. Trenton has never given them the operating budget they need.”
Hoboken Terminal, the state’s fourth-busiest train station, is key to high-paying jobs for New Jerseyans. The terminal, with more than 15,000 boardings on a typical workday, shuttles suburban riders to ferries, buses and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey trains for the final leg to Manhattan, a ride taking as little as 8 minutes.
The station had completed a $175 million restoration and expansion just 10 months before it was inundated by five feet of Hudson River water driven by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Full restoration took 17 months as crews worked on salt-damaged electrical lines, rusted track and a moldy Beaux Arts style waiting room.
Sandy also destroyed dozens of rail cars stored in low-lying yards in Kearny and Hoboken, causing at least $120 million in damage. Last October, the agency cut some routes and raised fares an average 9 percent to help close a budget gap.
New Jersey Transit has been run by an interim executive director, Dennis Martin, a veteran of the agency’s commuter bus operation, since December. A permanent replacement, former Amtrak executive William Crosbie, backed out on taking the job this year when he decided not to move his family from Virginia.
Martin’s predecessor, Veronique Hakim, left after less than two years to become president of New York City Transit. She replaced Jim Weinstein, who was criticized for leaving trains vulnerable during Sandy and for unexplained delays and other commuter woes during an event billed as “the first mass-transit Super Bowl.”
It’s uncertain when New Jersey Transit service to and from Hoboken will resume. Dawn Zimmer, the city’s second-term Democratic mayor, said on Twitter that residents should make alternative arrangements for the evening commute and expect delays.