Nothing Can Save New York City Commuters From a ‘Summer of Hell’

  • Repairs have people plotting strategies: bus, car, surrender
  • Each hour of delays costs Manhattan employers $14.5 million

Penn Station Problems Confront Trump Infrastructure Czar

Braving the rush-hour New York bus is one option, driving oneself -- a 21st century odyssey -- is another. So is swapping the suburban house for a four-subway-stops-and-you’re-there Jersey City rental.

It’s come to this for rail commuters heading to Amtrak’s Pennsylvania Station, tortured by weeks of track repairs that presage what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo this week called a “summer of hell.”

New York, a world capital of finance and culture, has been brought to its knees by unavoidable disasters: violence, flooding, blizzards and blackouts. For eight weeks in July and August, it will be hobbled by hasty fixes to a mass-transit system that fell apart over decades.

Three of the station’s 21 tracks will be out of service at a time, Amtrak said Thursday. New Jersey Transit plans to divert some trains to Hoboken, where riders can switch to ferries or the PATH subway system. The Long Island Rail Road also expects cutbacks.

Ripples will be felt throughout New York. Wells Fargo & Co. says it will be alert to disruptions and is ready to allow people to report from home or commute during off-peak hours. JW Player, a Chelsea-based video software developer, is relying on what it calls “mobile culture” to keep in touch with the 13 percent of its employees who are New Jersey residents. And offices wherever suburbanites toil will be abuzz with tales of woe.

“I’m investigating a parking garage in Midtown,” said John Sattler, a senior vice president for the marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide, as he waited on the Summit platform for a morning train to New York. “I’m looking into the bus.”

Mental Expenditures

Across the U.S., no one’s commute is a pleasure cruise. New York City, though, has the longest journey among major metropolitan areas, an average 34.7 minutes, according to the online real-estate company Trulia LLC. This summer will drive up that number.

It costs Manhattan employers $14.5 million for every hour train commuters from New Jersey and Long Island are delayed, according to the Partnership for New York City. For riders, it’s about more than money. It’s time and mental health.

“At times, I’ve taken Uber to Secaucus, and I’m still paying for a monthly rail pass and the MetroCard as well,” Will DeCristoforo, executive director of liquidity and collateral at JP Morgan Chase & Co., said on the New Jersey Transit platform in Summit, on a line that serves the hometowns of the financial elite.

About 327,000 New Jerseyans commute into Manhattan for work. Among them on May 5 was Kathy Morse, a manager for a prisoner-tutoring program. She skipped her usual delay-prone train from Belmar and boarded a New Jersey Transit bus, confident she’d arrive for a 9 a.m. meeting. Bogged in traffic, she missed the appointment.

“I was actually called in and reprimanded for tardiness,” said Morse, a 30-year veteran of New York City commuting. “I’m at the breaking point now.”

Bubbly Relief

Commuters’ accumulated scars are such that during the May 4 evening rush, Robert and Judy Epstein sipped champagne on the South Orange platform, toasting the end of Robert’s 28 years aboard New Jersey Transit and the sale of their house. Their new home, a Jersey City rental, is just four stops from his Brooklyn law office via subway.

“These kids moving from Brooklyn and Manhattan are throwing a lot of money at these homes,” Epstein said of such towns as Chatham, Summit, South Orange and Maplewood, all on the Midtown Direct line that will be diverted to Hoboken. “They have to be ready for a rough ride.”

On May 10, the clock between Tracks A and B at Secaucus Junction read 8:21 a.m. Three Penn trains were each at least five minutes overdue, and marketing assistant Aliana Heffernan was fretting over the possibility of a fourth warning from her boss. Once aboard, the scheduled 12-minute ride took more than 30.

“There are a few days when I said it was a really poor decision” to move to Metuchen from Brooklyn, Heffernan said as her train idled in the North River tunnel.

The century-old tube, damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is under constant repair even as it operates at maximum capacity, and will be out of service in less than 20 years unless it’s closed for an overhaul, Amtrak says. And then there’s the fraught matter of constructing new tunnels, which would take years and cost billions. For now, though, riders have to keep coming up with alternative plans.

DeCristoforo, from JPMorgan Chase, sees a glimmer of hope on his side of the Hudson, where his employer was part of a wave, along with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and UBS Group AG, coaxed to Jersey City with tax incentives.

Right now, though, his office is in New York, and each morning he weighs whether he can fit in a few minutes with his three young children before leaving his New Providence home.

“Any time after 7:30, it’s 2 hours, 15 minutes door to door,” he said.

— With assistance by Laura J Keller, and Henry Goldman

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