Thursday, November 11, 2010

NJ Transit Touts Capital Budget But Instead Shows Commuters Lack of Understanding

NJ Transit Director Jim Weinstein tried his best to spin a positive message about NJ Transit in the wake of Gov. Chris Christie killing the agency's pet ARC tunnel project. Weinstein claimed that the agency was spending $2.7 billion on capital projects.

He included the purchase of new railcars, upgrades at several stations, and other amenities.

That's nothing other than a rehash of the agency's master plan and budget proposals that have been previously published.

Was there anything new in this presentation?


The ARC tunnel was a flawed program that was destined to cost the state billions more in cost overruns at a time when NJ Transit and the state could not afford them. The federal government wasn't willing to pick up the tab on the cost overruns which tells you all you need to know about the Obama Administration's willingness to match his words of support for mass transit and Amtrak with the actual deed of making sure that what would have become the nation's largest mass transit infrastructure project was funded. If the federal government wasn't willing to absorb the costs for overruns on an interstate project, why should New Jersey be forced to do so when the project was interstate?

The presentation further ignores the massive amounts of waste that NJ Transit has spent on projects of dubious benefit to riders. Building Secaucus Transfer was supposed to cut travel times and increase connectivity between NJ Transit lines, but anyone riding from North Jersey into Hoboken has had a longer commute. Since Secaucus opened, the average commute to Hoboken has increased by several minutes each way. I figure that my commute has lengthened by 5 minutes each way. That adds up. The billion dollar project meant that the agency could not spend that money on other more pressing needs, like upgrading rails or overhead power lines in conjunction with Amtrak. Indeed, a billion dollars for Secaucus could have gone to fully replace the Portal Bridge (located south of Secaucus Transfer over the Hackensack River), which remains one of the worst rail bottlenecks on the entire Northeast Corridor and is a frequent cause of delays for thousands of riders.

It's about priorities, and NJ Transit was about pushing an agenda that diverges tremendously from what the commuters in New Jersey actually need. Secaucus may eventually turn into a useful hub, but even the ARC tunnel would have made that impossible since the ARC tunnel would have eliminated the need to transfer to the Northeast Corridor since the ARC tunnel proposed a 1-seat ride into Manhattan from North Jersey. Given that Secaucus already sees a fraction of the ridership that NJ Transit used in its estimates to get that project approved - and that's with the increase in riders since the park-n-ride was built and the Meadowlands connector operating - the ARC tunnel would have turned this into an even greater boondoggle than it already is.

Of course, no one at NJ Transit said how they would fund the additional operations into and out of Manhattan with its operational budget, when the agency had to raise fares significantly this past July in conjunction with service cuts.

The agency has been more interested in building infrastructure where it isn't needed, and ignoring the dire need for parking and maintenance at its already existing facilities. This is most pronounced on the Northeast Corridor lines, but is present at other NJ Transit lines. Yet, it was only within the last 18 months that Secaucus had a proper parking lot built nearby to service the station, and that has contributed greatly to the increased ridership out of the station. That goes to the lack of foresight, planning, or understanding of mass transit utilization and needs by riders.

The ARC tunnel speaks greatly to this, and its cancellation should lead to a general reevaluation of all NJ Transit projects that put riders and the state on the hook for projects when the agency can barely handle its existing infrastructure. Of course, this is how public authorities and government agencies and politicians work - it's far more glamorous to have a ribbon cutting or groundbreaking for a new facility than to ensure that existing infrastructure is properly maintained. New projects are somewhat easier to fund than infrastructure maintenance and replacement, even though it is more critical to the ongoing function and operation of the transit system.

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