Thursday, February 20, 2014

Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss

James Weinstein is finally out as the head of New Jersey Transit. After the massive debacle of allowing his agency's rail fleet be flooded in Hoboken and Meadows rail yards during Hurricane Sandy, you would have thought he should have been fired for all the damage sustained to the rail fleet.

You would be wrong. Governor Chris Christie signaled his support for Weinstein and never sought to get to the bottom of why the rail fleet was positioned in the vulnerable areas. At first, NJ Transit claimed that they didn't think those areas would flood as it had not been in their experience during more than 30 years of operation. Then they said that they didn't have anywhere else to move the equipment and that they didn't expect the flooding.

Both points were debunked after The Record revealed that the NJ Transit disaster preparation plan included moving the rail fleet to higher ground, including in Waldwick. That would have saved significant numbers of locomotives and railcars, allowing NJ Transit to resume service much faster. It took months before anything resembling a pre-storm schedule was in place. That's tens of thousands of commuters inconvenienced, lost economic value, and in the end Gov. Christie tried to blame some low-level employee for taking unilateral action and claimed that he couldn't be fired because of civil service rules (NJ Transit doesn't have those rules).

After that debacle, you'd think that NJ Transit would be more contrite and understanding? You'd be wrong. They, along with the organizers of the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium consistently told fans that they should take the train to the game because there weren't enough spots available for vehicles, and that you couldn't walk into the stadium due to security concerns.

Well, wouldn't you know it? The fans actually listened to all the warnings and they took mass transit. They blew past the organizers' estimates. In fact, they nearly tripled the organizers' estimates, and nearly doubled NJ Transit estimates.

That wouldn't be bad, except that the Meadowlands rail line didn't have the capacity to move that kind of number of fans. That's due in part to design, and in part to the agency's failure to have contingency plans in effect and to carry out the contingency plan.

There was apparently a plan to have buses on standby to help reduce the load on the rail service to Secaucus, but no one thought to activate it in a timely manner. That meant that there were fans who waited hours to clear the stadium. It was inexcusable.

Now, you might be wondering why this is a big deal when you can drive to a ballgame at one of the major stadiums and it could take you an hour to get out of the parking lots. That's true. You can often have delays getting out of the stadium, but those parking lots frequently have multiple egress points and distribute the vehicles onto different roads to disperse. That isn't possible with the rail service, which concentrates the passenger load onto a rail service.

Part of this has to do with the design of the stadium mass transit facilities, the Meadowlands spur line, and capacities at both Secaucus and the Meadowlands.

Well, the debacle at the Super Bowl led to Weinstein's resignation. He wasn't fired. He deserved to be fired - for Sandy. He deserved to be fired for the Super Bowl failures, but was allowed to resign, allowing him to take his pension/benefits with him. How nice of the Governor to protect his people like that.

Weinstein's failures shouldn't have been particularly surprising, given that he was in charge of the NJ MVC emissions testing program that was an absolute debacle. That $500 million contract with Parsons was a total mess, and he was allowed to continue as head of the Department of Transportation despite being integral to overseeing the program.

Now that Weinstein is behind NJ Transit, who's coming in to replace him?

Veronique Hakim, who is now head of the NJ Turnpike Authority. It's not particularly surprising that Gov. Christie is moving around officials from one state agency to another, but anyone who thinks that Hakim will do better than Weinstein ought to bear a few things in mind.

Prior to going to the Turnpike Authority, she was at the MTA as head of capital construction. During her stint there, she never met a program that she could keep on time or on budget. That includes post-9/11 work to enhance security at MTA facilities across the region. That should be a warning sign considering that NJ Transit is embarking on a program to rebuild after Sandy, including new rail yards on higher ground, improved survivability of equipment, and we need to be prepared for the inevitable cost overruns and excuses.

We must demand better of NJ Transit, and of Gov. Christie.

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