Monday, February 03, 2014

The Real Problem with NJ Transit's Super Bowl Service

By the incessant stream of tweets and news stories last night both before and after the game, NJ Transit's ability to handle the crush of fans heading to the game was decidedly mixed.

NJ Transit claims that they were very pleased with the outcome and that they moved a record number of people during the event, with more than 28,000 moved heading to the game, and a higher number when leaving.

The numbers make sense because Super Bowl organizers had warned that thousands of parking spots would be unavailable due to the security perimeter around MetLife Stadium. Organizers had hoped that 8-12,000 fans would use mass transit. But the numbers exceeded even NJ Transit's estimates of commuters. This should have been a triumph of mass transit.

Here's where things go wrong.

NJ Transit built the spur line to the Meadowlands five years ago in anticipation of large events at the Meadowlands where crowds would exceed 50,000 fans. The $185 million cost included the new three platform terminus and a two-track spur off the Pascack Valley Line.

NJ Transit estimates that the line could handle about 11,000 an hour, though I've seen others claiming 15-20,000 an hour (this would appear to indicate the ability to handle about 10-12 10-car trains per hour).

With more than 28,000 people using the track configuration, you're looking at more than 2 hours to safely move all those people to Secaucus where they would presumably be able to take trains to other parts of New Jersey or into NY Penn Station.

But NJ Transit screwed everyone with how they built the spur in the first place, and by doing so, they also screwed residents of Bergen County who would want to attend events in the Meadowlands.

The stadium station should have been built as a through track on the Pascack Valley line, which means that regular service would stop there, and people could then take trains elsewhere on the line. Had that been done, the agency could optimize their train service to spread out the load to towns along the Pascack Valley line - improving service to Bergen County and reducing vehicles traveling to events. Moreover, it means that the pending Xanadu/American Dream project across Route 120 from MetLife Stadium finally opens, it would have regular service, instead of intermittent service during only certain events.

NJ Transit's poor planning also meant that only 11,000 people could be accommodated by the spur line per hour. The station should have been four platforms with three tracks to increase capacity for surging trains during events. But those capacity increases go only so far when NJ Transit doesn't provide increased service elsewhere in their system. Again, Bergen County got screwed as it ran fewer trains than it should have along the Bergen/Main/Pascack Valley lines during game day. This reduced the number of people who could get to or from the area serviced by NJ Transit - people who wanted to commute and avoid driving into the area.

It meant that crowds at Secaucus were left with few options as a result of limited service, making an already difficult transit situation worse.

The infrastructure costs to have implemented the system I outlined above would have been higher initially, but the long term service improvements would have been more than worth it to everyone in the region, and would actually reduce costs over time due to service running to the Meadowlands along an existing line.

So where does Jim Weinstein play into all this? He's the head of NJ Transit and was in charge of the agency when he allowed the rail fleet to be completely flooded out causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. He was not even reprimanded by Governor Chris Christie.

Now, the agency is congratulating itself for a job well done? In one sense, they should based on the infrastructure constraints that were in place. But in another, it was the agency's failure to have capacity to address large crowds and then ignoring their own and then the tone deaf response to customer complaints about capacity issues at MetLife Stadium and Secaucus.

The failed response is one that falls on Weinstein. Again.

Governor Christie refused to hold Weinstein accountable over Sandy and I don't expect anything different this time either.

On the positive side, this shows that mass transit is something fans have been clamoring for and that increased and enhanced service is something fans want. Other cities and transit agencies should recognize and implement viable plans to expand transit options since people want the ability to go to sporting and other major events (like concerts) without having the hassle of driving).

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