Super Bowl Drumbeat Continues

Days after thousands of riders waiting in long lines to ride trains to and from the Super Bowl, the media drumbeat about their experience continued, with NJ Transit officials on the defensive even as they proclaimed success in getting fans to and from the big game.  NJT’s estimates are that 28,000 riders traveled via train to the event and 33,000 left the stadium on the rails, far larger numbers than NJT had planned for.  A lot of the ongoing discussion focuses on why the numbers were so big, and unexpected. According to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times and Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (both Feb. 4), NJT Executive Director James Weinstein speculated that the good weather might have resulted in a bigger turnout for the event.  This seems a bit unlikely, since the all tickets for the event were long sold out and many resold on the secondary market for prices in the $3000 range—would someone holding such a valuable ticket make a last-minute decision about attending based on the weather?  Weinstein said that 22,000 of 32,000 riders bought their tickets on the way to the game, saying that that reflected last-minute decisions; but observers wondered how many fans, many from outside the New York area, would have been expected to make a separate visit to NJT stations to invest in the nonrefundable tickets in advance.  NJT had said that the National Football League organizers had given them lower numbers; afterwards, NFL executive Eric Grubman described the transportation experience as “a good lesson learned for all of us,” while Weinstein declared success, saying it was “a very significant accomplishment,” noting that the railroad had never moved so many people to and from an event.

Five days after the Super Bowl, the drumbeat continued.  Some of the congestion may have resulted from NJT’s decision to require all Super Bowl travellers to transfer at the Secaucus Junction transfer station, which NJT said was necessary so that stadium-bound travellers could undergo a security inspection.  Yet did the security check have to be done at Secaucus, risking making the station a choke point?  Reporting by WNYC on February 7 suggested that nobody would take responsibility for the inspect-at-Secaucus procedure; the decision may have involved NJT, the NFL, and/or the US Transportation Security Administration, but none of the three would admit responsibility, WNYC said.  NJT said it wasn’t their decision; the TSA said they would never tell local authorities how to organize the inspection; and the NFL wasn’t commenting.

If fans were not required to change at Secaucus, NJT could have run trains from and to other destinations on its sprawling system, including the large Hoboken terminal, largely unused on a Sunday, and even direct to New York’s Penn Station. But NJT insisted in a letter to the Lackawanna Coalition well before Super Bowl Sunday that all riders would have to transfer at Secaucus “for security reasons.”  Some news reports after the event noted that in the crush of riders jamming Secaucus, the security inspection was actually abandoned in order to get riders onto the trains and to the Super Bowl.

State Transportation Commissioner James Simpson said that the railroad never planned to handle such a crush of riders, according to reporting by Karen Rouse in The Record (Feb. 3).  “The management of NJ Transit and the NFL never dreamed they would have to move 33,000 people out of the stadium. Somebody blew the estimates.”  Simpson said that in discussions with NFL, NJT was told that a passenger count of 8000 was likely, but never more than 16,000.  “They said there’s no way there’s going to be more than 16,000 people, and look what happened. You have a limitation of how many people you can get on a train and how many people you can get out of Secaucus.”

Why so many people unexpectedly took the train remained a mystery.  Grubam opined that bus services run by the NFL, at $51 round trip more than twice the rail fare, might not have drawn as many riders as expected; but the bus tickets had to be reserved in advance, and were sold out days before the event.  Most bus riders found their trips to be uneventful, although congestion at the Lincoln Tunnel early in the afternoon might have delayed some inbound bus riders. Grubman called the transportation problems just “one part among a very big picture that was terrific.”

Arrival by private cars was another consideration; parking at the stadium was severely restricted, and limited numbers of car passes were sold for $150 online, and resold for higher prices after those sold out; there was no access by taxis or limousines not holding the special passes.  Yet the parking lots never seemed to fill, according to Tony Vitrano of the company SP+ Gameday, a contractor to the NFL.  Vitrano speculated that some drivers had bought the passes as insurance and decided to take the train instead.

Hours after the Super Bowl ended, NJT helped clear the remaining backlog of riders by pressing into service buses to take some of the remaining crowd directly to Manhattan.  At least 20 buses were apparently used to ferry about 1000 fans through the Lincoln Tunnel.  Karen Rouse’s Record article quotes Commissioner Simpson as saying that 60–80 buses were positioned between the stadium and Secaucus for use if needed, but that the plan fell apart because there was no way to get them into position to pick up riders; spots were already taken by cars, vans, and other buses parked inside the stadium property. “The plan was not workable,” Simpson said; “You just can»t pull the buses up and say ‘Get on the bus.’ ”

Could NJT have done better? Most executives and spokespersons for NJT maintained that they did a great job in handling an unexpected load.  Commissioner Simpson said, with warning of the 33,000 passenger load, NJT could’ve made alternate plans, or at least notified the fans that they faced waits of two hours or more.  Some people, Simpson said, would have been fine with that; “It’s all about managing expectations.”

The Monday-morning quarterbacking continued in Trenton, as Assembly Transportation Committee chair John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex County) called for a review of NJT’s performance at the Super Bowl. “The problems that ensued for people trying to get to and from the game raise a lot of questions about the preparedness level leading up to the big day,” Wisniewski  said.  However, hearings seemed unlikely to uncover any magical solution: NJT officials said the capacity of the rail line is about 12,000 riders an hour, and they used it to capacity—success, from their vantage point.  They also noted that the event carried  a “Level One” security designation, requiring special security inspections, which took place at the Secaucus transfer station. Still, riders who had to wait as long as three hours after the game to get a train seem to have other opinions about the service.

Read the complete stories at: (paywall) (link not working as of May 2021)