NJ Transit Plans to Proceed with Gas Plant Despite Gov. Murphy Request

This article was written for the Lackawanna Coalition by Ken Dolsky of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, which has been leading the effort to ensure that any new NJ Transit projects use clean, renewable energy as much as possible, in compliance with our state’s new environmental-justice legislation.  The views expressed are specifically those of the DGTM Coalition; the Lackawanna Coalition is in alliance with their goals.

NJ TRANSIT plans to build its own power plant in Kearny in order to power selected trains when it loses commercial power, as happened for several days after Hurricane Sandy.  NJT has $512M in grant money to build this system.  Its original plan was to build a 140MW gas plant.  However, in 2020 Governor Murphy directed NJT to redesign the project primarily using renewable energy.  NJT spent 2020 “reimagining” the framework for the project and issued an RFP at the end of 2021, which was expected to follow the Governor’s direction.  Instead, NJT’s RFP is only requesting a gas plant and appears to have never intended to follow the Governor’s directions.

The RFP requests proposals that utilize fossil fuels now along with an undefined transition to be “carbon neutral” by 2050.  The RFP is completely silent as to when this transition would occur or even start.  Even assuming this is to be a transition to clean renewable energy, this approach will allow the plant to burn gas for many years.

Unlike its specific design of a gas-based solution, the RFP left the design and specifics of a solar/storage solution completely up to the bidders.  It provides no design, no specs, no land, no support for acquiring land and no support for leasing terms and conditions for solar, yet claims to be unbiased.  Clearly, NJT stacked the deck in favor of gas.

NJT is not even asking for an initial plan to use renewable energy, as it is likely afraid the renewable energy proposals will be more cost effective than the gas plant.  If NJT thinks that solar/storage won’t be viable for its immediate needs, why not solicit full solution bids and be able to prove its premise?  The Don’t Gas the Meadowlands (DGTM) Coalition has worked with solar experts and evaluated space for solar near the project and concluded that solar is completely feasible now and will very likely have better long-term financial benefits over a gas plant.  All of this information was provided to NJT during 2019 and 2020.

NJT is also hiding behind the Energy Master Plan target date of 2050 to fulfill its commitment to using renewable energy.  No NJT document or statement prior to the RFP ever said this could wait until 2050.

NJT’s gas plant will increase NJ GHG emissions by 600,000 million metric tons (MMT) per year, so transitioning to truly renewable energy will only reduce the increase in emissions this plant will have caused.  This will do nothing to reduce GHGs by 80% by 2050 as described in the EMP.

There is no reference in the RFP of the need to comply with NJ’s Environmental Justice (EJ) law.  Building what would be the 5th fossil fuel power plant in one of the most polluted communities in the country flies in the face of New Jersey’s landmark EJ legislation, S232, which was passed to protect vulnerable residents from facilities such as this.

NJT is spending its one time grant on the wrong technology that will produce the worst results in terms of air quality/health, climate change and financial benefits for NJT. They are purchasing a dead end technology that will decrease in value vs. a technology that will increase in value.

The DGTM Coalition is asking NJT for a clear and compelling explanation for excluding a renewable energy proposal, including an analysis that will allow NJT to compare the long-term financial benefits and costs of owning a gas plant versus owning a renewable energy plant.  Assuming no receipt of such an explanation, we are demanding that the RFP require bids on renewable-energy solutions that can be implemented now in order to provide this comparison.  At the same time we are asking Governor Murphy to reiterate his 2020 demand for a solution that will maximize the use of renewable energy.

NJTPA Hosts Open House, Seeks Comments

On July 27th from 4 to 7 p.m., the New Jersey Transportation Planning Association (NJTPA) will hold a virtual open-house meeting: drop in any time to see an introductory presentation, then join staffed break-out rooms to ask questions and share your thoughts on NJTPA’s Plan 2050 (https://njtpa-plan-2050-njtpa.hub.arcgis.com). The plan includes the long-range Plan 2050 as well as draft plans for the periods 2022–2025 and 2022–2031. In addition, there is a draft Air Quality Conformity Determination. In addition to its open house, the agency is taking written comment through August 4th at Plan2050@njtpa.org. Our first comment? Do better than so many government agencies and actually allow for reflection time after their presentation before the public-comment period closes—we’d like the NJTPA to accept comments until late August.

No-Transit Tappan Zee Controversy Continues

The Tappan Zee Bridge has carried the New York Thruway across the Hudson River for 57 years.  Designed for 100,000 vehicles per day, it now carries 138,000, has no breakdown lanes, and fails to meet earthquake standards.  Everybody agrees that it’s obsolete, and there are plans afoot to build a new bridge or two, with a total of 15 lanes instead of the current 7.  Nobody knows how to pay for it; tolls, currently $4.75 for a car round-trip (using E-ZPass), would be bound to increase.

The bridge also has no provision for mass transit; nobody was thinking of anything but vehicles back in the 1950s.  There is also no plan for mass transit on the new bridge.  Why?  Nobody knows how to pay for it, either.  The best that can be said for the replacement plans is that they won’t preclude transit—which means that space will be left for a future transit bridge, should it eventually become feasible. The new bridge project has been supported by New York Governor Cuomo, who has however not pushed for transit, either bus or rail, on the new bridge.  The controversy continues, as reported by Peter Applebome in The New York Times  (June 27).  Originally, plans included a public-transportation corridor including bus-only lanes, and a possible connection to the Metro-North rail network.  The regional chapter of the American Planning Association took exception to the no-transit plan, saying in a March letter, “We believe a project design so as ‘not to preclude’ transit realistically does have the effect of precluding transit.”  Meanwhile, political gridlock in Washington has shut off that source of funding: the Thruway Authority’s bond ratings have been downgraded, partly because of the Tappan Zee liabilities, and speculation is that, once the bridge is completed, the Thruway will have an incentive to maximize auto traffic to derive maximum toll revenues to pay off the bonds.  This does not exactly make the bridge proponents unbiased evaluators of the need for transit.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that a balanced transportation system is essential to the region, and that additional highway capacity should be planned only in conjuction with plans for mass-transit capabiilities.

MTA Rails Say Safety Deadline Tough

Federal law requires commuter rail operators to implement an advanced safety technology, Positive Train Control (PTC), by 2015.  However, many operating agencies protest that the new technology is expensive, untested, and cannot easily be obtained.  The presidents of the two railroads operated by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro North Railroad (M-N) and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), have protested that they may be unable to meet the deadline.  Howard Permut and Helena Williams, presidents of M-N and LIRR respectively, note that they “make operating a safe and reliable system . . . our absolute priority” and that the lines have already invested over $1 billion on a signaling system “providing a level of security greater than that of many rail systems today.”   In addition, they say, in a joint letter to The New York Times (May 5), to install PTC requires retrofitting 1200 miles of track and more than 1000 rail cars and that much of the technology needed is not yet even developed, let alone approved or in production.  In a follow-up letter to The Times (May 8), the CEOs of the American Public Transportation Association and of the Association of American Railroads emphasized that the railroads do not seek to delay implementing the new technology because of the costs involved; instead, they wrote, the technology simply won’t be ready in time for the 2015 deadline.

We do not have information on PTC compliance at NJ Transit; however, NJT is known to have already implemented highly advanced “civil speed enforcement” technology on many lines, and this technology may provide most or all of the features required in the new law.

“Times” Letter Explains Need to Delay ARC

James P. RePass, chairman of The National Corridors Initiative, in a letter published in The New York Times on October 15, explained some reasons why the ARC trans-Hudson tunnel needs to be postponed, pending redesign.  In response to a Times Op-Ed column on Oct. 8 by Paul Krugman, which decried NJ Gov. Christie’s decision to kill the tunnel (since under reconsideration), DePass said that Krugman had not considered “key facts” about the tunnel project.  Writing from Mystic, Conn., DePass wrote first that the cost of the tunnel is considerably more than the original $8.7 billion estimate, “largely because of a parochial decision by New Jersey Transit to abandon the original Penn Station through-running alignment in favor of one that dead-ends in a deep-cavern terminal under 34th Street, usable only by New Jersey Transit.”  He goes on to state that, “Second, the dead-end tunnel cuts out all of New England and Eastern Canada from essential rail capacity growth; the less expensive Penn Station alignment allows for it, and also allows a future connection to Grand Central Terminal that would take hundreds of thousands of subway riders off overcrowded lines in Midtown.”  The letter concludes that Gov. Christie was right to kill “this vastly over-budget, dead-end tunnel”.  Tunnels are needed, but “we must do it right, so that both New Jersey Transit and Amtrak can use them, and so all of New England and Eastern Canada can benefit, not just New Jersey”.

WNYC Covers Construction Freeze

On Monday, October 4, as Gov. Christie’s transportation project freeze goes into effect and the  NJ legislature is set to hold emergency meetings on the crisis, WNYC’s Bob Hennelly reported on the situation.  He said that Democratic legislators’ concerns focus on the Governor’s $1.25 billion bond program to keep the projects going without approval from New Jersey voters, which they say should be required; also, the Democrats fear that New Jersey’s contribution to the ARC tunnel project will be reassigned by the governor to bail out the Transportation Trust Fund.  With 40,000 workers on highway and rail projects idled by the governor’s action, Hennelly noted, is the Democrats’ standing on principle going to be worth it?  Hennelly reported that the root problem is the state’s continuing failure to deal with the depleted Trust Fund situation with a real solution, “like a gas tax hike”.   The bottom line?  Hennelly said that with the projects halted, workers and their unions are putting pressure on both sides, and we shall see what happens.
The Lackawanna Coalition has become increasingly concerned that New Jersey cannot afford its share of the cost of the proposed ARC Project, as demonstrated by the current difficulties with the Transportation Trust Fund.  Coalition Chair David Peter Alan said, “If New Jersey can’t afford to continue construction on hundreds of highway projects and a few comparatively small transit projects, I don’t see how the state could afford billions of dollars for a deep-cavern tunnel to nowhere.”

Transportation Construction Gridlock Threatened

NJ Governor Chris Christie’s 30-day moratorium on the ARC trans-Hudson rail tunnel has led to a “high-stakes game of political chicken”, which now threatens to stop about 100 road and rail construction projects around the state, according to a front-page article in the Star-Ledger on Saturday, October 2.  The Governor halted the ARC project pending a review of New Jersey’s ability to pay for it; legislature Democrats, saying that the Administration continues to fail to provide details of any plan to replenish the nearly-broke Transportation Trust Fund, last week stalled a $1.25-billion bond issue needed to keep the projects going.  The Governor then threatened to halt the projects, effective Monday, October 4.
One solution to the trust fund problem would be an increased gas tax, but the Governor is adamantly opposed to it.  The article, by Mike Frassinelli and Lisa Fleisher, quotes NJ Transit executive director Jim Weinstein as saying that there have been discussions about diverting the ARC money to shore up the Trust Fund.  Labor unions reacted strongly to the Governor’s announced project freeze, saying that the construction workers would be immediately out of work in a time when construction industry joblessness is at an all-time high.  Democrats scheduled an emergency meeting for 10 a.m. Monday to reconsider the bond issue.

NJT Changes Portal Bridge Plan

New Jersey Transit has announced that there has been a change in the proposed replacement for Portal Bridge, west of Secaucus Station.  Previous plans had called for a fixed span 50′ above water and another 10′ lower, which could be raised for a passing boat.  The new plan calls for two 50′ fixed spans.  NJT says the change is feasible because a thinner structure will allow more height between the water and the bridge, without lengthening the approaches to the bridge.  We remain skeptical, since a 25% increase in the height of the bridge would require either a longer approach or a significantly steeper grade if the approach is not lengthened.