NJ Transit “Reform” Bill Even Weaker

We were disappointed, but not surprised, to read this article. (No word on whether the Assembly version has made a similar change):


TRENTON, N.J. — A bill proposing reforms for management of NJ Transit has removed one of its key proposals, changing the way the agency’s board chair is selected.
NorthJersey.com reports state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, majority leader and the bill’s sponsor, has dropped the requirement that the chair be selected by board members, instead of automatically going to the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.

NJT Management Shakeup Rumored

A week after NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein retired and was replaced by Veronique Hakim, rumors circulated about a “clean sweep” that would further shake up the agency’s  top management.  According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 5), the directors of NJT’s rail and bus operations are also about to be forced out.  Frassinelli wrote that sources said that NJ Transit was “going in a different direction.”

Continue Reading NJT Management Shakeup Rumored

Tunnel Cancellation, “Bridgegate” Form Pattern: Report

An extensive report on radio station WNYC (January 17) by Andrea Bernstein explores a number of events involving Port Authority budgets instigated by the New Jersey appointees on the Port Authority, notably Bill Baroni and David Wildstein.

The report says that the decision by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to kill the ARC trans-Hudson rail tunnel several years ago was not done for the reasons Christie outlined, which involved a sudden realization that the tunnel might cost New Jersey far more than budgeted.  Instead, it was done to enable critical road repairs to be done with the $2 billion Port Authority contribution to ARC, notably for repairs to the Pulaski Skyway.  The connection to Port Authority facilities was justified by saying that the Skyway improvements would aid traffic flow to the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.  Diverting the $2 billion allowed Gov. Christie to avoid an increase in the state gasoline tax, which the report said would be political suicide for a potential Republican presidential candidate.

Other projects using Port Authority funds include

  • the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, which the report said was a condition by New Jersey to agree to World Trade Center reconstruction;
  • purchase of a military terminal in Bayonne, which the report says allowed the city of Bayonne to avoid bankruptcy that would have been politically devastating to the state and its officials; and
  • reconstruction of the Harrison PATH station. The report hinted that all of these projects were instrumental in securing endorsement of Gov. Christie’s re-election bid by the mayors involved.

The report also asserted that toll increases approved by the Port Authority were said to be needed for World Trade Center reconstruction, but that the real reason was the additional projects needed by New Jersey to avoid gas tax increases.  Further, the report said that the scenario of the toll increases was that Gov. Christie’s representatives at the Port Authority planned the increases and the Authority announced them, Govs. Christie and Cuomo of New York then professed outrage at the size of the increases, and the Port Authority then scaled them back.  The report says all of this was an orchestrated rollout, which allowed the governors to say that there were no tax increases, as tolls, they contended, are not taxes.  The Port Authority increases were not confined to motorists, as PATH rapid-transit fares were also increased.

There was also reporting on past testimony in Washington by Mr. Baroni before the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) regarding the toll increases.  Baroni sidestepped answering Lautenberg’s questions by instead raising the fact that Lautenberg for years had a free EZ-Pass for use on Port Authority facilities, and citing the number of times the Senator had used it.  Baroni also had a thick black binder he was reading from, which the WNYC report suggested was full of other “dirt” to use against Sen. Lautenberg.

Drive, Don’t Ride: Congress

Once again, it appears that Congress has no trouble subsidizing people who drive to work, but transit users?  That’s another matter.

The disparity is sharply in focus these days, as the program that allows transit riders a tax benefit was slashed at the turn of the year, while benefits for drivers increased.  The disparity amounts to a hidden fare increase of about $450 in 2014 for a typical transit user who earns $50,000 a year and spends $245 a month on transit, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (January 6).  Similar programs for both drivers and transit users allow commuters to pay for parking or transit passes with pre-tax dollars; in 2013, both could spend $245 a month on their commutes and not pay taxes on the money.  The parking subsidy is permanently enshrined in law and even benefits from regular cost-of-living increases, so it will increase to $250 a month for 2014.  The transit subsidy, however, had only a temporary increase from its historic level of $130 per month; Congress failed to extend it, so it reverts to the lower figure for 2014 unless Congress were to act early in the new year.  Given the gridlock that infests Washington, the prospects of a change seem dubious.  The parking subsidy enjoys wider support throughout the U.S., since people drive to work in most places, whereas mass transit tends to be concentrated in and around major urban areas, such as the Northeast.  One of a coalition of legislators hoping to restore the transit benefit is U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who remarked, “I think there is a bias not just to the Northeast per se, but to transit benefits as a whole.”

NYC Mayoral Canidates on Transportation

As New York City counts down the hours to this year’s mayoral election (Nov. 5), transportation users wonder how the two leading candidates stand on transportation issues.  Reporting in The New York Times (Oct. 30) gives some insights:

  • Bill de Blasio (Democrat) would focus on increasing bus service, which he says is the system’s most neglected aspect; advocates expanding service in the four outer boroughs; and installing traffic cameras to catch violators.  He says Mayor Bloomberg’s taxi system of green taxis outside Manhattan should be reworked to avoid hurting the yellow cab industry.  He has expressed some ambivalence about pedestrian plazas.
  • Joseph Lhota (Republican) wants to expand subway service to Staten Island, decrease waiting times for trains, and synchronize traffic lights. He would increase the number of bicycle lanes, but said it should be done more prudently than in the past. He says the green-cab system makes sense for upper Manhattan, but not for the outer boroughs.  He has some misgivings about pedestrian plazas, saying that they might be opened to traffic at some times of the day.

The article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/nyregion/comparing-two-new-york-city-mayoral-rivals-on-issues.html

Menendez Calls for Bipartisanship on Transport Bill

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has called for bipartisanship rather than politics as Washington lawmakers struggle to come up with a compromise on a new transportation bill to fund highway and transit operations and improvements.  According to reporting by Malia Rulon Herman in the Daily Record (May 9), Menendez is one of 47 lawmakers from both Houses and both parties who met for the first time on May 8 to try to forge a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill.  Under the Senate version, New Jersey would get the highest public transportation funding ever, $519 million per year, an increase of $63 million; the total funding, including highway, would be $1.5 billion for New Jersey.  Public transportation funding continues to be controversial, with Republicans wanting to slash dedicated mass transit funding.  Currently, 2.86¢ of the 18.4¢ per gallon federal gasoline tax is reserved for mass transit.  Menendez said that he was committed to protecting mass-transit funding.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that a stable, long-term funding source for transit capital and operating budgets is essential if public transportation is to survive, improve, and satisfy increasing demand for service.

Report Disputes Christie’s Basis for Halting Tunnel

This article was published in the New York Times. It is quoted here as a matter of interest, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Lackawanna Coalition.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey exaggerated when he declared that unforeseen costs to the state were forcing him to cancel the new train tunnel planned to relieve congested routes across the Hudson River, according to a long-awaited report by independent Congressional investigators.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, to be released this week, found that while Mr. Christie said that state transportation officials had revised cost estimates for the tunnel to at least $11 billion and potentially more than $14 billion, the range of estimates had in fact remained unchanged in the two years before he announced in 2010 that he was shutting down the project.  And state transportation officials, the report says, had said the cost would be no more than $10 billion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/nyregion/report-disputes-christies-reason-for-halting-tunnel-project-in-2010.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha29_20120410 (limited access; paywall)

ARC Decision Tied to Politics, Says Journalist

Star-Ledger journalist Tom Moran, in an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC on November 15, said that politics factored in to Gov. Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC trans-Hudson tunnel. Moran noted that opposition to rail projects, including high-speed rail as well as commuter rail projects, are popular with conservatives, “who are in the ascendancy.”  The Governor’s opposition to a gas tax increase can be traced to the same motivation, Moran said, as can be the proposals from newly elected Republican governors in several states to cancel high-speed rail projects.  Moran said that the failure to build any tunnel would hurt New Jersey economically, as the existing tunnels are at capacity and “many of the new jobs in Manhattan will now go to (residents of) Westchester and Long Island, not New Jersey.”  However, Moran said, the Governor’s ARC decision is “popular in New Jersey; Gov. Christie is very persuasive.”  Still, “[t]urning back $3 billion (in Federal funding) is unprecedented,” he said. But $1.5 billion of the funding was actually for “congestion relief,” and that might be reallocated to other transportation projects—Moran said, “Most people say it was his plan all along.” About the $270 million already spent and that the federal government has demanded that New Jersey return, Moran said, “the lawyers are thrashing it out.”

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that a tunnel under the Hudson will be necessary, but that the ARC proposal just cancelled was an inefficient, wasteful design.  The Coalition believes that all interested bodies should work together on a nonpartisan basis to plan an effective solution to regional commuter and intercity transportation needs.

Christie Cancels Tunnel

WNYC reported at noon Wednesday that N.J. Gov. Christie has reaffirmed his decision to cancel the ARC tunnel. This follows a 2-week period in which the Christie administration was reconsidering its earlier decision to cancel the project.

WNYC reporter Matthew Scheuermann said on the station’s 12:00 p.m. newscast that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had offered an additional $380 million in federal funds over the weekend, but Christie said that the offer was not enough to make the project affordable.

We’ll post further details as they become available.

Columnist Criticizes Lautenberg for Continuing to Defend Deep-Cavern Proposal

Partisan politics appears to be heating up over the issue of the ARC Project with New Jersey Transit’s proposed deep-cavern terminal under 34th Street in Manhattan, which Gov. Christie has said will not be built.

Asbury Park Press columnist Bob Ingle criticized Senator Frank Lautenberg for continuing to defend the proposal to build a deep-cavern terminal far below 34th Street in Manhattan as part of the ARC Project.  NJT had proposed new tunnels into Manhattan that would not go to the existing Penn Station, but now acknowledges that the cost of a new deep-cavern terminal will be billions of dollars more than previously stated.

Ingle said: “U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg is missing a chance to demonstrate his worth in Washington and become a hero back home but instead he keeps pushing the same old plan.”  Lautenberg held a press conference at Penn Station in Newark to defend the plan but, according to Ingle, he merely “sounded old themes.”

Ingle quoted Gov. Chris Christie as reacting to Lautenberg’s conference by saying: “Senator Lautenberg can do what senators do, which is talk. . . .  What governors are supposed to do is decide.  If it’s going to cost New Jerseyans 2 to 5 billion more than what it’s projected to cost now, it’s not going to happen.”

Ingle also called on Lautenberg to help promote a new tunnel that Amtrak could use, rather than the deep-cavern proposal that Christie rejected.

The Lackawanna Coalition and allied rider advocates have consistently called for new tunnels to go to the existing Penn Station, so Amtrak and NJT can both use them, noting that such a plan will deliver better performance, while saving billions of dollars.

Ingle’s column was formerly to be found on the paper’s web site, http://www.app.com/article/20101017/OPINION0503/10170329/1093/Lautenberg-should-get-behind-a-plan-that-makes-sense.