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.

Christie’s Budget Strategies Questioned

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie likes to portray himself as a fiscal conservative, but reporting by Kate Zernike in The New York Times (Oct. 30) questions this assessment, including Christie’s record on transportation issues.  In his election 4 years ago, Christie attacked his opponent, incumbent Jon Corzine, for using fiscal gimmicks to balance the budget.  However, according to Zernike’s article, Christie has used much the same tactics, including diverting money from such things as property-tax rebates, affordable housing, and funds for new energy sources to balance the budget instead.

On transportation, Christie made headlines when he cancelled a new rail tunnel under the Hudson, calling it a cost run-away; but he has issued more debt for transportation projects than any of his predecessors.  Meanwhile, New Jersey’s bond rating has sunk to one of the worst in the country, and the state’s own budget surplus has shrunk to its lowest percentage in a decade, in economic conditions in which state budget surpluses nationwide are growing.  The state’s transportation fund was depleted when Christie took office; he rejected calls to raise the state’s gasoline tax and instead asked the lame-duck Corzine administration to issue debt to replenish the fund.  When that tactic ran out of funds, he replenished the fund again with money that had been intended to build the trans-Hudson rail tunnel: $4 billion in bonds were issued, but to avoid future borrowing, Christie said he intended to increase the state’s contribution to the transportation fund.  Instead, he took the turnpike tolls intended for the transportation fund in 2013 and used them to help fill the gap in the state’s general budget, hit hard by less-than-anticipated revenue.

Christie intends to continue the policy of diverting the turnpike tolls to the general budget in 2014.  Hope, however, springs eternal: the state is now relying on online gambling, beginning in November, to bring in $180 million to help balance the budget.  However, the Office of Legislative Services says that it has been “unable to identify any independent source” to confirm such an estimate.

The complete article can be found at (limited access) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/nyregion/christie-embraces-budget-strategies-he-scorned-as-a-candidate.html

Christie’s Sandy Remarks Questioned

NJT’s massive loss in Hurricane Sandy was caused by a bad decision by a low-level official, not by reliance on poor storm forecasts.  So said NJ Gov. Chris Christie, as reported by Karen Rouse in The Record newspaper (Oct. 3), after Christie met with The Record’s board that day.  The low-level employee “ditched” a plan that was in place to protect hundreds of cars and locomotives, all without the knowledge of NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein, according to the article’s account of Christie’s comments.

Christie said that the unnamed employee was disciplined internally and not fired; Christie said the employee cannot be fired, as he is protected by Civil Service rules.  However, NJT officials said that NJT is not within the Civil Service system and none of its employees fall under Civil Service rules.  NJT and State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson either had nothing to add or did not return messages on the subject.

The controversy expanded on October 5 as Rouse filed a follow-up article to the effect that NJT internal e-mails show that multiple NJT officials, including Executive Director Jim Weinstein, were well aware of the plans to move equipment to what turned out to be flood-prone areas.  Weinstein has not yet commented on the latest stories, but during the months after the Sandy disaster he has repeatedly stated that the ill-fated plan was unfortunate but deliberate.  This is in apparent conflict with the governor’s assertion at the October 3 meeting with The Record; Christie said “it was a low-level official that made the decision on the cars that you”re talking about, where they were placed. It was a low-level decision that was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain.”

The story continued to have legs; WNYC aired an interview with Ms. Rouse on Monday morning, October 7, in which she recapitulated the details of her investigation and said that NJT has not revealed much about a new storm plan that NJT has promised, other than construction of some new rail yards to store equipment during a future storm.  On October 8, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairperson of the Assembly Transportation Committee, was quoted on a WNYC newscast as announcing hearings to determine just who was responsible for the decision to store equipment in flood-prone areas.

It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
It was a lower level manager that made the decision on the cars that you’re talking about, where they were placed. It was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf

PATH to EWR? Maybe.

NJ’s Gov. Christie might require PATH service to Newark Liberty Airport—but only if United Airlines agrees to beef up service at Atlantic City.  The airline has balked, according to reporting by Ted Mann in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 30).  If the long-contemplated PATH extension were to be built, it would likely go only to the Newark Liberty Airport rail station, not to the airline terminals, which would require riders to use the AirTrain monorail service.

When the modern terminals at Newark were built, long-time observers recall, they were originally designed for rapid-transit service (PATH) at the terminals themselves, but extending PATH to the terminals would cost a lot more, perhaps $3 billion compared to $1 billion for the simpler plan.  The state favors better airline service at Atlantic City, which is currently served only by Spirit Airlines, with 14 scheduled weekday flights; United seems disinclined to enter the market, especially since improved access to EWR might benefit its competitors more: United’s flights are already mostly full.  One advocate of the PATH extension is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who figures that with the PATH extension, local residents would be allowed to use it—though there is currently good rail service at the EWR rail station, local and auto access to the facility is not available, with the only ongoing transportation available being the AirTrain, which has a hefty fee built into rail tickets to the station.

Media Questions NJT Sandy Response Anew

A month-long investigation by New York public radio station WNYC, New Jersey Public Radio, and The (Bergen) Record newspaper has resulted in extensive reporting questioning NJ Transit’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the region on October 29, 2012.  The report contrasts the extensive damage suffered by NJT in comparison with the generally minor damage to other transit systems and attributes the damage to NJT’s ignoring warnings both long before the storm and as the storm approached; bad decisions regarding storing equipment; and NJT’s response to a public-information request (nearly all of the reply was blacked out).  The report was previously available at http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/transportation-nation/2013/may/13/njtransit-sandy.

Author Kate Hinds was interviewed on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer talk show Monday morning, May 13.  The segment replayed NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein’s testimony on NJT’s Sandy response; Weinstein had said that the models that NJT used in forecasting hurricane damage predicted that the probability that the Meadows rail storage yard would not flood was 80–90%.  This sparked pointed comments from host Brian Lehrer, who noted that 10–20% damage probability of billions of dollars in assets should have sparked immediate defensive action; Lehrer asked if you would get on an airplane if there was “only” a 10% chance of a crash.  Hinds noted that other agencies, such as Metro-North Railroad, used the same computer software to estimate storm impact, but seemed to have prepared their strategies in advance and did not input possibly faulty data into the software.  A U.S. Weather Service expert was brought in; he commented that the numbers used to predict the course of the storm, including its course and forward speed, were completely wrong.  Hinds and Lehrer also discussed possible political impacts on NJT’s actions: Hinds noted that planning for environmental disaster might not be a wise course in an organization that works for N.J. Gov. Christie, who has slashed funding for environmental preparedness.  She also noted that the relationship between NJT Director Weinstein and his boss, NJ Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, was frosty: “They don’t get along at all.”  Finally, she noted that although Gov. Christie has been getting high marks for the overall New Jersey response to the storm, there has been little public discussion of the experience of NJ Transit, which is part of Gov. Christie’s responsibilities.

Following legal action by The Record, NJT did release part of their storm planning document.  Apparently it was a very slim plan, nothing like the more comprehensive plans created by other railroads, which had much better experiences when Sandy struck.

“Gateway” Project Gains Traction

Increasingly, transportation experts and politicians are getting behind a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel plan, the so-called Gateway project, according to Steve Strunsky, reporting in the Star-Ledger (June 14). The catchier “Gateway” name isn’t the only advantage over the now-defunct Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, derided as “the stop in Macy’s basement”.  Like ARC, Gateway would double rail capacity into Manhattan by constructing 2 additional trans-Hudson rail tubes, and would also encompass smaller projects, including the Moynihan Station expansion of Penn Station passenger facilities into the main Post Office and replacement of the aging Portal bridge over the Hackensack River.  However unlike ARC, Gateway would be fully integrated into the existing Penn Station.

Amtrak board member Anthony Cosca, speaking at a Regional Plan Association conference, said, “What should be clear is that nobody, nobody is debating that we need this.”  Where the money might come from remains unclear; estimated cost of the project is $13–15 billion, higher than the ARC project estimates.  New Jersey Gov. Christie, who killed the ARC project as an unaffordable cost to NJ taxpayers, has not ruled out support for Gateway.  Amtrak supports the project as essential to eliminate a bottleneck limiting Amtrak’s long-range high-speed rail plans.  If Gateway goes forward, it would take until 2025 to complete the project.  NJ State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson said that Gov. Christie would be fully briefed on Gateway; “We’ll see where it goes,” Simpson said.

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)

New York Studies Extending No. 7 Subway to Secaucus

According to the New York Times, since the demise of the ARC tunnel project, New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has been studying extending the No. 7 subway line under the Hudson to connect with NJ Transit at Secaucus.  This would expand the regional transportation system and alleviate much of the overcrowding expected on NJT trains in coming years.  It would also give NJT riders direct access to the East Side of Manhattan, Queens, and the entire New York subway system.  Writing in the Times on November 16, Charles Bagli and Nicholas Confessore report that the subway extension would be much simpler than the ARC tunnel, since the No. 7 subway extension to 34th Street and 11th Avenue is already planned, and further extension would not require condemnation proceedings or extensive tunneling under Manhattan; the already-planned extension will end just one block from the waterfront.  It is reported that New Jersey Gov. Christie’s office is interested to hear more about the plan.  Although the plan would face formidable hurdles, it is thought that some of the preliminary work done for the ARC tunnel, including environmental impact statements, could be used to expedite planning and approvals.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that regional planning for an integrated transportation system is essential, and welcomes proposals such as the No. 7 extension, which might well form a useful part of an integrated commuter, rapid transit, and intercity rail infrastructure.

FTA Sends Bill to NJT

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has sent a bill to New Jersey Transit for $271 million for money advanced to the agency for work on the ARC Project, which Gov. Christie scrapped last month.
NJT Executive Director James Weinstein disputed the bill and also said that there will not be a fare increase to raise money to pay it.
Lackawanna Coalition Techical Director Joseph M. Clift said that, while NJT has sunk costs of about $600 million on the project, that is better than incurring billions of dollars of debt that New Jersey would have to pay in the future.
The Lackawanna Coalition and other rider advocacy organizatios continue to advocate for the Moynihan/Penn Station First alternative, which would bring new tunnels to the existing Penn Station with enhancements to improve station capacity.

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.