Ten Years Ago: Hurricane Sandy Devastated Our Transit and More

It has been 10 years since Hurricane Sandy pounded this part of the country, bringing transit in New York City and New Jersey to a standstill. Sandy was one of the worst storms in history, causing $70 billion in damage and killing 233 people in eight countries, from the Caribbean to Canada. Sandy has often been compared to Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005.

Even though Sandy hit the region on Monday, October 29, with barely hurricane strength, the unique configuration and the extreme extent of the region’s damage led local media and even the National Weather Service to dub the extra-tropical cyclone “Superstorm Sandy.” Low-lying areas were particularly hard-hit; among these were the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, the Jersey Shore, and Hoboken, and unexpectedly, some inland areas across the region. Millions were left without power, and millions were left without transit.

Transit Hit Hard

Transit came back in the Philadelphia area within a few days, and the New York subways came back over the course of a week, as did Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. It took longer in New Jersey, as New Jersey Transit (NJT) chronicled in a number of press releases, which can still be found on the NJT website.

Amtrak trains began to return to the Northeast Corridor late in the first week after the storm, and NJT trains to Trenton and on the Raritan Line returned shortly thereafter. The North Jersey Coast Line (NJCL) was devastated, as was much of the Shore. Photos of the line showed small boats and even a freight container washed up onto its track. River Draw, the bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy, was damaged and a replacement bridge is now under construction. The region’s damage was so extensive that county transportation agencies did what they could to provide food and mobility to the seniors and persons with disabilities who needed those services.

During the first few weeks, NJT ran shuttle buses during peak commuting hours from emergency park-and-ride locations to points where riders could get to Manhattan on ferries and PATH trains that had started running again. Later, the buses ran to and from NJT’s train stations.

The Morris & Essex (M&E) line was out of service for two weeks, returning on Monday, November 14. Limited service on the Main/Bergen, Port Jarvis, and Pascack Valley Lines also returned that day. The Montclair-Boonton Line came back two days later. The last line to return to service was the Gladstone Branch, which came back on December 1, after a five-week absence. Full pre-Sandy service did not return until January 14.

Sandy’s Aftermath Still Brings Controversy

One of the most-lasting parts of Sandy’s legacy was the flooding of about 400 pieces of rolling stock (locomotives and railcars) that were left in low-lying yards in Hoboken and the Meadowlands. Some of

that equipment was flooded beyond repair. Today, NJT’s “Sandy Resiliency Program” plans to build new yards for emergency purposes. Advocates question the cost-effectiveness of such projects, claiming that preparedness and good practices could have prevented the loss, noting that losses on the New York side were minimal.

One component of the program is the proposed NJ Transitgrid, which would be fired by natural gas, despite Gov. Murphy’s campaign promise that the state would not build new facilities powered by fossil fuels. Coalition Chairperson Sally Jane Gellert is a member of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, which opposes the project. The controversial Transitgrid is outside the Lackawanna Coalition’s core purview area.

For more-extensive coverage of Sandy’s impact on our region and its transit, see my article, Hurricane Sandy, Ten Years Later , posted on October 27 on the Railway Age website.

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.