Aging Infrastructure Blamed for NJT Delays

Aging infrastructure, and the lack of cash to fix it, particularly on the Northeast Corridor, are cited as a main cause of service delays on NJ Transit, according to reporting by Karen Rouse and Dave Sheingold of The Record (reported in the Star-Ledger,  August 8).  An NEC commuter is quoted as saying that conductors frequently blame signal problems, and Amtrak (which owns and maintains the Northeast Corridor track) as the cause of delays.

The Record (newspaper) analyzed operating records from 2002 to 2012 in the study, which showed that the NEC had the worst on-time performance, 91.7%.  In contrast, the Main/Bergen and Pascack Valley Lines, which do not connect physically with the Northeast Corridor, posted the best performance: about 97.5% for both.  Morning rush hour is the worst time to ride the trains, with 1 in 12 delayed; the evening is better, with 1 in 18, and off-peak best of all, with 1 in 24 delayed.  The study noted the difference between operating and capital funding: NJT sends Amtrak about $70 million a year for operating costs, but its contribution to capital projects remains stuck near 1996 levels: $55 million was spent in the past year; $50 million in 1996.  Amtrak notes that there has not been significant funding increases from Congress since 1976.

Also, while track and signal problems are a significant cause of delays, bad rolling stuck (locomotives and rail cars) are actually the leading cause of delays.  Dispatching delays, when Amtrak and NJT trains compete for scarce track space, also are significant.  Key infrastructure components at risk include the power system that supplies the signals, and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, over which all NJT trains to Manhattan must pass; the bridge is 100 years old, dating from the original Penn Station, and Portal failures accounted for roughly 75 NJT train delays last year.  Additional delays occur when the bridge must be opened for marine traffic, and trains must travel at reduced speeds over the span at all times.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure conditions have reached a critical point, especially on the Northeast Corridor, and must be addressed immediately; replacement of the Portal Bridge is an essential component of any plan going forward.

Use It or Lose It?

From our September/October 2010 Railgram newsletter 

How the ARC Project Can Be “Right-sized” into the Moynihan/Penn Station First Alternative

Can the currently planned Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, which would build a dead-end deep-cavern terminal 20 stories (181’) beneath 34th Street in Manhattan, be right-sized into rail advocates’ Moynihan/Penn Station First alternative, which brings the new ARC trans-Hudson tunnels into an expanded and improved existing Penn Station without fear of losing up to $3 billion in federal New Starts Program funds?  The unequivocal answer is Yes!  In fact, the only way to guarantee receiving these funds is to change the ARC project to this lower-cost alternative.

One of my advocate colleagues told me of a conversation he had with a local New Jersey official who said he believes NJ Transit should build the proposed deep-cavern terminal, “because there is money available for it, and building the project as proposed would be better than losing the potential funding.”  I was asked to refute that argument, and this op-ed is my answer.

First, there is not enough money for the ARC project at its current $10.4 billion total price tag (which includes the cost of the Portal Bridge Project): the state’s depleted capital funding coffers have even made it impossible to guarantee to the satisfaction of the federal government that the New Jersey share of the ARC project—$4 billion—will be available when needed.  To date, the state has not been given a guarantee of receiving New Starts funds, called a Full Funding Grant Agreement.

If the state were able to get a federal guarantee of funds and moved forward with the current ARC project based on the “Use it, or Lose it” philosophy of government spending, New Jersey would quickly find itself in the position New York State finds itself in today with the similarly sized East Side Access project for the Long Island Rail Road: forced to fund a mega-project at the expense of a multitude of other capital projects—stealing from Peter’s, Jane’s and who knows who else’s worthy projects to pay for Paul’s single megaproject.

This “crowding-out” process is already underway, with $147 million of the $600 million in Transportation Trust Fund dollars appropriated for NJT capital projects in the current State budget committed to ARC and its sister Portal Bridge project, despite past assurances that the ARC project would be funded “. . . without a single Trust Fund dollar.”  There can be no doubt that other transit capital projects were deferred or cancelled to provide this $147 million.

Second, the best way to guarantee receiving federal funds is bring the cost of the project down to a price New Jersey can demonstrate that it can afford.  That is exactly what the Moynihan/Penn Station First alternative accomplishes, reducing the total cost and local share of the project by $3 billion or more.  That brings the local share down to $1 billion, less than the $1.25 billion in funds from the issuance of New Jersey Turnpike Authority bonds committed to the project.

Obtaining a federal guarantee of New Starts funding would no longer be blocked by New Jersey’s inability to guarantee its share, and the “crowding out” problem is eliminated.

To repeat my initial statement for emphasis, “The only way to guarantee receiving up to $3 billion in federal New Starts Program funds for the ARC project is to change from the current $10.4 billion dead-end deep-cavern plan to the $3 billion cheaper rail advocates’ Moynihan/Penn Station First expanded/improved existing Penn Station alternative.”

Joseph M. Clift is Chair of the Technical Committee of the Lackawanna Coalition and served as Diector of Planning for the Long Island Rail Road.