NJ Transit Midtown Direct – Back to Square One

Rahway

BY TOM MORAN

Two months ago, a derailment of a NJ Transit train into New York Penn Station highlighted our region’s crumbling infrastructure. While much criticism can be brought to Amtrak, more should be directed to the Christie Administration’s inability or unwillingness to fund NJ Transit. This derailment started a series of problems that is turning into a nightmare for New Jersey commuters. Eight of the 21 tracks in Penn Station are now out of service or under repair, costing over $1 million to taxpayers, and disproportionately affecting those who rely upon NJ Transit’s Morris and Essex Line, New Jersey’s second busiest commuter rail line.

Trenton, under Gov. Christie’s direction, has shown little interest in providing funding for our infrastructure and NJ Transit in particular. Unfortunately, this summer, New Jersey Transit riders will be forced to bear the brunt of Christie’s lack of leadership.

Starting in 1996, Midtown Direct service was designed to save M&E commuters 20 minutes into Manhattan versus transferring to the PATH at Hoboken Terminal. After logistical hiccups in the early years of service, Midtown Direct became reliable and ridership increased on the order of 6.5% per year through 2012. This period of steady improvements marked NJ Transit Rail’s brief golden age, in which the chief concern was how to keep up with demand.

In the background there were signs of trouble. NJ Transit entered into a Northeast Corridor (NEC) Joint Development Program with Amtrak in 2006, committing to contribute at least $45 million per year to capital improvements. NJ Transit funded the program for the first two years, but has failed to meet its obligations since fiscal year 2008. Amtrak is itself chronically underfunded. When Governor Christie lambasts Amtrak for Penn Station’s struggles, he conveniently ignores this. Had NJ Transit maintained its funding of the program, it could have insisted on a higher level of maintenance. But NJ Transit has had many other problems in this period.

Christie is also responsible for pulling out of a project that would have eased congestion and wait times. The ARC Tunnel project, which would have given us a second set of tunnels from New Jersey to the New York Penn Station area, was proposed in 1995 and begun in 2009 after a six-year environmental review. With our existing tunnels at capacity, and ridership on NJ Transit Midtown Direct continuing to grow, two additional tunnels would have been a win for commuters to NYC. Christie claimed to pull out of the ARC Tunnel Project because of potential cost overruns, but the project could have been easily reset to avoid overruns. In fact he chose to redirect the funding to other transportation projects, because of the nearly bankrupt NJ Transportation Trust Fund. As a result commuters will continue to wait for crowded trains.

In addition to pulling out of much needed infrastructure projects, Christie’s Administration has slashed funding for transit by the hundreds of millions. Over the past seven years, the state’s budget for NJ Transit has gone from $345 million to just $33.5, a decrease of 90%. Where is the money now coming from to make sure tracks and trains aren’t falling apart? Commuters and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Increased fares to commuters and $1.2 billion from the Authority still don’t cover the loss in funding, however. This represents just 66% of NJ Transit’s 2009 budgeted value.

This lack of leadership means longer wait times, full cars by 9:00am, frequent equipment failure, and a lack of contemporary safety software. New Jersey deserves a governor and a legislature that will take up the problem of providing consistent funding for NJ Transit. Otherwise, our commuters will just have to continue to sit and wait for real leadership.

Tom Moran is a 25th District Democratic candidate for the Assembly.

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