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NJ Transit Chief: We Thought We Had 20 Years to Respond to Climate Change

Monday, December 10, 2012 - 04:08 PM

Hoboken Terminal, flooding during Sandy (photo by accarrino via flickr)

The head of New Jersey Transit dug in his heels on Monday, defending the agency's preparations in advance of Sandy -- and adding it previously thought it would have at least 20 more years to adapt to climate change.

As Transportation Nation reported, critics say there's a direct line between NJ Governor Chris Christie's  inaction on climate change and New Jersey transit’s costly decision to store brand-new trains in low-lying, flood prone rail yards during storm Sandy.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg questioned NJ Transit's decision to park trains in rail yards that flooded during Sandy. But when agency head James Weinstein defended that decision, saying his information indicated an "80 to 90 percent range that no flooding would happen," the questions stopped.

For four days.

At a New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee hearing in Trenton on Monday, Weinstein was asked to retread the steps the agency took to secure its fleet in the face of the oncoming storm -- and explain why it decided not to study the impact of climate change on its rolling stock.

Assemblywoman Linda Stender picked up the issue.  "Back in March," she said, "it was reported that New Jersey Transit declined to have climate change consultants do an analysis -- they were told to skip it."

Not so, Weinstein said.

"Basically, it was a study to determine a study," he said. 'It was sort of the beginning of a process, and I think the response and the decision that as made at that time was  that if we understand the vulnerability of our properties, where we store equipment -- the way you deal with equipment is to move it to places where it's not vulnerable.  So I'm not quite sure what a consultant would have told us, other than ' this facility is in harm's way,  you need to move it out of harm's way.'"

Stender wasn't mollified. "I guess my concern is I don't understand why a decision like that was made," she said, pointing out that other transit agencies were studying the issue. "It really seems to me that was a very bad choice to have skipped something like that."

Weinstein disagreed with that characterization. The agency did the study, he said -- just not all of it.

"We did not skip the study," Weinstein retorted. "We actually executed the study. The only thing we didn't do in that study was an analysis of the actual equipment. We did an analysis, the beginning of an analysis, on the facilities...and the reason that we did that is because if you determine that the Meadowlands Maintenance Facility, for instance, is flood-prone, then.. that informs your decision not to keep equipment there...We actually -- that study is actually complete, I've seen a copy of it, although I confess I have not studied it, but I don't want to leave the impression that we just said 'no, we're not going to do that.' That's not what we did. We did the study; we just concluded that the way you address the equipment problem, the rolling stock problem, is by moving it."

But wouldn't a study show that the facility was vulnerable and the equipment should have been moved, countered Stender?

"Actually, Assemblywoman, that study showed -- concluded -- that we had as much as 20 years to start making -- to adapt to climatological changes that are taking place," said Weinstein, "and I just go back and say this: it was the worst storm in my memory, in our generation, and the reality is that there is no history of flooding at the Meadowlands Maintenance Complex. I know everybody says it's in a flood zone. It's not! The western part of Hoboken Terminal is not in a flood zone. Now, having said that, we are informed. We know now that under circumstances like Sandy that that's going to flood. So we've got to come up with a better idea."

"I would really recommend that ... you revisit that issue," said Stender. "The fact that it happened means that there was a possibility that it could happen and somebody didn't see it."

Later in the hearing, Weinstein said the Meadowlands facility could not be relocated -- "nor frankly do I believe, at least at this point, that there is a necessity to do it. I believe that we can build some resiliency in, and we're going to be looking that those, but frankly, rail yards have been located in that area of our state for well over 100 years."

He said NJ Transit planned to elevate some electrical substations. And, he said, it had learned from Sandy's experience. "I can assure you that we will not be parking equipment at the Meadowlands Maintenance Facility in the face of a similar storm in the near future."

Weinstein  also assured lawmakers NJ Transit wouldn't raise fares to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage it sustained during the storm.  "Absolutely not. There will be no fare increase to cover the costs. We believe all of those costs will be covered by other means -- insurance, FEMA reimbursement. Period."

That assertion was questioned by Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, who sounded incredulous. "You're assuring [us] that there won't be any rate increases, even though the insurance companies -- once they cover your damages -- they're going to hike up your premiums?"

"There will be no fare increases," Weinstein said firmly.

"For how long?" pressed Chivukula. "This is the question the committee - "

"For as long as I am executive director," Weinstein interjected.

"I don't know how long that will be," said Chivukula.

"Nor do I, sir," responded Weinstein, causing the assemblyman to dissolve into laughter.

 

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Comments [4]

Mark Shapp

Through-routing of NJT trains to MNR and LIRR is an excellent concept. However, I'm certain that would not eliminate the need for a maintenance base close to Hoboken Terminal. The only NJT lines that have direct access to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and thus to Penn Sta. NY are the M&E (Dover, Montclair Univ.,Gladstone), Raritan Valley, and the NEC itself (Trenton and North Jersey Coast). That leaves several lines that have to terminate/originate at Hoboken and whose equipment has to layover between runs and be serviced somewhere nearby.

The only MNR line that offers potential for through-routing is the New Haven Line via Amtrak's Hell Gate Bridge Line between Penn Sta. and New Rochelle. Indeed, special trains to/from Meadowlands Stadium from/to Stamford and New Haven are operated during the football season. However, to make those types of operations full-time, many administrative and operational hurdles have to be addressed and overcome.

Through-routing with LIRR looks like a no-brainer on its face but the electric train propulsion systems are not the same. LIRR is third rail-equipped and NJT electric locomotives and self-propelled electric MU cars have no third rail capability. Diesel locomotives cannot be operated through the Hudson and East River Tunnels or through Penn Sta. Itself. New dual-mode(overhead wire/third rail) equipment, as is operated by MNR on the New Haven Line (to Grand Central) would be
needed for that service.

Dec. 29 2012 08:46 AM
Brielle

I sort of agree with the other comment. I have been living in NJ for a while. I still do not understand the transit system. I have been looking for jobs in NJ and with some of the lines still being out because of the storm it has made it much harder.

Dec. 21 2012 11:09 AM
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Dec. 12 2012 02:58 AM
Jeff

If there was through-running of commuter trains from Metro North, LIRR, and NJ Transit, there would be no need for a facility like Meadowlands in the first place ... :\

Dec. 10 2012 08:21 PM

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