Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
A report by The Record is contradicting Governor Chris Christie's recent account of why NJ Transit moved hundreds of pieces of rail equipment into a flood zone prior to Sandy. [To listen to an interview with The Record reporter Karen Rouse, click on the audio player above.]
The governor this week blamed that decision on a low-level employee, whom he said made the call with no input or oversight from top managers. But a Record examination of agency emails found at least 15 agency officials knew the trains were headed to the Meadowlands -- a violation of its own hurricane plan -- including NJ Transit chief James Weinstein.
Just prior to Sandy, NJ Transit moved most of its equipment into low-lying rail yards in the Meadowlands. The yards were inundated, and NJ Transit lost almost a third of its fleet, at a cost of $125 million and months of frustrating commutes.
In an email, Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, offered this explanation when asked about the apparent contradiction between the emails and the governor's account: "The individual in question was disciplined within the procedures provided for at NJT. The discipline was related to this individual's particular failure amid the overall transit losses caused by Sandy. The equipment is insured, services were quickly restored in the aftermath, and we have moved on with the experience and lessons learned from an unprecedented storm. There is nothing else to add."
But, as a WNYC/Record investigation has shown, the decision to move the trains into the yards followed years of missed warnings, failures to plan, and lack of coordination under Governor Chris Christie, who has expressed ambivalence about preparing for climate change while repeatedly warning New Jerseyans not to underestimate the dangers of severe storms.
Until now, official response to this blunder has largely stuck to one script: no one could have predicted the severity of the storm, and the yards had never flooded before. But NJ Transit’s miscalculations came even as New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority dived into climate change adaptation preparations.
The MTA had five binders, each about four inches thick, with hurricane preparation plans, which it developed because officials had increasingly grave concerns climate change would lead to more frequent severe storms, threatening billions of dollars in assets.
NJ Transit's plan was three and a half pages. Initially, the agency gave WNYC and The Record copies of the plan with everything but the title blacked out, citing security concerns. But after months of litigation, NJ Transit was forced to release the full plan. Revealed, it seemed more embarrassing than threatening to the agency.
Nowhere did it contain guidelines to move trains to the Meadowlands. The outline called for trains to be moved to several specific locations on higher ground, not the Meadowlands.
This week, Governor Christie added a new wrinkle.
In an editorial board meeting with The Record, when asked whether he had any confidence in Weinstein, Christie said: “A person made a stupid decision that he was supposed to vet up the chain and didn't. 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.”
Governor Christie said the employee was disciplined but couldn't be fired, as a result of civil service rules. But Record reporting found that civil service rules don't apply to NJ Transit.