Why Super Bowl Transit Math Didn't Add Up

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Crowds at Secaucus Junction waiting to board a NJ Transit train to the Meadowlands for Super Bowl 48

The Monday morning quarterbacking of New Jersey Transit's game day performance has stretched into the week.

Despite billing the game early on as the "first mass transit Super Bowl," officials seemed caught off guard by the numbers of people who took the train to the game. The NFL had estimated that NJ Transit's Secaucus-to-the-Meadowlands rail link would take 16,000 people to and from MetLife stadium. It wound up taking 29,000 people there and 34,000 home, leading to huge crowds and long waits to board the train.

One reason behind the disconnect: many more people bought parking permits and seats on shuttle buses than actually used them — about 18,000 people, all of whom moved over to rail.

At the end of the night, NJ Transit wound up deploying buses to get people home, which led some transportation experts to wonder: why not use a combination of rail and bus from the get go? Especially since the stadium is just minutes away from the Lincoln Tunnel, with its dedicated bus lane capable of getting tens of thousands of people into the city each hour.

"If you're looking at rail, it's our most underserved facility," said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association. "You look at Citi Field, Arthur Ashe, Yankees Stadium, the Prudential Center — they all have pretty robust transit options around them, in many cases multiple transit options. Whereas the Meadowlands was designed as more of a car-centric facility."

NJ Transit says the answer lies with security: that the federal Transportation Security Administration had wanted just one screening checkpoint, and that was in Secaucus.

Whatever the reason, some New Jersey legislators want to get to the bottom of the problem. Assemblyman John Wisniewski says it's important to figure out what went wrong — and to stop it from happening again.

"Insofar as state of New Jersey is concerned," he said, "people who came to New Jersey for this event — if they were on trains, they left going 'never again,' and that’s not good for us."

But Wisniewski wasn't ready to throw NJ Transit under the proverbial bus. "I don't want to prejudge Transit on this," he said. "The NFL may be the reason this didn't work. It could be bad planning by New Jersey Transit. I'd like to get more details. But clearly we ought to use this as a learning experience."

New Jersey Transit says it was tasked with moving people to and from the Super Bowl, and that's what it did. "We safely moved in upwards of 13-14,000 customers per hour to and from MetLife Stadium. We fulfilled our obligation to transport our customers safely to their final destinations," said an emailed statement from NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder. 

The NFL says if the Super Bowl is ever held here again, it would consider adding more buses to the transit equation. Eric Grubman, an executive vice president for the NFL said, “The first question we would ask is, ‘How do we plan for moving that many more people through Secaucus Junction?,’ and ‘How do we plan for multiple backups of buses?’"

"Next time," he added, "we’ll have lots of plans for all the things we can’t control and can’t anticipate, related to transit.”