Sandy an Opportunity to Refocus New Jersey’s Transportation Priorities

New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure got hit so hard by Superstorm Sandy that three weeks after the storm, the state is still reeling from the impacts.  The devastation delivers a key message–sustainable transportation investment and policies are needed to weather the next storm.  The damage in New Jersey received national attention:  roads and bridges were swept away, major rail electrical substations were flooded, transit capacity was reduced to one cross Hudson rail tunnel, PATH service remains largely underwater, and the North Jersey Coastline service was suspended for three weeks because of damaged tracks and weakened bridges.

The storm damaged 261 NJTransit rail cars and 63 locomotives.  NJTransit had so few buses to compensate for lost rail service that they borrowed over 400 buses from USDOT, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and the Delaware Department of Transportation.  While New Jersey will need to look at incorporating climate considerations in future infrastructure design and maintenance plans, much can be done by simply re-prioritizing how the state spends its transportation dollars.

Greater Emphasis on Existing Road and Bridge Infrastructure

Even before the storm, 50% of New Jersey’s roads were identified as deficient and over 200 bridges as structurally deficient. But instead of pursuing a broad fix-it-first strategy, NJDOT is spending more on new road capacity projects according to Tri-State’s analysis of the agency’s 2013 Capital Program.  New Jersey must return to the policies that emphasized fix-it-first and made it a national model for sustainable transportation policy. Vulnerability assessments and resiliency upgrades for extreme weather events must also be incorporated into fix-it-first goals.

More Bicycle and Pedestrian Investment

The state must do even more to promote cycling and walking as viable transportation options in the state.  In the days after the storm, New York City saw a 150% increase in cycling, largely because of the safe cycling infrastructure improvements made by NYCDOT over the past few years.  New Jersey must do the same.

Modernizing Transit Infrastructure

More must be done to create resiliency and redundancy in the state’s transit system.  The Access to the Region’s Core project, which Governor Christie cancelled in late 2010, would have doubled NJ Transit’s cross Hudson capacity providing an alternative tunnel into New York City.  Similar projects, like Gateway, must be fast-tracked to ensure rail access between New York and New Jersey is not cut off in the future.  With 80% of NJTransit trains utilizing the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor, the agency must work with Amtrak to bring the corridor into a state of good repair as NJDOT Commissioner and NJTransit Chairman Jim Simpson proposed this past March. Additionally, buses, which carry more passengers each weekday across the Hudson River than rail, deserve greater priority. Creating a New Jersey-bound exclusive bus lane in the Lincoln Tunnel during evening rush hours, modeled after the successful morning peak exclusive bus lane into NYC, is one way to improve bus service.

Finding the Funding

New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund continues to be overburdened by debt, and a historical political unwillingness to identify new and stable revenue sources remains the biggest roadblock to a healthy transportation system in New Jersey. Governor Christie has rightly called on the federal government to help rebuild New Jersey in the aftermath of Sandy, but he remains steadfast against increasing the state’s gas tax to pay for the costs of New Jersey’s roads and mass transit in the future.  To effectively upgrade New Jersey’s transportation system to address the challenges of the climate change while also putting the state’s economy back on track, New Jersey’s elected officials will need to muster the political courage to make the difficult funding choices that have been put off for too long.

2 Comments on "Sandy an Opportunity to Refocus New Jersey’s Transportation Priorities"

  1. Rob Durchola | November 22, 2012 at 6:54 pm |

    I would like to comment on an item in your post above.

    You wrote that “NJ Transit had so few buses to compensate for lost rail service…”. Your tone suggested that this was a shortcoming by NJ Transit. However, it would be unrealistic to expect NJ Transit to maintain a reserve fleet to cover such a massive outage of its rail services and PATH’s services, also.

    Federal guidelines (which cover the use of federal funds in purchasing buses by transit systems) calls for spare buses to represent about 15% of the peak bus need. NJ Transit’s bus fleet (from its website) is slightly over 2,000 buses. Thus, its peak need is less than 1800 buses and there are about 270 spare buses scattered all over the state.

    Nor does this mean that all such buses are available in an emergency. Some buses may be undergoing a major overhaul or need repair after an accident. This probably means that NJ Transit had about 200 buses to devote to emergency service, assuming it had enough operators available (overtime on a work day, coming in on a day off) to drive them. (Federal rules limit the number of hours per day and in an eight day period bus operators can drive.) Two hundred buses is grossly insufficient to cover all of the rail service that was not operating in Sandy’s aftermath.

    Private bus operators in the state undoubtedly helped. Coach USA and Academy are two of the largest charter operators in the nation. As this is not peak charter bus season, they deployed some of their buses. And, when systems like SEPTA contributed “spare” buses (and operators?) from their pool, and as rail lines came back into service, the situation improved further.

  2. This seems to be glossing over the negligence of NJ Transit in leaving major portions of its rolling stock in the Meadowlands Railyard in a swamp projected to flood and Hoboken just above the Hudson River also projected to flood. This demands an investigation and probably both Jim Simpson head of NJ DOT and Jim Weinstein, head of NJ Transit should be fired.
    Interestingly although Jim Simpson is Chair of the NJ Transit Board, his DOT answered my queries about when Rails or at least parallel buses would be restored for local towns by saying it was none of their jurisdiction!
    The NJ DOT has nothing to say about the most important Green Transit provider in New Jersey for the 21st Century?

    Living out on the M&E and being friends with a bunch of Rail riders, the other critical lesson of this storm was how critical Rail is to New Jersey Transit and also how critical frequent service to Hoboken is to handling the load. Forced to only ride Midtown Direct NY Penn trains these trains are now crammed to the gills leaving Penn Station with not only every seat filled but the aisles as well. Buses can NOT make up this load. I see packed buses arrive and leave Summit to make up for the loss of the Gladstone branch. Rail riders who tried the buses returned to the packed Rails after 2 1/2 hour ordeals.

    We need to think more boldly in the wake of this storm. Why not put either LightRail, Rail or extend the C Subway line across the lower level of the GW Bridge as was originally planned for decades ago before Robert Moses squashed it? That provides an alternate route for thousands of people even if tunnels are flooded without thousands of cars and has far less Capital costs then new tunnels or bridges.

    Why are we wasting $5 Billion on an Autos-only new Tappan Zee bridge instead of building Rail or LightRail FIRST! Bus Rapid Transit as advocated by the Tristate Coalition does NOT scale or work as effectively or cheaply as Rail in the long run but of course more Auto lanes will accomplish nothing. If we are serious about Global Warming which was probably a contributor to this storm then we need to get serious about not only ending endless Auto Addiction expansion but also converting roadways to Railways from the Tappan Zee to I87/287 to a new $384 Million Autos only bridge to Long Beach Island. NO bridges should be built or overhauled without adding Rail, bicycle lanes and pedestrian access.
    France is quadrupling its already extensive LightRail systems and adding them to every city over 100,000 as well as expanding their intercity Rail.
    Even previously auto-addicted California is finally investing billions for Hi Speed Rail and restoring the LA trolleys auto-less transit.

    We are fortunate to already have Rails but are wasting them with peak hours only service. If our Region does not support the Green Transit transition now, we will fall behind as Peak Oil prices continue to rise and the world is increasingly devastated by Autos greenhouse emissions.

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