NJT Names New Executive Director

Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim replaced James W. Weinstein as New Jersey Transit’s Executive Director on March 1. She was hired at a special meeting of the NJT Board on Feb. 24, although neither she nor Weinstein were present.  Commissioner James S. Simpson praised her, and advocates hoped for positive changes at NJT.  They included this writer, other members of the Lackawanna Coalition, and members of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP).  Simpson said that Hakim would meet with our organizations soon.  We look forward to the opportunity to express our concerns and suggestions to her, as well as to learn about her plans for NJT and its riders.

Train Delays Top Priority for NJT: Riders

Even as Veronique Hakim waited to be appointed NJ Transit’s new Executive Director, users of the state’s vast public transit system had some early advice for her, according to Larry Higgs, reporting in the Asbury Park Press and other Gannett newspapers: make the trains run on time, and stop the delays that have plagued riders through this winter.  Higgs quoted riders as saying they are “constantly late to my office,” and that service has “gotten worse and worse with the congestion and delays”.

Bus riders echoed similar complaints, and focused on conditions at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, where many NJT buses operate.  Veronica Vanderpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, faulted NJT for not adequately representing its customers with the New Jersey government, both the Legislature and the Governor, in order to obtain adequate funding.  “NJ Transit has credibility problems,” she said.  Some transit advocates welcomed Hakim’s appointment; Vanderpool said Hakim’s experience with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority gives her transit credibility, but “she needs to understand that New Jersey needs different things than New York.” said Phillip Craig, NJ Association of Railroad Passengers vice president.  He is acquainted with Hakim’s work through his prior consulting activities with the MTA.  “I have a great deal of respect for her professional capabilities.  She needs to be an advocate for her passengers and employees.  I liked (outgoing NJT executive director) Jim Weinstein as an individual, but it seems he was caught in a vise between policy coming down from Trenton and the desires of his staff,” Craig said, according to Higgs’ article.

The complete article was formerly at http://www.app.com/article/20140224/NJNEWS/302240017/Job-one-new-NJ-Transit-boss-Make-trains-buses-run-time

Assembly Hearing on Super Bowl Cancelled

A hearing in Trenton on NJ Transit’s controversial performance on Super Bowl Sunday has been cancelled, reportedly  because NJ Transit, the National Football League, and MetLife Stadium refused to cooperate, according to statements by Assembly Transportation Committee chair Assemblyman John Wisniewski and reported by Karen Rouse in The Record newspaper (February 21).  The hearing had been scheduled for Monday, Feb. 24.  Wisniewski had hoped to hear from outgoing NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein about the controversial event, but according to Wisniewski, “I was advised by James Weinstein that he was told he cannot attend the hearing and provide explanations for recent problems suffered by the agency.”  Weinstein had announced his resignation from his post 3 days before.  Wisniewski called the failure of NJ Transit and the other organizations to participate “disappointing” and “an insult to the riders inconvenienced by the many recent problems”; he said he would postpone the hearings until March.

Meanwhile, NJ Transit announced a special meeting of its Board of Directors for 2:30 p.m. on Monday, February 24, to vote to appoint Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim as Weinstein’s successor as Executive Director of the transit agency.

The apparent reluctance of NJ Transit to cooperate with the legislative inquiry has political aspects, as the Assembly is controlled by Democrats, and the management of NJ Transit is controlled by the Republican administration of Gov. Chris Christie.

The full article was formerly available at http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_Assembly_hearing_canceled_Wisniewski_blames_NFL_and_NJ_Transit.html

Hakim Tapped as Weinstein Steps Down

NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein has submitted his resignation and will leave his post by March 2, according to reporting by Karen Rouse in The Record (Feb. 18).  He will be replaced by Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, currently executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.  The transit agency has been controversial since flooding damaged stored rail equipment during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, and further controversy erupted this year over difficulties handling unexpected ridership to the Super Bowl on February 2; in the letter announcing his departure, Weinstein however praised NJT employees for their performance at the Super Bowl event.  The Record had reported 1 day earlier that the resignation was expected.  The Record also is reporting that NJT employee morale is low, with workers complaining about low morale and “favoritism in the upper ranks”, tension between NJT and NJ Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, and a breakdown-prone bus and rail system that is losing the confidence of its customers. Web-site breakdowns and a recent failure to renew NJT’s trademarks add to a sense of unease about the competence of the mammoth transit operating agency.

NJ State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has been critical of Jim Weinstein’s leadership, was quoted by Kate Hinds in the WNYC site Transportation Nation on Hakim’s appointment: ‘I think Ronnie Hakim has had a successful tenure at the Turnpike and is well regarded; I think she’ll make an excellent executive director.  My word of caution: nobody can run that agency without the necessary support from the state budget.” Observers have criticized the state for having diverted money from transit projects to highway maintenance.

Larry Higgs, reporting in the Asbury Park Press, quoted Lackawanna Coalition chair David Peter Alan: “NJ Transit has done very poorly this winter.  They haven’t seemed to be able to cope with the snow.  Sandy was a major contributing factor.  We’ve never been satisfied with the explanation why almost 400 locomotives and cars were left in places that flooded.  On top of that, the Super Bowl didn’t go well.”  Alan also said that the new executive director needs to make changes to NJT’s fare structure, make management changes, and strengthen working relationships with commuter groups.  Alan said that NJT needs to become “more customer-orientated and about moving people (rather) than moving buses and trains.” The new director needs to “come up with something new that gives customers a better experience,” Alan said.

The New York Times (Feb. 18) also covered the story in reporting by Matt Flegenheimer, headlined “Chief of New Jersey Transit to Quit after a Rocky Tenure.”

NY Daily News reporting by Tim O’Connor stressed NJT’s problems in dealing with the customer crush at the Super Bowl; the Daily News had reported that most of 100 buses held in reserve at the Super Bowl never got used.

The Record’s report was formerly at http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_Transit_executive_director_Weinstein_to_step_down.html

The Transportation Nation story is at http://www.wnyc.org/story/njtransit-weinstein/

The Asbury Park Press story was formerly at http://www.app.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/201402182237/NJNEWS/302190022

Previous reporting (Feb. 16) in The Record noted that Weinstein might be on the way out; the article was formerly at http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_Transit_chief_likely_to_answer_for_agencys_key_failures.html

The New York Times story (limited free access):

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/19/nyregion/chief-of-new-jersey-transit-to-quit-after-a-rocky-tenure.html

The Daily News story:

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nj-transit-head-replaced-christie-office-article-1.1618954

NJT Supervisor Nabbed in Bribe Case

Observers and critics of NJ Transit sometimes wonder where all the agency’s budget goes.  In the case of snow removal at the Trenton Transit Center, the answer may  be “into a contract awarded not through competition, but through bribery”. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Nov. 22), the manager of station terminals awarded the contract after the company paid a bribe of $16,000 in October, 2012, to secure it.  Unfortunately for supervisor Donna Schiereck, the money was paid first to another NJT employee, who turned out to be a federal informant.  Schiereck insisted on splitting the money, and she was arrested and appeared in federal court in Newark on Nov. 21.  Schiereck, 56, was a 33-year veteran of NJT and was paid over $79,000 last year.  She retired from her position on November 19.

Christie’s Sandy Remarks Questioned

NJT’s massive loss in Hurricane Sandy was caused by a bad decision by a low-level official, not by reliance on poor storm forecasts.  So said NJ Gov. Chris Christie, as reported by Karen Rouse in The Record newspaper (Oct. 3), after Christie met with The Record’s board that day.  The low-level employee “ditched” a plan that was in place to protect hundreds of cars and locomotives, all without the knowledge of NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein, according to the article’s account of Christie’s comments.

Christie said that the unnamed employee was disciplined internally and not fired; Christie said the employee cannot be fired, as he is protected by Civil Service rules.  However, NJT officials said that NJT is not within the Civil Service system and none of its employees fall under Civil Service rules.  NJT and State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson either had nothing to add or did not return messages on the subject.

The controversy expanded on October 5 as Rouse filed a follow-up article to the effect that NJT internal e-mails show that multiple NJT officials, including Executive Director Jim Weinstein, were well aware of the plans to move equipment to what turned out to be flood-prone areas.  Weinstein has not yet commented on the latest stories, but during the months after the Sandy disaster he has repeatedly stated that the ill-fated plan was unfortunate but deliberate.  This is in apparent conflict with the governor’s assertion at the October 3 meeting with The Record; Christie said “it was a low-level official that made the decision on the cars that you”re talking about, where they were placed. It was a low-level decision that was not vetted up the chain as it was supposed to be vetted up the chain.”

The story continued to have legs; WNYC aired an interview with Ms. Rouse on Monday morning, October 7, in which she recapitulated the details of her investigation and said that NJT has not revealed much about a new storm plan that NJT has promised, other than construction of some new rail yards to store equipment during a future storm.  On October 8, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairperson of the Assembly Transportation Committee, was quoted on a WNYC newscast as announcing hearings to determine just who was responsible for the decision to store equipment in flood-prone areas.

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 – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
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 – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
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 – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf
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 – See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/NJ_TRANSIT.html#sthash.1eVn11jD.dpuf

NJT to Sandbag Critical Facilities

Exploring yet another technology to protect its Meadows Maintenance Facility rail yards in Kearny from possible flooding, NJ Transit has announced its latest effort: sandbags.  Not just any sandbags, these will be pentagon-shaped bags called “TrapBags,” sloped on angles to form a 6-foot-high protective dam around critical electrical facilities, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Sept. 13).  The dam will protect electrical substations and generators; they are a temporary measure while the electrical equipment is raised above anticipated flood levels, which will take 2 to 3 years to complete.  The half-million-dollar sandbag project involves 3100 linear feet of bags and a reported 43,000 tons of sand.  Still, the announcement of the project was another reminder that 87 rail cars and 17 locomotives damaged by flooding in Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, remain out of service.  Other initiatives by NJT to protect its equipment from future flooding include establishment of track sidings and new yards at flood-proof locations.

NJT Secrecy Under Fire

NJ Transit’s methods for settling personal-injury lawsuits and other legal claims against it, as well as managing its insurance program, have come under fire.  According to reporting by Karen Rouse of The Record and reported in the Star-Ledger (Sept. 12), the railroad has not voted in public on such issues in years.  The votes apparently come behind closed doors, despite NJT’s stated goal of transparent operations.  Millions of dollars in expenditures are involved.

The secret votes do not appear in publicly posted minutes, but The Record obtained them through a public-records request.  Even these records obtained were heavily redacted; the amounts involved were often blacked out.  Previously, NJT came under fire for keeping its rail hurricane plan from the public, initially releasing only a blacked-out document.  The actual document was released only after The Record filed a lawsuit to obtain it.  Commenting on the reports of excessive secrecy, an NJT spokesperson said that the agency had recently updated procedures for closed-door sessions, but declined to be specific.

Flood-Proof Yards Make Progress

After Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, NJ Transit belatedly realized that not all of its storage yards for rail equipment are storm-safe, after storm-surge waters flooded yards in Hoboken and the Jersey Meadows and damaged many cars and locomotives in the NJT fleet.  In response to the disaster, the railroad decided to invest in additional “storm-safe” facilities to store equipment, should another storm strike.  The railroad already has some of these facilities in place, according to NJT executive director James Weinstein, quoted in reporting by Larry Higgs in The Record (Sept. 6).  Facilities already ready for use include the Garwood industrial trackage on the Raritan Valley Line and Conrail yard facilities in Linden on the Northeast Corridor, now ready for emergency use.  Geotechnical studies were performed, according to Weinstein, to make sure that the new facilities would not be subject to flooding; NJT came under criticism after the Sandy storm for assuming that the Hoboken and Meadows yards would not flood, since they never had before.  Some forecasters had predicted that they would flood, but NJT relied on other, more optimistic predictions.  Additional storage will be provided by facilities still to be constructed in the New Brunswick and South Brunswick areas, also on the Northeast Corridor.  Meanwhile, repairs of equipment damaged in Sandy continue, with 229 rail cars and locomotives returned to service out of the 343 damaged in the storm.  According to Weinstein, 91% of the rail fleet is available for service:  “There is virtually no impact on service from equipment shortages,” Weinstein said.  Observers note, however, that a number of trains on the Morris &  Essex lines have not returned after the storm, leaving significant gaps in service, which NJT doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge.

Reports: NJT Didn’t Follow Its Own Storm Plan during Sandy

Following the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Transit has put more emphasis on flood-proofing its storage yards.  However, investigative reporting by WNYC and Karen Rouse of the Bergen County Record shows that the agency already had a plan in place to move equipment to higher ground in the event of such a storm, but did not follow this plan during Sandy.

Prepared 4 months before Sandy struck, the storm plan advised transferring commuter rail equipment to several upland sites.  What NJT ended up doing as Sandy bore down was not advocated anywhere in its plan: the agency relocated locomotives and railcars to a low-lying yard near water, resulting in millions of dollars of damage.

By contrast, The Record reported, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) prepared, and followed, a more detailed storm-preparation plan, taking into account the effects of global warming.  The MTA moved much of its equipment to higher ground in advance of Sandy, and lost only 11 railcars as a result.