For the first time in 2 years, the NJ Transit board met in person on April 13, 2022. Much was the same: security check-in, label, escort to the 9th floor—yet there were changes: speaker check-in was done online before the meeting, for both phone and in-person speakers; in person, there was not the usual 2 sign-in sheets, speakers and attendees, but only an attendance sign-in sheet. No stacks of paper; similar reliance on the online agenda. The conduct of the meeting was familiar, and it was nice to see more than the portraits of board members, but to actually see them in person. Joyce Zuczek was missing, but Meghan Umukoro did an excellent job of conducting the meeting. During the public comment period, the main difference came after the in-person speakers: there were a number of people calling in via telephone—a welcome addition.
The March vote by the NJ Transit Board to reject the proposed contracts that would have given Academy Express, LLC, the right to operate several bus lines in Hudson County for the next 3 was historic, and it represented a radical departure from the past 42 years of board practice.
The decision to reject Academy as an operator and instead award the contracts to Coach, USA, marked the first time that the Board had voted against an agenda item of major significance in the agency’s history, dating back to 1979. The vote was unanimous, in keeping with Board custom.
At its April 13 Board meeting, the first “in-person” meeting in more than 2 years, NJT approved a $32.5 million contract for rehabilitating the Roseville Tunnel, located along the former Lackawanna Cutoff right-of-way, west of Port Morris Yard. The project is part of an effort to restore service on 7.3 miles of new track west of Port Morris (less than 8.3% of the former 88-mile line between Port Morris and Scranton), to a 55-space park-and-ride station in Sussex County’s Andover Township.
An NJT press release said, “The Rehabilitation of the Roseville Tunnel is a crucial element in restoring passenger rail service from Port Morris to a new station in Andover,” and touted the eventual return of service to the state’s Northwestern county, but current plans call for a low-capacity station and service during commuting-peak-hours only. The release made no mention of eventual service to Scranton.
Riders on Metro-North’s “West of Hudson” trains on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Line trains lost a friend when Orrin Getz left us on March 21. He was 82. Getz was a member of the Metro-North Commuter Council, representing Rockland and Orange counties in New York State. Metro-North, of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), owns the tracks on the New York side, while NJ Transit operates the trains. Trains to Port Jervis use NJT’s Main or Bergen County Lines between Hoboken and Suffern, N.Y.
This article was written for the Lackawanna Coalition by Ken Dolsky of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, which has been leading the effort to ensure that any new NJ Transit projects use clean, renewable energy as much as possible, in compliance with our state’s new environmental-justice legislation. The views expressed are specifically those of the DGTM Coalition; the Lackawanna Coalition is in alliance with their goals.
NJ TRANSIT plans to build its own power plant in Kearny in order to power selected trains when it loses commercial power, as happened for several days after Hurricane Sandy. NJT has $512M in grant money to build this system. Its original plan was to build a 140MW gas plant. However, in 2020 Governor Murphy directed NJT to redesign the project primarily using renewable energy. NJT spent 2020 “reimagining” the framework for the project and issued an RFP at the end of 2021, which was expected to follow the Governor’s direction. Instead, NJT’s RFP is only requesting a gas plant and appears to have never intended to follow the Governor’s directions.
The RFP requests proposals that utilize fossil fuels now along with an undefined transition to be “carbon neutral” by 2050. The RFP is completely silent as to when this transition would occur or even start. Even assuming this is to be a transition to clean renewable energy, this approach will allow the plant to burn gas for many years.
Unlike its specific design of a gas-based solution, the RFP left the design and specifics of a solar/storage solution completely up to the bidders. It provides no design, no specs, no land, no support for acquiring land and no support for leasing terms and conditions for solar, yet claims to be unbiased. Clearly, NJT stacked the deck in favor of gas.
NJT is not even asking for an initial plan to use renewable energy, as it is likely afraid the renewable energy proposals will be more cost effective than the gas plant. If NJT thinks that solar/storage won’t be viable for its immediate needs, why not solicit full solution bids and be able to prove its premise? The Don’t Gas the Meadowlands (DGTM) Coalition has worked with solar experts and evaluated space for solar near the project and concluded that solar is completely feasible now and will very likely have better long-term financial benefits over a gas plant. All of this information was provided to NJT during 2019 and 2020.
NJT is also hiding behind the Energy Master Plan target date of 2050 to fulfill its commitment to using renewable energy. No NJT document or statement prior to the RFP ever said this could wait until 2050.
NJT’s gas plant will increase NJ GHG emissions by 600,000 million metric tons (MMT) per year, so transitioning to truly renewable energy will only reduce the increase in emissions this plant will have caused. This will do nothing to reduce GHGs by 80% by 2050 as described in the EMP.
There is no reference in the RFP of the need to comply with NJ’s Environmental Justice (EJ) law. Building what would be the 5th fossil fuel power plant in one of the most polluted communities in the country flies in the face of New Jersey’s landmark EJ legislation, S232, which was passed to protect vulnerable residents from facilities such as this.
NJT is spending its one time grant on the wrong technology that will produce the worst results in terms of air quality/health, climate change and financial benefits for NJT. They are purchasing a dead end technology that will decrease in value vs. a technology that will increase in value.
The DGTM Coalition is asking NJT for a clear and compelling explanation for excluding a renewable energy proposal, including an analysis that will allow NJT to compare the long-term financial benefits and costs of owning a gas plant versus owning a renewable energy plant. Assuming no receipt of such an explanation, we are demanding that the RFP require bids on renewable-energy solutions that can be implemented now in order to provide this comparison. At the same time we are asking Governor Murphy to reiterate his 2020 demand for a solution that will maximize the use of renewable energy.
The March meeting of the NJT Board (actually a phone conference, the practice for the 2 years since the COVID-19 virus struck) was dominated by the historic votes to deny Academy Express, LLC, 2 contracts to operate bus routes in Hudson County, and to award them to Coach USA. Even the week-long service disruption on the Morris & Essex and Gladstone lines was not emphasized, perhaps because of the announcement that the trains would run again the next day.
There was an unexpected topic addressed by high-profile speakers during the public comment period: running trains on some restored track on the Lackawanna Cutoff.
Service was suspended on most of the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line, along with the Gladstone Branch, for an entire week, beginning on Monday evening, March 7. A strong storm blew a large tree onto the elevated M&E right-of-way near Jefferson Avenue in Maplewood, between the Maplewood and South Orange stations. It pulled down the overhead wires (“catenary”) that power the trains running on the line and damaged the wires’ supporting structure. On Tuesday, nothing ran anywhere on either the M&E or the Gladstone Branch. By Wednesday, hourly service (different from and slower than normal) had been established between South Orange and New York Penn Station. However, there was no service at all—not even limited diesel service—past South Orange.
The vote by the NJ Transit Board to reject the pro-posed contracts that would have given Academy Express, LLC, the right to operate several bus lines in Hudson County for the next 3 years was historic, and it represented a radical departure from the past 42 years of Board practice.
The decision to reject the 2 contracts to Academy as an operator and instead award the contracts to Coach USA marked the first time that the NJ Transit board had voted against an agenda item of major significance in the agency’s history, dating back to 1979. It also marked the first time that such a negative vote was unanimous, although approvals almost always are.
We are pleased to note that the April board meeting will be held live on Wednesday morning, April 13th, at 9 a.m., at NJ Transit headquarters in Newark—for the first time in more than 2 years. Since March 2020, all meetings have been by phone—and without even live-streamed presentations of the A number of people requested that the call-in option be maintained. Commissioner Gutierrez-Scaccetti stated that in fact the call-in option will be continued, as it has proven quite popular, opening up participation to many who found travel difficult for various reasons. We hope that members of the public who make the effort to attend in person will have their full 5 minutes to be heard. In any case, it will be good to chat in person and to once again have the new board room used to its full capacity, presentations and all!