Resolved: We Call for Permanent Federal Operating Support for Transit

At a meeting of the Lackawanna Coalition held at Millburn, New Jersey and by telephone conference on October 25, 2021, the following resolution was adopted:

WHEREAS the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant changes in travel patterns in the United States, including reduced commuting on New Jersey Transit (NJT) and similar railroads that formerly served large numbers of commuters, and reduced use of transit generally; and

Many transit providers, including NJT and New York’s MTA, have been hard-hit financially by these recent reductions in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic since March, 2020; and

Transit continues to provide a vital service by providing mobility for persons who do not have convenient access to an automobile for whatever reason, as well as for persons in metropolitan areas, including those in New Jersey, who choose to use it to fulfill their mobility needs; and

Federal support for transit has historically been limited to financial assistance for capital projects only, with no provision for operating support, and only recent COVID-19 relief legislation has permitted federal operating support for transit on a temporary basis; and

Attracting riders to transit, supporting struggling transit systems nationwide, getting people out of their automobiles and consequent environmental benefits, like fighting the effects of climate change, can happen only if transit agencies receive enough operating support to provide sufficient service; and

It is widely expected that mobility needs will increase as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic; necessitating increases in transit service to provide mobility for riders who need it; and

It is also widely expected that revenue from riders will not be sufficient to provide the needed level of mobility on transit; and that such insufficiency could become a situation of long duration; and

WHEREAS the Lackawanna Coalition desires to improve mobility on transit both for motorists who choose to use transit and for non-motorists who depend on it for all of their mobility: it is hereby

RESOLVED that the Lackawanna Coalition calls for current statutory provisions allowing federal operating assistance for transit be made permanent; and it is

FURTHER RESOLVED that sufficient funds be authorized for maintaining the existing level of transit service, expansion of transit service as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, and permanent operation of transit systems to provide the levels of mobility for all riders in the future.

Commuting Will Not Be the Same as It Was before COVID

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has brought many changes to this country and the world at large.  One change is having an effect on major metropolitan areas such as New York (including New Jersey), Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago: a potentially momentous change in commuting habits.  Until the virus hit, millions of commuters would get on a train early in the morning and head to their offices five days a week, only to return home by the same route late in the afternoon or sometime in the evening.

Now, after long lockouts, many white-collar workers still have more flexible working arrangements: some employees are going into the office less often than five days a week, and some are working “remotely” from home all the time.  Has commuting changed forever?  That appears likely: it seems highly probable that at least some former commuters will go into the office less often than in the past, and not all will run every day to catch the 8:02.

Earlier this year, I wrote extensively about changes in commuting for Railway Age, on their Web site, www.railwayage.com, in a 3-part series headlined Commuting Post-COVID.  Some former commuters will return to the old routine, but others will make the trip less frequently, or at different times.  Transit agencies such as NJ Transit must be prepared for change, if they are going to survive and serve their riders well into the future.

That will require innovative thinking and action.  Boston’s MBTA has essentially gotten rid of its old “peak-hour” schedule and replaced it with more-frequent trains during the midday on weekdays.  Metrolink in Los Angeles has a new fare that features discounted rides for one or two trips per week. NJ Transit’s FlexPass is similar.

Technology is changing, and riders’ needs are changing, too.  Former “commuter railroads” must now become full-time railroads, offering frequent service throughout the day, when people now want it.  The world is changing, and includes our metropolitan area in New Jersey and New York.  We advocates have been thinking about what sort of changes are coming and how to respond effectively to those changes.  We have been urging NJ Transit and other providers to do the same, and we also urge you to think about your future travel needs and how NJ Transit and other agencies can best fulfill them.

Note: As the Railgram goes to press, NJ Transit has announced new rail schedules effective November 14 with expanded service both during and outside peak hours. We have some thoughts on those changes; look for them soon on another post on this site.

Report from the Chair, Nov./Dec. 2021

At the October NJ Transit board meeting, I commented on the difficulty of finding information on agenda items in order to make meaningful comments. In previous administrations, the final written agenda included a lot more detail on action items.

As I looked over the packed agenda, there were items on which I had questions. I called our former technical director, current member Joe Clift, to get some answers. He also had questions, so together we hit the website. We looked for details on such items as the 8-electric-bus purchase for the Camden pilot project, and realized that we had seen some of these before—NJ Transit’s Capital Plan would have details. We found the documents: many pages, with no index or page numbers, but background material on action items to help us evaluate the projects.

Some of that material was encouraging: yes, the garage had been retrofitted with chargers; the pilot program was progressing logically. Other pages brought up new questions: What is the true extent of the Walter Rand renovation? Different diagrams showed different areas, none including the current location of the light-rail station, though intermodal accommodation of 3 transit modes was mentioned. We never did find an expected total cost for that project.

It took hours to find this material, yet clearly a lot of work went into those original documents. It would be easy to include links to those documents, or even copies of the relevant pages, in the final board agenda. Thus, I asked the board to include links to relevant, previously published project pages in future agendas. I was pleased that Board Member Adams expressed his support of the idea—time will tell if it is implemented. We have appreciated Mr. Adams’ tenure on the board, raising questions asking for details, even voting No on occasion. In fact, we have heard more from new board members in the past few years than we had for quite some time. We look forward to the remaining vacancies being filled with individuals dedicated to good governance.

NJT Board Members: Wake Up!

Portal North Bridge Is Out of Money Already!

Stop the presses, NJ Transit Board members, please wake up! The $1.56 billion Portal North Bridge construction contract you approved unanimously at a special meeting last Oct. 12 is a whopping $340 million (28%) over the $1.22 billion contract cost in the PNB Project capital budget! The entire Project Capital Cost is now higher than any amount anticipated by either NJT or the Federal Transit Administration, $32 million over the $1.96 billion identified as the worst case imaginable for which 20% cost overrun funds were identified. In effect, the PNB Project capital budget is out of money before the first spade is turned.

The $1.80 billion FTA-defined PNB “Total Project Cost” NJT submitted to the FTA in September 2020 increased to $1.90 billion (never shared by NJT) with the signing of the Full Funding Grant Agreement contract by FTA and NJT officials last January and has now blown up to an amazing $2.20 billion, without a peep from NJT! The increased cost will require $1.1 billion in New Jersey-controlled funds—not a single dollar from New York!—for this replacement of the Amtrak-owned Portal Bridge.

Board members: were you made aware of this dire financial situation before the Board meeting? If you were made aware, why did no one at the special Board meeting bother to mention the budget-busting overrun, explain how it would be paid for, and list the projects from which the overrun money would come from? If you were not made aware, what are you going to do about this failure of NJT staff to inform you of critically important facts that would likely have changed your approval vote? When will the FTA be informed? Isn’t it time for you, the Board, to stop this over-scoped, incredibly expensive project and investigate more cost-effective alternative designs?

None of this critically important information was provided to the public by NJT before or after the special Board meeting—not even a hint!—and has had to be rooted out of other documents. Regrettably, these facts were not identified until recently, weeks after Board approval of the contract.

Coalition Calls for Federal Aid for Transit

At our October meeting, the Coalition passed a resolution calling on Congress to continue the recent practice of providing federal operating assistance for transit providers. Transit agencies have received aid from the Department of Transportation in the form of grants for capital projects over the years, but few federal dollars have customarily been available for operations.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus changed that by severely altering ridership patterns on transit. There have been far fewer 5-day-a-week commuters heading toward New York City every morning on NJ Transit, although ridership is now increasing. At other times, especially on weekends, ridership is near pre-COVID levels on the trains. Still, the recent downturn in ridership has left a large hole in the fare-box revenue that every transit provider needs to pay the bills and keep the trains, buses, and light rail going.

Since the virus hit, Congress has approved operating grants for transit, but they are considered part of the COVID-19 relief legislation. In other words, they are designed to be temporary, during the pandemic emergency.

The Coalition resolution cites the particular situations that NJ Transit and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) are facing, but essentially every transit provider is feeling the crunch. The resolution also stresses the importance of transit in providing essential transportation for persons who depend on it, as well as a convenient available alternative for motorists.

Secaucus to Meadowlands Transitway

At the added August board meeting, a concept/design contract for this project, which began in April with an Innovation Challenge. The goal is to improve transit between Secaucus Junction and the Meadowlands complex. We question spending $3.5 million for the study—for that, we could surely have weekend service to Montclair State!—but given the approval, hope that they are actually investigating real needs, not unverified corporate allegations; that they consider using assets they already have—rail lines, primarily—and that the private entities that are looking for more options for employees and customers alike will be asked to contribute to the cost. We understand that there are contractual obligations, but they are very unclear, and we hope that the board insists on realistic cost projections and funding plans before going any further with this project.

Resolved: 2 Statements from the Coalition

Our August meeting was productive; we had been talking about a few issues on which we were able to come to resolution, and we approved two statements:

Regional Fare Cards: Not So Fast!

We are concerned about recent suggestions to have NJ Transit accept regional fare cards, despite the convenience for most riders, as we have yet to see one implemented in a manner that allows senior citizens to their federally-mandated discounts without preregistration. Conditions of federal funding requires that seniors with proper ID need only present theieRr document (Medicare card, usually, with photo ID if requested).

Greenway?

Our open letter to the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) suggests that the plan for Norfolk Southern to sell its right of way on the former Lower Greenwood Lake line to Open Space Institute or to private real estate investors is a mistake. We believe that it is imperative to prevent removal of the tracks on the right-of-way, a valuable asset, so that there is the possibility of restoration of freight and/or passenger service. We ask the NJTPA to persuade New Jersey Transit to purchase the right-of-way for future use.

RUN Conference

On Friday, October 15th, from 1 to 5 p.m., the Rail Users’ Network hosts a regional miniconference focussing on Midwestern rail. They hope to host the long-delayed Newark conference in person in Spring 2022, with the Lackawanna Coalition as local advocacy partner and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Association as host. Keep watching for details!

MEET A MEMBER: LC Secretary Daniel Chazin

How I Became Interested in Trains & Rail Transit

It was the passenger service operated on the New York & Long Branch Railroad that was largely responsible for my interest in trains and rail transit.

I grew up in Teaneck, where I still live. I was born in 1951, and passenger service on the West Shore Railroad, which provided service to Teaneck, wasn’t abandoned until 1959. But my father, who then worked in Jersey City, rarely (if ever) rode the West Shore trains, and I have no recollection of ever riding (or even watching) passenger trains on this line.

Continue Reading MEET A MEMBER: LC Secretary Daniel Chazin

Mahwah Celebrates Its Original Station

Take a look at the official seal for the Township of Mahwah. You will see a small yellow building with dark trim, obviously built during an earlier era. It is the town’s original train station, built in 1871, and located near the station in use today. It is easy to see from the train window if you look out the left side of the train, going toward New York State. Mahwah is the last stop in New Jersey, before Suffern.

Continue Reading Mahwah Celebrates Its Original Station