Here’s Why Your NJ Transit Commute Has Gotten Even Worse
(Bloomberg) -- A New Jersey Transit safety project that’s strangling train service to Manhattan was slowed by years of agency foot-dragging while staff warned of soaring costs and a “negative public reputation,” according to documents obtained by Bloomberg.
Even alarms raised by NJ Transit’s own contractor had little effect, if any, at the nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad. As the cost of the project more than doubled to $320 million, the cash-strapped agency fell behind on rail maintenance, let its ranks of train engineers dwindle and triggered a federal operations audit. Even if NJ Transit makes its Dec. 31 installation deadline, it will take as many as two years to deploy safer trains while the system is tested.
Trapped in mismanagement’s grip are 150,000 New York City-area daily commuters, most enduring decades of declining service, only to see more service cuts and crowding as locomotives are idled during equipment installations. A 10 percent fare discount, NJ Transit’s trade-off for the inconvenience, is no balm for riders who routinely face hours-long tie-ups, scarce seating and out-of-order restrooms, only to miss work meetings and family dinners.
At the same time, a wider crisis is bearing down. Annual funding -- the budget is $3.8 billion for the fiscal year that began July 1 -- is “inadequate, uncertain and unsustainable” after years of declining government aid and capital-to-operating budget transfers, according to a 179-page audit released by Governor Phil Murphy on Oct. 9. A retired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. senior director, Murphy says he’ll find steady revenue, streamline management and follow other audit recommendations to restore the railroad to its former status as a national envy.
Still, his administration has resisted disclosing how the railroad bungled one of its biggest-ever undertakings: installing what’s known as positive train control, a system to prevent collisions and derailments that was mandated by Congress for all U.S. railroads after a series of fatal Amtrak wrecks. The audit that Murphy ordered in January didn’t evaluate the project. And NJ Transit hasn’t released contracts, change orders, status updates and related materials sought by Bloomberg under New Jersey’s public-records law.
“Reach your own conclusions as to what happened,” Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, state transportation commissioner and chairwoman of New Jersey Transit’s board, said at a news conference about the audit on Oct. 9 in Metuchen.
Some of the answers lie in agency records, provided to Bloomberg, that chronicle deep-seated troubles beginning immediately after the contract was awarded in March 2011. The documents were made available on condition that their origin not be identified because their details haven’t been made public.
In a letter dated March 15, 2016, NJ Transit’s contractor, New York-based Parsons Transportation Group, said the agency had faltered on seven project areas by delaying change orders, limiting access to railroad property and altering design plans. Promised drawings, manuals and charts, Parsons “repeatedly made requests” for more than three years, only to be given material of limited use, according to the letter.
The “cumulative effect of these issues has made it impossible to achieve the planned project productivity levels, thus causing damages to Parsons and its subcontractors,” Thomas P. Moore, a Parsons project manager, wrote to an NJ Transit contract specialist. To complete the job, Moore wrote, Parsons needed an additional $49 million and a 39-month extension.
It’s not known whether NJ Transit agreed to the request, because the agency has withheld contract details from public scrutiny. Parsons spokeswoman Maggie LaMar declined to comment about the work, didn’t respond to a request to interview Moore and referred questions to NJ Transit. Moore didn’t respond to a message sent to his LinkedIn account.
Internally, NJ Transit staff backed many of Parsons’ complaints and needs as recently as December 2017, records show. One analysis called for “critical strengthening” of the agency’s stewardship, or risk federal fines and “a negative public reputation” if deadline passed with work still pending.
Jim Smith, NJ Transit’s media relations director, didn’t respond to Bloomberg’s questions on whether the agency showed a lack of urgency to finish, as Parsons claimed, or why the cost grew 106 percent from a March 2011 contract award of $155.6 million.
“In January 2018, the project was at just 12 percent completion -- we are now at more than 74 percent complete,” Smith said in an email. The agency, he said, was working with Parsons and legal counsel on public-records requests, he said, because the documents include “clauses protecting the contractor’s proprietary, technically complex information.”
While NJ Transit was taking heat from its own contractor, publicly the agency gave no hint of strife. In October 2016, records show, Parsons named a new completion target date: September 2019 -- nine months after Congress’s deadline. Still, Richard Hammer, transportation chief under then-Governor Chris Christie, told lawmakers that the project was progressing despite the challenges.
“I want to be crystal clear: New Jersey Transit will meet the 2018 deadline for implementing PTC,” Hammer said on Oct. 21 to a state legislative panel investigating the agency after its first fatal train accident in two decades killed a woman on the Hoboken platform, injured more than 100 people and upended service at that terminal for seven months.
Murphy, almost immediately after taking office in January, said positive train control stood no chance of finishing on time without a serious push, and he committed to the Dec. 31 finish date. Under Christie, the project “received no attention” and the in-house team had numbered five, at most, according to Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the transportation chief. Now 11 full-timers are on the task.
“We have accomplished more in the last eight months than in the previous six years,” said Smith, the transit spokesman.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.