Chris Christie Has Squeezed the NJ Transit System to Its Breaking Point
Pancho Bernasconi/Getty Images
As investigators sifted through the wreckage at the Hoboken train terminal last week, officials were wary of guessing at exactly what was responsible for a New Jersey Transit train that rammed full speed into the end of its track during Thursday's morning rush hour, killing one person and injuring more than a hundred. But the public quickly zeroed in on one major culprit — the New Jersey state government, which has underfunded NJ Transit, the statewide public bus and train network, for years, leaving its infrastructure vulnerable to the type of accident that happened on Thursday.
Funding for NJ Transit has declined under both Democratic and Republican governors. According to a report by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an organization that promotes mass transit, capital investment into the system has fallen almost 20 percent since 2002, even as ridership has increased by 20 percent, as New Jersey's waterfront becomes populated by professionals who rely on public transit to commute into Manhattan. As investment in the system has decreased, the operating budget has been patched together through fare increases and by raiding other budget items (like the state's clean-energy fund).
The strangulation of the system only worsened under Governor Chris Christie, who has often tied funding for transportation projects to undesirable tax cuts elsewhere, leading to a budget impasse with the state legislature — one that finally ended only in the hours after the crash — over whether to increase the gas tax to pay for necessary roadwork and transportation projects in the state. Christie insisted that the gas tax increase be coupled with huge tax cuts for New Jersey residents, the kind that have already dragged the state into a calamitous amount of debt (the state's credit ratings have been slashed nine times, three times each by three different ratings agencies). In the months that Christie held out for his cuts, New Jersey's roadwork and transit upkeep stopped entirely. NJ Transit wasn't able to buy new buses, and was forced to keep running its old fleet. Over the past two months, two separate bus crashes have killed two and injured dozens.
"You have an incredibly underfunded and malnourished transit system that currently has twelve times the amount of train failures [than] the national average," Janna Chernetz, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's director of New Jersey policy, told the Voice. "There's a lack of leadership at NJ Transit, and with that comes really low morale, from even before the accident."
The agency has been without an appointed executive director since last November, when Veronica Hakim left the agency to work for the MTA. Since then, no public meetings of the transit agency's board have been held. Indeed, in the months before the Hoboken train crash, the agency's safety record had come under review by federal authorities, according to a recent report in the New York Times. Noticing that NJ Transit's safety violations had increased in the absence of permanent leadership, the Federal Railroad Administration audited the system in June — three months before the Hoboken crash.
In the hours after the accident, New Jersey senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker pointed a finger at NJ Transit's slow progress on the installation of Positive Train Control technology, which has the ability to override the instructions of an engineer if a train is going too fast. It's still unclear whether PTC would have been able to prevent last week's accident, but NJ Transit hasn't fully implemented PTC on its trains, telling the Federal Railroad Administration earlier this year that it had made "zero progress" on installing the safety system.
"We're two years away from when this will now be mandated by Congress to ultimately be in implementation, and we're at zeroes across the board. I don't understand that," said Senator Menendez in a press conference in Hoboken on Friday. Menendez voted against an extension to the 2018 implementation deadline that several transit agencies lobbied for, saying that federal money was available to agencies and that they should be using their capital budgets to pay for these safety upgrades.
Service at the Hoboken terminal remains suspended, and there is no timetable for when it will resume. NJ transit told the Voice it hasn't yet estimated how much it will cost to rebuild the station — at press time, the crashed train had not been removed from the station.
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