N.J. Transit Rail Reliability Crumbling After Capital-Fund Raids

TRENTON, N.J. (Bloomberg News/TNS) —


New Jersey Transit trains are breaking down more often as Chris Christie continues a tradition of governors diverting money for capital improvements to cover operating costs.

In the 12 months ended June 30, trains went an average 83,815 miles (135,000 km) between failures, the worst performance in at least four years, according to agency figures. The Long Island Rail Road gets more than double that distance, while New York City’s subways travel more than 141,000 miles between breakdowns on average.

As those railroads committed billions of dollars to new equipment, New Jersey Transit tapped its capital account to pay salaries, health benefits and other costs. The moves, by Democratic and Republican governors alike, kept fares level for more than a decade. In recent years, as state and federal transit aid declined, the agency raised fares five times to balance its budget — including twice under the watch of Christie, a second-term Republican running for president. Another increase may be inevitable as costs rise and state contributions drop.

“You’re stealing from Peter to pay Paul and then claiming poverty anyway,” Joseph Clift, 65, a former Long Island Rail Road planning director, said in an interview. “It has grown tremendously under Chris Christie.”

As the governor spends weeks out of state seeking the nomination, residents back home have grown disillusioned as they cope with lagging job growth, an empty roadwork fund and increasing delays on an aging mass-transit system that shuttles residents to lucrative jobs in New York City. In a Dec. 10 Rutgers-Eagleton poll, Christie’s approval fell to a low of 33 percent among registered New Jersey voters.

From the first transfer of $9 million in 1990, New Jersey Transit has lost out on $6.6 billion intended for capital spending. About $2.5 billion — almost 38 percent of the total— was in budgets signed by Christie, 53, who took office in 2010. He has resisted raising New Jersey’s gasoline tax, among the lowest in the U.S., even as the state’s main transportation fund goes broke.

“State and federal funding guidelines have long provided the flexibility to use capital funds to perform critical preventative maintenance on bus and rail rolling stock and other equipment,” Jennifer Nelson, a New Jersey Transit spokeswoman, said by email. Repairs and rehabilitation, she said, keep equipment in good repair and extend assets’ useful life.

Kevin Roberts, Nicole Sizemore and Brian Murray, representing the governor, didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.

Federal data suggest a possible consequence of the budgeting. In 2013 New Jersey Transit reported 179 major mechanical rail failures that prevented the start or completion of a run, according to the National Transit Database. The Long Island Rail Road reported 90 such incidents and Metro-North, serving New York suburbs, 139. The national average was 44, according to data from 23 commuter railroads submitted to the database.

“You don’t need to be a transportation engineer to figure out that if you don’t maintain your equipment, it breaks down and ages a lot more quickly,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat. “You don’t need to be an economist to figure out the toll that takes on growth.”

For commuters, equipment breakdowns are only the most visible of New Jersey Transit’s challenges.

Christie lacks a long-term plan to pay for mass-transit equipment and highway projects beyond June 30, when the $8 billion Transportation Trust Fund exhausts its funding. That also leaves New Jersey without resources to pay its part of Amtrak’s proposed $20 billion Hudson River tunnel and related rail improvements, according to a Moody’s Investors Service Nov. 24 report.

Although New Jersey stands to gain from a doubled rush-hour train capacity, the state “will have to structurally adjust its budget before taking on new project costs,” according to the report by analysts including Baye Larsen. About half the state’s $18.9 billion in debt has financed road and rail projects through the Transportation Trust Fund.

“Absent an increase in revenues or reduction in other spending areas, any increase in appropriations to cover additional debt service or PayGo projects would further pressure the state’s general fund budget,” the report said.

Three months after New Jersey Transit raised fares 9 percent and cut service to help cover a shortfall, riders face the prospect of more frequent breakdowns. For the first four months of the fiscal year that began July 1, the trains traveled 83,421 miles before there was a need for repairs or maintenance — the least in five comparable periods, according to New Jersey Transit data. The calculation is among industry standards measuring reliability.

“Due to the fundamental and dramatic differences between rail systems, one cannot make fair and accurate comparisons between systems, nor would it be an honest comparison for Bloomberg to purport to do so,” Nelson said in an email.

The New Jersey Transit fleet’s average age will climb to 20 years in 2019, oldest in at least nine years. Even in 2020, with a full changeover to the newer, smooth-riding multilevel cars that riders prefer, just 86 percent of passenger vehicles will be 30 years old or less, the agency’s standard for equipment in good repair.

By comparison, more than 70 percent of Long Island’s fleet is less than 15 years old. And while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is 20 years from having defect-free New York City subway stations, 100 percent of its trains have been overhauled or replaced according to its own good-repair plan since 1991.

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