- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

ISELIN, N.J. (AP) - Each weekday morning, drivers heading from New Jersey into New York City do battle in one of the most congested metropolitan regions in the country, where the term “rush hour” is a cruel misnomer.

For those who ride the rails to avoid the traffic jams, a different kind of gridlock awaits: overcrowded trains where standing for an hour is not uncommon, and frequent delays due to outdated equipment.

With a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River canceled five years ago and another at least a decade off, and with few options to increase capacity to meet growing population projections, the system will be strained even more before conditions improve.

Before the first dollar is spent on building a new tunnel, commuters are being asked to pay more for rail and bus service beginning next month when New Jersey Transit is expected to approve fare hikes to close a budget gap.

“There’s no magic wand,” said Jamie Fox, the state’s transportation commissioner and the board chairman of New Jersey Transit, the state’s public transit agency. “We need to raise additional revenue, in New Jersey and across the country. We have to get to the point where we spend more on mass transit.”

On a recent Monday morning at New Jersey Transit’s busy Metropark station, roughly the midpoint of the Northeast Corridor line from Trenton to New York, an assembly line of commuters crowded the platform as northbound trains arrived about every 10 or 15 minutes. Some people managed to get seats for the 40- to 50-minute trip into the city, but many departed the station standing in the vestibules between cars.

Steven Fox, 44, of Freehold said he often has to choose between taking a slower train and getting a seat or taking a faster train and standing.

“If it’s a double-decker car or a local train, I can get a seat,” he said. “If it’s an express train, forget it - no way.”

New Jersey Transit has put more than 400 of the double-decker cars into service since 2006. They can hold 15 to 20 percent more people than single-level cars, and have helped alleviate some of the overcrowding.

“They’re improvements, but they’re limited improvements,” said Janna Chemnitz of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a commuter advocacy group. “You’re adding a few more seats to an already crowded train. It’s not going to alleviate problems of frequency or reliability. It’s a comfort improvement, not an efficiency improvement.”

Ankineedu Kosuru, 50, who lives about a mile from the Metropark station, said that while he can usually get a seat by going to the last two cars, reliability is a more pressing issue. He said at least once a week there’s some sort of delay entering or leaving New York.

“I’ve been seeing the same things for the last six or seven years,” he said. “Switch problems, a disabled train in the tunnel, overhead wire problems.”

Those problems often are caused by malfunctions with equipment that dates back to early in the last century. For example, a bridge over the Hackensack River built in 1910 contributed to more than 200 delays from the beginning of 2013 through last July, according to NJ Transit.

Amtrak, which owns the tracks and equipment along the Northeast Corridor, has embarked on a long-range project to update the aging infrastructure, but the work is expected to take years.

The increasingly crowded mass transit system here may be a victim of its own success over the last few decades, as ridership has grown while auto usage has decreased, according to Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization.

Last fall’s announcement by Amtrak that damage from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy will eventually force the closure of one of the two tubes in the existing rail tunnel for a year has prompted doomsday scenarios of thousands more people taking to the already overcrowded roads.

“If you start having extensive delays and an overburdened system, you’re going to see people moving to other options, or perhaps leaving the region altogether,” Barone said.

On the flip side, Fox said he has noticed a greater sense of urgency to push forward plans for a new tunnel into New York since the announcement.

“We need a new tunnel,” Fox said. “There’s only so much capacity we can get through the existing tunnels into New York. We could buy additional bi-level cars, but you can only fit so many things through a tube. Between Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, it’s not limitless.”

Driving still is a last resort for many commuters. About a year ago, circumstances forced Kosuru to drive into Manhattan a few times, an experience he said he wouldn’t want to repeat regularly.

“The stress, the time,” he said. “It’s not even an option.”

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