New Jersey's transportation infrastructure is in crisis. New Jersey Transit told Businessweek that 257 rail cars and 65 engines (23% and 35% of the total, respectively) were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Some of the rail lines were washed out, or blocked with boats and shipping containers. Hoboken Terminal and the PATH train, which connect New Jersey Transit passengers with lower Manhattan, were flooded. The state is in the midst of a gasoline shortage. They needed a plan.
Unfortunately, the emergency plan that New Jersey Transit came up with was horrible. They borrowed 31 buses from SEPTA and are getting another 350 from around the country. They chose eight park-and-ride lots around the northern half of the state, and set up buses to take people from these lots to the ferries and the Holland Tunnel, twenty in the morning and twenty in the evening from each lot. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot, actually. Turns out that even people who had gas in their cars didn't want to waste it driving to some park-and-ride and back. They probably also didn't want to have their car stuck at some park-and-ride out by the highway with no bus to get them to it, if they had to go home in the middle of the day or late at night. They wanted to walk to the bus, so that's what they tried to do. In towns across the metro area, including Montclair, South Orange, Hoboken and Woodbridge, people waited up to 90 minutes to board packed buses bound for Manhattan. There was only one lane open for buses in the Holland Tunnel, and the usual one-lane XBL in the Lincoln Tunnel, limiting the total number of buses that could cross the Hudson. Many of those who did take the park-and-ride buses were dropped off at ferry terminals, where there was another wait for a boat.
In the ultimate craziness, after trains from Woodbridge attracted unmanageable crowds, New Jersey Transit simply cancelled the service and told everyone to drive to Metropark to catch a Northeast Corridor train. And, you know, let them eat cake on the way.
The commute home was similarly frustrated. The Port Authority Bus Terminal was packed with commuters - first waiting for buses, then waiting to buy bus tickets, finally waiting just to get into the terminal.
As I write this at 9:30 PM, many people are still at the terminal waiting for buses. Some of them are afraid that at a certain point New Jersey Transit will stop running buses. I'll update this when that part of the saga is over.
The problems in the morning rush attracted some attention from the media. First, WNYC reporter Nancy Solomon discussed the long lines at South Orange. (I've been trying to find that report online, but haven't been able to.) Then it got mentioned by Wall Street Journal bloggers and Capital New York.
In the afternoon, New Jersey Transit released a revised plan for tomorrow. "Buses that were used in emergency service at Bridgewater, Woodbridge and Willowbrook Mall, as well as Newark Liberty International Airport have been redeployed to ease crowding on buses traveling through South Orange, Jersey City, Hoboken and Newark, to New York, the agency said." In other words, there were nowhere near as many cars in the park-and-rides as the planners expected, and a lot more people at the walkable bus stops.
We'll see tomorrow how much better the revised plan is. In the meantime, can we all agree that this shows the utter bankruptcy of the standard park-and-ride mentality that still preoccupies transit planners? No, New Jersey Transit Planners, most transit riders don't want to maximize the time they can spend behind the wheel, especially during a post-hurricane gasoline shortage.
Can we also agree that buses are not better than trains? The "Bus Rapid Transit" zealots at the Institute for Transportation Development Policy have mesmerized too many of New York's transportation thinkers, to the point where we get the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Pratt Institute and former Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek all arguing that buses should be a higher political priority than trains. In the current world buses have their place, and the "bus bridge" instituted by the MTA last week seemed to work fairly well. But to replace either one of the PATH tubes or the North River Tunnels with buses would take a huge number, and they'd need serious street priority.
I have to admit that I was disappointed in the performance of the private sector. I had expected private bus operators to be more flexible, adding service as needed to meet demand. Since New Jersey's laws allow private bus operators, I had hoped to find that they stepped up to fill the obvious holes in New Jersey Transit's plan. Instead, there is no evidence that any of the major private bus companies (DeCamp, Suburban Transit, Academy or Coachusa) added buses to their existing routes or sent buses to supplement routes that were overcrowded. Apparently the private vans were running their usual routes, but they haven't had enough capacity to get everybody home from the Port Authority.
Of course, it's hard to add extra buses, especially if the route is relatively complex and you have to bring on drivers who don't know it. That's why it's nice to have relatively simple routes like "you go all the way down Route 3 to the end, then turn around and come back."
It's possible that the "cross-honoring" system is contributing to the lack of interest from private operators. I don't know exactly how it works when someone with a monthly New Jersey Transit pass shows up on a DeCamp bus, but it may be that DeCamp doesn't get any money from it, or enough to make it worth running extra buses. It's also possible that DeCamp and friends have simply grown fat and lazy on its government-protected monopoly.
The bottom line is that New Jersey Transit's park-and-ride culture has to change. We know how much Governor Christie likes drivers, and it's possible that that attitude is shared by Executive Director Weinstein, and from him on down. But New Jersey can't go on functioning as a car-dominated society. The longer that Christie and the NJ Transit planners try to stave off the inevitable, the worse it will be.