ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Local residents were fuming as Gov. Chris Christie announced May 23 that the Morris & Essex Midtown Direct trains to Penn Station will be diverted to Hoboken for approximately eight weeks this summer while Penn Station is upgraded to repair tracks and switches, which have been deteriorating for many years. In Essex County, the line stops in Short Hills, Millburn, Maplewood, South Orange, Orange, East Orange and Newark, taking on commuters from surrounding towns such as Montclair, Livingston and West Orange, to name a few.
“I’m not happy about any of this, but the fact of the matter is we’re going to either make these repairs now or we’re going to make them later, but the repairs need to be made,” Christie said in a May 23 press conference, continuing to say that, while he does not fully trust Amtrak, which is in charge of maintaining the rails at Penn Station, he is pleased with how this work is being moved along.
“Our paramount concern is always safety and reliability for our customers, and we know that forcing Amtrak to expedite its repairs to ensure that will come with some unavoidable inconvenience, because of long-term neglect that Amtrak has given to those infrastructure systems,” Christie said May 23. “So, Amtrak is telling us now that the eight-week repair schedule that will begin in July and run to Labor Day weekend will necessitate limited service into Penn Station for the Morris & Essex service lines of the Midtown Direct line, and that will cause obviously some significant delays. It will not affect all the other lines that Amtrak has or that NJ Transit has on the Amtrak tracks. But it will affect significantly the Morris & Essex lines that run the Midtown Direct.”
According to Christie, Essex & Morris line trains will end in Hoboken, where commuters can then take PATH trains or ferries, which will cross-honor NJ Transit fares. During the work, riders will get a discount of 56 to 63 percent, meaning, for example, a monthly pass from Gladstone to New York City would drop from $451 to $168, including the free PATH and ferry rides, according to Christie.
But commuters say the discount is not enough, as they will be severely inconvenienced and an already arduous commute will become even more so. Additionally, commuters from this area are feeling somewhat victimized as the Morris & Essex Midtown Direct line is the only line being affected — for both Amtrak and NJ Transit — during the upgrade.
“For three-quarters of the NJ Transit customers, travel patterns will not be modified in any way, including the Trenton to New York Northeast corridor line. So those will not be changed in anyway,” Christie said.
This is unacceptable to local commuters and officials.
“As mayors of two towns on the Morris and Essex train line with nearly 7,000 daily riders at our three train stations for our residents and neighboring towns, we are registering our objection to the decision by Gov. Christie and NJ Transit to divert all M&E Midtown Direct trains to Hoboken during the eight-week repair period at Penn Station. We completely understand that these repairs are necessary but feel this decision will disproportionately affect our residents who work in New York City,” Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum wrote in a May 24 letter to Christie, Transportation Commissioner and NJ Transit board Chairman Richard Hammer, and NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro.
“Train riders from our various communities on the M&E line will have their personal and professional lives disrupted dramatically and the proposed fare discounts will not make up for the missed time with their families and the negative impacts on their business dealings,” they continued. “We feel it is totally unfair for M&E commuters to bear the full burden of this repair program.”
DeLuca and Collum requested that Christie and NJ Transit officials reconsider this move, especially as none of the affected parties were consulted prior to the decision being announced.
“Furthermore, this decision was made without any consultation with the elected leaders from the towns affected,” DeLuca and Collum wrote. “We could have been given the opportunity to discuss options and a more equitable solution to the problem. Instead, we were kept in the dark by an agency that is known for its terrible record of communication and transparency.”
In response to this letter, NJ Transit representatives agreed to meet with town officials on May 26, though later postponed that meeting to May 30. The meeting was then pushed back again; they now intend to meet June 7.
“They devised a plan without consulting local officials and commuters and now they are figuring out how to deal with the political blowback,” DeLuca said in a May 26 release, prior to learning that the May 30 meeting was being rescheduled. “We were prepared for a meeting this Friday, (May 26), with the executive director of NJ Transit which has now been delayed — go figure — until next Tuesday, (May 30). We will be prepared with our colleagues from other affected communities next week to make the case that Midtown Direct riders should not bear the full brunt of the repairs at Penn Station.”
“South Orange is the busiest station on the Morris & Essex Line serving over 4,000 riders a day and I had to learn about these changes that affect my residents by watching a press conference. No communication and certainly no transparency,” Collum said in the May 26 release. “I’m not disappointed in our meeting being pushed back. Since the letter Mayor DeLuca and I drafted on Wednesday, (May 24), we’ve managed to partner with Congressman (Donald) Payne’s office, Senator (Richard) Codey, Assemblyman (John) McKeon, Assemblywoman (Mila) Jasey, and Essex County Freeholders along with mayors and elected officials from Orange, Livingston, West Orange, Summit, Morristown and Millburn. A few extra days gives us more time to mobilize other elected officials and their respective communities and we look forward to sharing more information with the public after we meet next Tuesday.”
West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi confirmed in a May 29 email that, although the line does not run through West Orange, the township will be represented at the meeting.
“We are obviously concerned about how these decision impact our residents that rely on this service,” Parisi said. “We are hoping the meeting tomorrow will provide more information and clarity on what can be done to minimize disruption for our commuting residents.”
As more information becomes available, this newspaper will report on it.