ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Following Gov. Chris Christie’s May 23 announcement 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, officials from the many towns affected called for a meeting with NJ Transit officials.
The meeting, initially scheduled for May 26, was postponed until May 30. But, despite the fact that municipal officials headed to the NJ Transit headquarters May 30, the meeting was again postponed, this time to June 7, after this newspaper’s deadline. Nevertheless several officials testified at a legislative hearing May 31.
At the hearing, Assemblyman John McKeon slammed NJ Transit for refusing to meet with municipal officials the previous day, despite them congregating in NJ Transit’s lobby.
“It was a meeting that was supposed to take place with a number of mayors who represent 23,000 of your riders. I was told to come down to Newark to your headquarters yesterday and all those mayers I referenced before were in that lobby, including myself and Sen. (Richard) Codey. No one had the courtesy to come down and say ‘we can’t meet with you,’” McKeon said. “It’s about respect for the office and we were all very much disrespected yesterday.”
The main concerns mayors have expressed regarding the diversion is that the Morris & Essex line is the only one affected for both NJ Transit and Amtrak, meaning local residents are the only ones shouldering the arduous commute, and that no one informed them of the change ahead of time — South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca pointed out that they only learned about the diversion from Christie’s press conference.
“Not a courtesy email, not a courtesy call, not a ‘let’s come together and talk about the impact this is going to have on commuters,’” Collum raged in a video she posted online May 30.
“Recognizing the inconvenience of the affected customers on the Morris & Essex lines, we will charge much lower fares — 50 to 63 percent less than the price they usually pay for their tickets and passes. We’ll offer free cross-honoring with PATH and the ferries,” NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro said at the hearing.
Santoro also advised commuters to leave early in order to get seats. While he acknowledged that this plan is unfair to Morris & Essex line commuters, Santoro argued that the plan — which NJ Transit decided on alone — was the only viable option.
“My job today is to convince you, and all the panel members, that there is no better plan that what we’ve proposed,” Santoro said.
In her video, though, Collum said, “This discount is such a joke, it’s almost laughable,” adding that commuters need guaranteed seats on the already crowded PATH and ferries, not just a discount that won’t reimburse them for time missed with their families.
But NJ Transit officials are confident that, while the commute won’t be comfortable, it will be possible.
“The trains are going to be crowded. I’m not going to say they won’t be crowded,” PATH Director Michael Marino said at the hearing. “We honestly believe we’ll be able to move people quickly enough without platforms overcrowding. They’ll be safe and standing in the car.”
While NJ Transit took a beating from public officials at the hearing, NJ Transit also doled one out to Amtrak, which is responsible for track maintenance.
“There was no indication that tracks were in such poor condition that two derailments would occur in one month,” Santoro said, arguing that Amtrak was uncommunicative regarding the poor conditions plaguing the train system’s infrastructure.
But Collum and DeLuca are not angry that repairs need to take place, they are angered by the way the entire matter is being handled.
“We are literally weeks away from this taking effect and we have not sat down to talk out the details,” Collum said at the hearing.
“NJ Transit is so off-track. We showed up at 2 p.m. (on May 30) as planned and (NJ) Transit treated us disrespectfully by refusing to meet. They did not have the guts to come down to speak to us,” DeLuca posted to Facebook on May 30. “We had former Gov. Codey, Assemblyman McKeon and elected officials from Maplewood, South Orange, Millburn, East Orange and Livingston. We are not deterred.”
While they may not be deterred, elected officials are fuming. Collum posted a video she took on her cell phone of the situation as they waited in the NJ Transit lobby for a meeting that never happened.
“This is absolutely disgusting what NJ Transit has done,” DeLuca said in the video, describing himself as “disappointed,” adding, “This is wrong. This is how they treat commuters. This is how they treat elected officials. We’re not going to take it.
“We’re going to keep hounding them and hounding them until they make some changes,” DeLuca continued.
Collum, who made the video, kept a continuous narration throughout, venting her frustration at the Kafkaesque treatment they were receiving.
“That looks like security right there, got to be careful of these mayors,” she said sarcastically.
Despite being unwilling to meet with the mayors May 30, NJ Transit announced some concessions following the legislative hearing on May 31, during which DeLuca said they “caught hell.”
Now, four Morris & Essex weekday trains will travel directly into New York City in the early morning, arriving at Penn Station at or before 7 a.m. All other trains on the line will still arrive at and leave from Hoboken. Additional bus service to and from New York City will be provided for commuters at South Orange Train Station. Additionally, NJ Transit will increase cars and/or service for PATH and the ferries.
According to DeLuca, there is still more the towns must follow up with, but for now these concessions are welcomed. Still, the towns are making shifts as well. Maplewood, for instance, has modified its evening jitney departure times; the jitney will no longer follow the posted departure times, but will await the arrival of the Morris & Essex trains.
Regardless of tweaks here and there, Millburn Deputy Mayor Jodi Rosenberg said at the hearing that “the quality of life this summer is going to be hellish.”
“I don’t think we heard anything today that made us feel any better,” Rosenberg said. “I really don’t understand why our lines are affected. I really don’t have a good reason.”
This list of proposed plans to handle the influx of commuters to Hoboken certainly has not cooled Collum’s anger.
“As the executive director of NJ Transit, you and your agency have taken ‘full responsibility’ for the disruption in services that our riders will disproportionately experience this summer, as per your testimony before the joint hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee and Assembly Judiciary Committee,” Collum wrote in a June 5 letter to Santoro. “You also directly heard from many mayors who testified demanding a meeting with you, which is yet to come to fruition. In fact, the opposite occurred, you’ve canceled/postponed two meetings — one which was scheduled for Friday, May 24, due to the ‘level of interest,’ and then Tuesday, May 30, due to ‘extenuating circumstances,’ which we found unacceptable.
“As you know, several mayors and elected officials, including state representatives, still showed up with the hope of collectively working together and improving upon your agency’s proposed plan,” Collum continued. “You didn’t even give the group the courtesy of coming downstairs, and instead treated this delegation of concerned elected officials representing thousands of your customers as if we were solicitors or trying to sell you candy. There are no words for that level of disrespect.
“Throughout this series of non-responsiveness, deflection and delay, your office confirmed a meeting would take place with all interested parties this Wednesday, June 7. I sent a follow-up email this past Friday attempting to confirm the time and location. This has been met with radio silence and yet again shows the level of contempt you have for elected officials with no regard to our schedules. Please advise immediately whether or not you plan on hosting this meeting or if your plan is to simply hope we go away — which I can assure you will not be the case,” Collum concluded
As more information becomes available, this newspaper will report on it.