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State May Scrutinize Sandy Damage to NJ Transit's Trains

Source: Star-Ledger - NJ

Posted on 21 Aug 2013 by Neilson

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New JerseyState legislative leaders are considering holding a special oversight hearing to find out why NJ Transit ignored its own emergency plan and allowed railcars and locomotives to remain in low-lying areas as Hurricane Sandy approached, resulting in roughly $120 million in damage.

Reacting to a report in The Record yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she wants a special legislative hearing to find out why the agency did not follow its "Rail Operations Hurricane Plan," which called for moving rail equipment worth millions of dollars to higher ground in the event of a hurricane or severe tropical storm.

Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, said the issue "cries out for oversight."

"I certainly would like to do it," said Gordon, who earlier this year presided over a hearing that explored New Jersey's contract with a politically connected firm that was hired without competitive bidding to clear debris after Sandy.

A spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) confirmed yesterday that talks were underway about holding a joint hearing with Gordon's committee and the Senate Transportation Committee, but he could not say when a hearing might be held.

After The Record filed a public-records lawsuit, NJ Transit released a 3-page copy of a hurricane plan it prepared four months before Sandy hit. The plan called for commuter trains to be moved to several upland sites in the event of a severe storm. Nowhere did the plan recommend what the transit agency ended up doing: moving millions of dollars worth of railcars and engines to low-lying yards in Kearny and Hoboken, where they were inundated by Sandy's storm surge.

NJ Transit's response stood in stark contrast to that of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, which, taking into account concerns about climate change, managed to move nearly all of its trains to higher ground before Sandy struck, sparing all but 11 of its railcars from flood damage.

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, Michael Drewniak, declined to comment yesterday on the revelations about the NJ Transit plan. A call and e-mail to an NJ Transit spokeswoman, Nancy Snyder, were not returned.

NJ Transit has not answered questions about what parts of the plan it followed or why rolling stock was moved to the low-lying Meadowlands instead of to upland locations identified in the June 2012 rail hurricane plan. The agency also has not said whether it intends to revise the plan to include rail yards in Garwood and Linden that NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein recently announced have been acquired for use should another powerful storm strike the state.

After the Oct. 29 storm, NJ Transit came under criticism for leaving train equipment in the Meadowlands and Hoboken yards as Sandy approached. In April, during a Senate budget hearing, Weinstein acknowledged that railcars were moved to the Meadowlands just before the storm.

The upshot of that decision was flood damage to 343 pieces of rail equipment -- 70 locomotives and 273 railcars, a third of the agency's rail fleet -- totaling $120 million.

Weinstein has said repeatedly that the sprawling 72-acre Meadowlands yard, which typically is used for rail-equipment repairs, had never flooded in its 30-year history and that agency officials never expected it to flood. He has also said the Hoboken yard has never flooded. Yet a climate change report that the agency commissioned and received months before Sandy placed both yards in flood-prone areas.

Weinstein has also said that NJ Transit officials made the best decision at the time that they could and that that the agency had weather documents that indicated there was an 80 to 90 percent chance that the Hoboken and Kearny yards would not flood.

Christie, a Republican who is seeking a second term and is widely said to be positioning himself for a presidential bid in 2016, has won accolades for his handling of Sandy's aftermath, and polls indicate that voters give him high marks for his leadership.

But the administration has had a few high-profile stumbles since the storm. Among them was the state's hiring of the politically connected Florida firm AshBritt.