Meanwhile, across the river…

In a double-dip on local transit, The Composite considers the misplaced priorities of NJ Transit.  Check out our first post on a foolish proposal to extend the 7 line into New Jersey.

A few months back, I finally gave up on the idea of having an automobile in Northern NJ.  After two frustrating years of trying to find parking in Newark, getting ripped off on gas prices, paying exorbitant amounts of money to mechanics to fix an overused SUV, and purchasing multiple parking permits, I’d had enough.  To be fair, my decision was hardly based on any sort of grand vision of environmental protection or urban commuter systems.  Instead, ditching the car was a selfish, practical assessment: why pay through the nose when NJ Transit and PATH could get me where I needed to go (and more cheaply, to boot)?

Therein lies a fundamental problem with the current mindset of NJ Transit.  Ask any rail fanatic (Ferris at the ready!) or realist on energy policy why commuter-, light-, and high-speed rail is in our long-term best interest, and you will get an earful: reduced dependence on foreign oil; safety improvements; efficient allocation of infrastructure funds; reduced pollution; a thorough connection of neighborhoods, towns, and metro areas; establishment of an interconnected system of rail, air, and bus transit; the list could go on forever.

So with all this in mind, wouldn’t it make sense for the vast and high-volume network of NJ Transit lines to at least emphasize the environmental and energy-efficient benefits of commuter rail?  Despite the obvious answer, NJ Transit apparently doesn’t think so.

I started noticing about a month ago that as soon as you stroll along the main walkway of Hoboken Terminal (a central hub of NJ Transit activities), you are assaulted with advertisements for EZPass, that great facilitator of toll payments and automobile use.  Now, don’t get me wrong, of course it makes sense for New Jersey to pimp out its various initiatives in a sort of grand cross-promotional campaign.

Wouldn't you rather be in a car? (Via Flickr user Kawanet)

But, really?

Lest we forget, EZPass essentially encourages more automobile use.  It makes it a whole lot easier to pay higher tolls at plazas, tunnels, and bridges when you don’t have to worry about scraping for change underneath your seats while waiting in traffic for 45 minutes to get into New York.  So what makes more sense than to have NJ Transit blast advertisements for EZPass all over its terminals and trains!

Straight from the horse’s mouth, NJ Transit proclaims:

NJ TRANSIT is New Jersey’s public transportation corporation. Its mission is to provide safe, reliable, convenient and cost-effective transit service with a skilled team of employees, dedicated to our customers’ needs and committed to excellence.

It’s as if the agency just wishes it could go on one more line, and add: “a commitment to getting you in your car as much as possible!

Let's all waste some oil! (Via Flickr user MPD01605)
Let's all waste some oil! (Via Flickr user MPD01605)

While NJ Transit’s shoddy record on touting its benefits doesn’t end with the EZPass advertisements, they certainly are a microcosm of a bigger problem.  It’s as if the entire operation is run with a sense of inevitability, like it resents its own existence.  One almost expects to walk into an agency meeting, where transportation experts ask “So, we’re going to keep this thing going another year, huh?”

As The Composite pointed out earlier today, NJ Governor Chris Christie has been no friend to rail, but this is an embedded issue of culture at the agency.  Take a look at NJTransit.com in your spare time, and see how many environmental benefits are touted.  This was the best I could locate:

NJ TRANSIT’s transit-friendly program encourages growth and development where public transportation already exists. Not only is the community revitalization a benefit to the state, but transit-oriented development also reduces the growth of traffic congestion and improves air quality. In addition communities benefit as their train stations and surrounding areas are revitalized, making them attractive places for people to live, work and socialize.

Hmm…slowing traffic congestion?  Improving air quality?  Improving socialization?  These almost sound like reasons not to to promote EZPass!

The ambivalence toward using commuter rail to displace traffic congestion is almost beyond comprehension.  Take the Montclair-Boonton line, which I suffer on almost daily.  You see, Montclair St. University has a student population of nearly 4,000, not to mention 15,000 other students.  The school boasts, “Montclair State makes the most of its location in suburban northern New Jersey, just 14 miles west of New York City.”  Meanwhile, NJTransit’s service to the school is laughable.  There are zero trips from the school to Hoboken or New York on the weekend.

::Blinks, rubs eyes::  Let me repeat that, just so you know you aren’t seeing things: There are zero trips from the school to Hoboken or New York on the weekend.  Take it from me, the service on weekdays isn’t much better.  This all feeds into a complete ignorance for what transit is meant to accomplish.  By excluding major population centers that might get a lot of use out of commuter rail, NJ Transit becomes a parody of itself.  Let’s stick with the Montclair example just a bit longer.  Why, you ask, would such a terrible policy remain in place?

The debate over weekend service started in 2002, when the arrival of Midtown Direct allowed commuters to ride into New York without changing trains, basically by electrifying five miles of tracks through Montclair and building 1,500 feet of new track linking the Boonton line and Midtown Direct line near Montclair’s Bay Street Station.

In turn, NJ Transit agreed to not have weekend service in deference to people who expressed concerns about heightened train traffic and whistles. Since then, Montclair has instituted a “quiet zone” limiting the sounding of train horns from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., helping to lift opposition to weekend train service, Fried said. This has addressed people’s fears of train noise, Fried said

Let’s unpack this so we are all clear: Weekend service only runs sometimes, and never to the stations that make the most sense,

It's so tranquil! Don't wake the rich! (Via Flickr user Roadgeek Adam)

because the landed gentry don’t want to be all distracted from tea and crumpet time by loud train whistles.  So instead of encouraging rail use, NJTransit tells students to get a car, some money for gas, and a disregard for environmentalism.  No wonder America is lagging behind!

Ultimately, it’s doubtful any of this is going to change.  When I got on the train to Montclair this morning, NJTransit had helpfully distributed single-page carcasses of dead trees (three to a seat!) to keep us abreast of all the great things they are doing.  You can read their 2011 newsletter here, but let me condense it for you: Nothing about the positive environmental impacts of the agency.  The hundreds of handouts on the train, however, made lovely footmats in light of today’s stormy weather.

Just as is the case around the country, a transition to more efficient mass-transit is a pipe dream.  Until politicians get real about energy use, climate change, and shifting demographics, commuter rail won’t get the attention it deserves.  In the meantime, the least rail agencies could do is tout their own benefits.  NJTransit is in a prime position to do so, in a major population center to boot.  Instead, the agency will continue to waste time and resources on promoting automobile use and the tranquility of the suburbs.  It all almost makes me want to get a car again.

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