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NJ Transit Votes to Spend on Land for Flood-Proof Train Storage

Workers labor on a sandbag wall to protect an NJ Transit electrical substation. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Nearly five years after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States and damaged more than 300 train cars owned by the New Jersey Transit Corporation, at an estimated cost of $100 million, the state agency is taking steps to protect its fleet from future floods. Last week, the NJ Transit board voted to buy 25 acres of land as a “safe haven” for storing trains, a place to keep them out of the low-lying Meadowlands Maintenance Complex near the Hackensack River where they were damaged during Sandy.

There’s a slate of efforts underway aimed at building a more resilient transit system in New Jersey, one better equipped to handle the increasing intensity of weather events. Other efforts include establishing a resilient energy grid to provide power during storms and filling in a canal that contributed to the flooding of train yards during Sandy.

I asked NJ Transit to make an official available for an interview about the agency’s resilience efforts, but they declined. When I asked whether the agency has a point person overseeing resilience, the public information officer replied: “NJ TRANSIT has a Project Management department comprised of talented professionals dedicated to these projects.”

Critics of NJ Transit’s vote to purchase the safe zone land are more than happy to talk. Last week, rail advocates told NJTV that the project was an unnecessary expense, considering that the agency already has enough room on high-ground tracks to store the trains in the event of more flooding. Capital investments would be better spent on an additional tunnel into New York City, they said.

“They’re wasting our money for a facility they do not need … ,” says David Peter Alan, chairman of the 40-year-old rail advocacy group The Lackawanna Coalition. “Their capital program is totally misplaced.”

Alan and other advocates say that NJ Transit doesn’t do enough to improve service, but spends great sums of money on capital projects that aren’t needed. While recognizing the need to make the transit system more resilient in the face of climate change, Alan considers the train storage project a waste. If NJ Transit would simply plan ahead, he says, it could keep the fleet safe with the space that it has. (And the agency seems increasingly unwilling to listen to input or talk openly about its plans, Alan says. “The climate between NJ Transit and everybody else has never been this adversarial in the 32 years I’ve been an advocate around here. It’s bad,” he says.)

Rob Freudenberg, vice president for energy and the environment at the Regional Plan Association, says that a lot of municipalities and agencies in the New York region are building their resilience plans around the federal funding that’s available, rather than the other way around. (RPA is a research and advocacy organization focused on the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region.)

“It’s one thing to have a facility where you can move a lot of stock,” Freudenberg says. “It’s another to consider how you use your existing entire line when it’s shut down. This comes down to a matter of prioritizing planning.”

NJ Transit has done a good job of analyzing the damage done during Hurricane Sandy and finding ways to address those issues, according to Freudenberg. But the agency should be looking ahead to potential new vulnerabilities related to climate change and sea level rise, not just using the last disaster as a predictor, he says.

“What we’re seeing happening at the agency level is that things are getting done where funding is available,” he says. “That’s not a comprehensive approach and it’s not always an effective approach.”

NJ Transit isn’t alone. Freudenberg says New York City, Hoboken, New Jersey, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, are doing a particularly good job with resilience efforts, while smaller cities with fewer resources are, understandably, somewhat behind. Freudenberg says that the New York region needs a harbor-wide comprehensive plan to address sea level rise. If resilience is left up to individual cities, they may end up doing things to protect themselves that have harmful impacts on their neighbors, he says.

“We’re in kind of a wild west of resilience right now,” Freudenberg says. “Everything is fairly new and everything is uncertain so every agency or every government is going to approach this in a little bit different way.”

The issue is only going to grow in importance. In Houston, setting aside the damage to land and housing, Hurricane Harvey has destroyed hundreds of thousands of cars, including at least 350 vehicles owned by the city. While Irma wasn’t as deadly as many feared, it once again illustrated the precarious position of Southern Florida with respect to climate change.

In an interview this week on KJZZ, the public radio station in Phoenix, Chuck Redman, the director of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, said the latest weather disasters are a reminder of the importance of resilience planning. At a basic level, Redman said, this kind of work just requires “thinking it through.”

“What could happen?” Redman said. “And if it did happen, what would I have to do?”