Should NJ's Big Rat Bastard Gummer Krispy quit now or wait till he's indicted for murder?
Read the NYT report here. (Click to enlarge the above image.)
"It was an excellent railroad and running quite well until the last seven years, and it has been in constant decline."
-- Martin E. Robins, former NJ Transit deputy
executive director, quoted in the NYT report
executive director, quoted in the NYT report
"Midway through Mr. Christie’s first year as governor, New Jersey Transit was spending about $1.35 billion on projects to maintain and improve service. By the middle of last year, that figure had fallen to about $600 million. The average age of the agency’s train fleet — nearly a quarter of which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy — is 16 years, compared with less than 13 years for the Long Island Rail Road."
-- from the NYT report
"The railroad’s falling reputation, some fear, could push people out of the state and turn others off from living there."
-- from the NYT report
For me, the teaching moment -- as I've written before -- was the Challenger disaster, or rather its aftermath. That was a moment that for those of us who lived through it was as indelible as the JFK assassination or 9/11; I at least have never forgotten where I was and how I felt the moment I heard of the rocket explosion that decimated everyone inside. It wasn't just the horror, but the shock of such an unthinkable, unimaginable moment.
Except that it turned out that such a moment had not only been thought and imagined, but warned about by at least one engineer who knew that such a thing could happen. Under circumstances very like the cold weather of the Challenger disaster, it was quite likely that the O-rings would fail, and bam! As I recall that engineer wasn't entirely alone, but those who understood the potential for disaster were made to feel utterly alone, and subversive, as they tried to raise some kind of alarm up the bureaucracies of the contractor, Morton Thiokol, and NASA. Nobody wanted to hear about it, or know about it, or certainly do anything about it, responding with phony assurance that escalated to bullying threats. The response was, essentially, "Shut the fuck up -- or else."
I've often tried to imagine the special horror that engineer felt when he heard the news. I expect it was no comfort at all to know that he tried to warn them about it. That the rest of us were let in on the "secret" in relatively short order is owing to the presence on the commission of inquiry of the great physicist Richard Feynman, a man with a notoriously low tolerance level for bullshit.
As I've heard the story, it was his already-ex-wife who persuaded him to accept the proffered appointment to the Rogers Commission, on the ground that without Feynman, there would be 12 people (or however people many there were to be on the commission) being led by the nose from briefing to briefing, swallowing whatever bilge they were fed, whereas with Feynman there would be 11 commissioners doing that plus one contrarian wandering off on his own, asking inconvenient questions to find out what actually happened and why. And once he started poking and prodding, it didn't take him long to discover not just that there was a problem with the O-rings but that the problem had been fully known to all concerned, and was not only ignored but suppressed.
RICHARD FEYNMAN AND THE ROGERS COMMISSIONSince then, I've always been suspicious of out-of-nowhere calamities that strike in wholly "inexplicable" fashion. And I've rarely been surprised -- the event almost always turns out to have an explanation that is not only not mysterious but was known beforehand. Which brings us to Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Patrick McGeehan's NYT report, "New Jersey Transit, a Cautionary Tale of Neglect." It begins:
One of the commission's members was theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman, who was then seriously ill with cancer, was reluctant to undertake the job. He did so to find the root cause of the disaster, and to speak plainly to the public about his findings. During a televised hearing, he demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water. During the investigation, Sally Ride had told Feynman that the O-rings were not tested at temperatures below 10 °C (50 °F). Feynman was critical of flaws in NASA's "safety culture", so much so that he threatened to remove his name from the report unless it included his personal observations on the reliability of the shuttle, which appeared as Appendix F. In the appendix, he argued that the estimates of reliability offered by NASA management were wildly unrealistic, differing as much as a thousandfold from the estimates of working engineers. "For a successful technology," he concluded, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." Feynman wrote that while other members of the Commission met with NASA and supplier top management, he sought out the engineers and technicians, which is how he became aware of the O-ring problem.
-- from Wikipedia (notes onsite)
In the 1990s, New Jersey Transit was riding high.
Its ridership was increasing, and its trains were new and running on time. It won a coveted award for outstanding public transportation three times. In the years ahead, faster routes to Manhattan and double-decker trains would put it at the forefront of the nation’s commuter railroads. Even as recently as 2007, it won a leadership award from New York University.
That all seems like a very long time ago.
Today, New Jersey Transit is in crisis. Its aging tracks and trains need billions of dollars in improvements. Delays and fares are rising along with ridership, with passenger cars packed to the breaking point. The century-old tunnel that carries its trains to New York is crumbling. And the agency has gone nearly a year without a permanent leader.
“It was an excellent railroad and running quite well until the last seven years, and it has been in constant decline,” said Martin E. Robins, a former deputy executive director of the agency.
Under the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, the state subsidy for the agency has plunged by more than 90 percent. Gaping holes in the agency’s past two budgets were filled by fare increases and service reductions or other cuts. Plans for a new tunnel under the Hudson River — one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in the country — were torpedoed by Mr. Christie, who pushed for some of the money to be diverted to road-building projects.
The result can be felt by commuters daily. So far this year, the railroad has racked up at least 125 major train delays, about one every two days. Its record for punctuality is declining, and its trains are breaking down more often — evidence that maintenance is suffering.
Now, New Jersey Transit is facing its most high-profile test: A train slammed into a station in Hoboken last month, killing a young mother, injuring more than 100 other people and raising concerns about whether the railroad’s financial and leadership problems are creating an unsafe system. Even before the crash, the Federal Railroad Administration had taken the unusual step of opening an investigation into the agency after a spike in safety violations.
The story of how the nation’s third-busiest commuter railroad declined so rapidly is a tale of neglect and mismanagement that represents an ominous symbol of the challenges facing mass transit systems across the United States in an era when governments are loath to raise taxes.
HUH? THE KRISPYMAN DOESN'T CARE ABOUT NJ COMMUTERS?
Well, apparently no, he doesn't, at least not if they're traveling by means other than cars or limos. If we think back to the first act of his that really got him big-time attention, the unilateral canceling of that under-the-Hudson tunnel which had already gone through the enormously complex, not to say prohibitive, planning process, including having federal funds in place for it, and was actually ready to be built. It enabled him to pass himself off as an avatar of fiscal prudence, but nothing about his administration has been fiscally prudent; it's all a matter of where, for his own personal and ideological reasons, he chooses to let money flow -- including, for example, all the money he's looted from the NY-NJ Port Authority.
At the time the Krispyman's so heroically aborted the tunnel, a lot of us doubted that fiscal prudence anything to do with his motives. Now, however, it may be easier for one and all to see that no, he doesn't give a damn about NJ's interstate commuters -- at least not the ones who ride the rails or buses -- or, for that matter, intrastate travelere either, if they depend on NJ Transit's trains, buses, and/or light-rail system. He inherited a transportation network that had been growing to really serve the needs of a significant portion of the state's population, and for assorted reasons ideological and personal he chose to starve it.
The NYT reporters quote Stephen Burkert ("a rail union leader and longtime conductor who joined New Jersey Transit in 1989") saying of the governor, "Had he taken buses or trains he would have seen -- no, it's not just people going to Wall Street. It's the blue-collar worker holding two or three jobs who doesn't have money for a car, and they need that train." Well, really, would anyone expect the Krispyman to give a hoot about the likes of them? Or, of course, to be listening to a rail union leader? Union people aren't his people.
NJ Transit is overrun with delays and outages, even as fares soar upward, which are demoralizing riders. As well, the abusive and neglectful way the state government (meaning you-know-who) has dealt with NJ Transit has driven more and more of its good people out of the state and made it harder and harder to attract top-quality talent. If the governor gives a damn, he has a mighty funny way of showing it.
As the NYT report documents, Governor Krispy's occasional concessions to the desperate mass-transit needs have been occasioned by the pressure of events, like on-the-ground disasters, or snooping by outsiders:
In June, federal inspectors swarmed New Jersey Transit’s rail operations, part of a “deep audit” by the Federal Railroad Administration prompted by an increase in safety violations and a lack of leadership at the railroad. The federal agency fined the railroad for several violations and warned officials of the problems it had uncovered.
The railroad administration, which has not made its audit public, examined New Jersey Transit’s operations, including whether crews were following safety rules. The agency is weighing additional enforcement steps against the railroad.
A TRANS-HUDSON TUNNEL AFTER ALL?
It's hard to know whether the buttwipe governor who singlehandedly wiped out all the planning for the tunnel that was ready to be built, and was scheduled to be operational in 2018, didn't understand why it was so desperately needed (he does seem to be profoundly and broadly ignorant), or just didn't care (as he doesn't seem to care about many of the most basic functions of decent government). Either way, he can proudly take credit for intensifying to a stupefying degree the building crisis in travel between the states of New Jersey and New York.
Many delays are a product of aging infrastructure that includes not just the Hudson tunnel but also the Portal Bridge, a century-old swing bridge over the Hackensack River. It is difficult to imagine better service without a huge overhaul of the entire corridor leading to New York City — a project that Amtrak, which controls the corridor, says could cost more than $20 billion.
Both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit rely on a single, two-track tunnel under the Hudson that was severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There was little effort to jump-start plans for a new tunnel until a series of paralyzing delays last summer led to a scolding from the federal transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, who called the neglect “almost criminal.”
Now a plan for a new tunnel is finally progressing. But federal officials worry that Amtrak may have to close one or both of the existing tunnel’s tubes for major repairs before a new one opens in a decade, a prospect that would be devastating to travel across the Northeast.
OBVIOUSLY, WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT
EXACTLY CAUSED THE HOBOKEN DISASTER
The NTSB is working on that, and clearly its findings will have an impact. But once you read the NYT report, you'll have a good picture of who's responsible for the conditions that made a disaster like the Hoboken crash increasingly likely.
I don't suggest that the Big Rat Bastard Gummer of NJ deliberately set out to kill Fabiola Bittar de Kroon, the 34-year-old single mother who had the misfortune to be standing on the Hoboken platform at the time debris fell on her. Any more than the bureaucrats at Morton Thiokol and NASA intended to kill Christa McAuliffe or her fellow passengers on Challenger. It's important, though, to point a finger in his direction and keep it pointed -- because there's zero chance that the Big Rat Bastard will accept any responsibility on his own, given his Trump-like pathological inability to acknowledge responsibility for anything remotely blameworthy. (In breaking blame-game news, see Dartagnan's DailyKos post last night, "At Long Last, Trump Blames The Jews For His Failed Campaign.") In the BRBGNJ telling, nothing bad that has ever happened around him has ever been in any way his fault.
I don't know what sort of provision New Jersey murder statutes make for "depraved indifference," but boy, does that describe the BRBGNJ. His poll numbers suggest that NJ voters have finally been coming around to the truth of the sort of beast they installed in their statehouse, and then reelected. It all seemed pretty transparent to me, and to a lot of other people, at the time(s). But as bills for parts of his crime-boss approach to state-government leadership begin to fall due, it would be nice if he were held in at least some fashion accountable.
I was just looking again at the Wikipedia note on Richard Feynman's participation on the Rogers Commission inquiry into the Challenger disaster, and noticed this sentence he put in his report in the appendix:
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.This is a standard to which politicians aren't always, or often, held. We're feeling this a lot in the angry mood of the American electorate in this campaign season. Not surprisingly, the lessons learned are almost entirely wrong, not least the notion that the Billion-Dollar Loser, who has spent his entire career working to be part of the problem, could hold any part of the solution. A bit of genuine accountability would be all the more welcome.