Last week should be last warning Gateway Project needs to be fast tracked

//April 10, 2017

Last week should be last warning Gateway Project needs to be fast tracked

//April 10, 2017

It’s hard to blame the governor for coming out so strongly against Amtrak when problems on tracks it maintains led to massive delays for New Jersey commuters into New York Penn Station for virtually all of last week.Gov. Chris Christie made bold promises of withholding future payments to Amtrak and suing Amtrak to recover money the state already had provided. And, of course, there was a call to hold hearings on the issue, which will only lead to more bluster and grandstanding.

The annoyance and outrage of commuters was overwhelming. And that outrage only grew when Amtrak CEO and President Wick Moorman admitted the organization knew of the issue on the line, but had not moved it to the front of the line of its triage-type list of repairs it is scrambling to make.

The era of false outrage has never been so high.

Amtrak could have and should have fixed the line earlier. It was a missed opportunity that Moorman, a standup guy from Virginia with an honest and transparent management style many in this region could take a lesson from, acknowledged in a press conference at the station and a follow up call to NJBIZ.

But to be outraged over a missed opportunity that impacted eight of Amtrak’s 21 lines is to ignore the bigger issue that everyone — including Christie — have known about for years: Penn Station is in terrible condition and needs a massive upgrade to serve commuters properly for the next 100 years.

And the two tunnels that connect New Jersey to New York may be in worse shape than Penn Station.

The latest derailment at Penn Station, the second in two weeks, should be viewed as a warning tremor for what everyone knows is coming: An overworked transit system that is buckling and will soon break.

The Gateway Project, a proposal to build two more tunnels from Jersey to New York City needs to be fast-tracked as soon as possible.

There is no alternative.

Moorman, a 40-year man in the industry at Norfolk Southern who was brought out of retirement to take on the task of leading Amtrak, said there is too much to do and too little to do it.

An overloaded system leaves roughly 3-5 hours a night for maintenance, which is not enough time to do everything that needs to be done — though Moorman is committed to trying.

“This is a station that is, first of all, incredibly busy,” he said. “It’s absolutely full at peak. The tunnels are full at peak, the station is full at peak. Any hiccup, no matter how small, is going to start to delay things. As a result, unless we are willing to take delays, we don’t get much time to maintain it.”

The problem, Moorman said, is not money or manpower. Just the effort it takes to do the maintenance.

“Because it’s so constrained down there because of the space, it’s time consuming and tedious to fix these things,” he said.

Two more tunnels — and an upgraded station that was able to handle more tracks for boarding — are the only answer.

And, much like funding for the Transportation Trust Fund, everyone knows about the problem and how this is the only solution. We’re long passed the time for merely keeping up with maintenance.

Until that time, Moorman said he’ll make sure Amtrak does its best.

“I understand the governor is upset,” he said. “And I understand NJ Transit (is upset). We inconvenienced a lot of residents of New Jersey.

“I was brought in to help work on issues like this and what I told our folks we have to ramp up our efforts. We cannot let something like this happen again. That means we’re going to have to put the highest priority on this in the face of a lot of other competing priorities for outages in the station.

“We’ve got (to) invest money, we’ve got to ensure that we have time for our workers to get in to do the proper maintenance and not get to the point where we let it run too long.”

Moorman was wooed out of retirement by Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia. And you can’t beat the cost.

When he discovered that even a $1 a year salary would impact his pension and retirement payments, Moorman agreed to volunteer. He commutes weekly from a home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I’m a guy who believes in the industry and knows the industry has been very good to me,” he said. “When Tony Coscia called me and convinced me — to my wife’s utter dismay — to do this, I thought it was important to do and so I’ve come up and am trying to fix a lot of things.

“I’m doing this essentially for free and that’s fine. I’m happy to do it. It’s interesting. It’s meaningful. The prospect of getting fire, my wife would be jumping up and down and I would go back to Mr. Jefferson’s community.

“I do like to think I’m doing it for all the right reasons. When the governor says things like that, I didn’t take it personally in anyway shape or form.”

Moorman has Coscia’s full support.

“Wick is the real deal,” Coscia said. “I spent six months recruiting him to the company. This past week is painful but underscores all the work that needs to get done after decades of neglect. It would be much easier to apply band-aids and leave it for the next group, but we will fix this.”

By this, Coscia means a whole lot more than items such as more issues with cross ties, which caused last week’s mess.

He’s talking about the Gateway Project.

It’s time for others to do the same.