CLOSE

The Positive Train Control system (PTC) uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains, and automatically enforce speed limits, and emergency stops. By Frank Pompa and Ramon Padilla, USA TODAY

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

NJ Transit approved major funding, faced backlash over a future project, assured the public it was on track to make a potentially costly deadline and mourned the loss of colleagues.

Here are the highlights from the last full board meeting of the year: 

Two more NJ Transit employees die of COVID

NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett relayed the sobering news that two more employees died from complications related to the coronavirus, as the state battles a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths reminiscent of the spring.

James Moeschen, a longtime bus operator especially known on route No. 168, and Michael Paynter, a mechanic who worked out of the Newton garage, are the 14th and 15th NJ Transit employees who have died from the disease, while hundreds have gotten sick at the nearly 12,000-person agency.

"Front-line NJ Transit employees are being prioritized ahead of the general public by the state in the distribution of the vaccine and we’re working closely with labor right now to make sure they receive the vaccine as quickly as possible," Corbett said.

"This is important to not only protect the health and safety of our employees — who since March have done an extraordinary job of keeping our system running and getting essential workers to wherever they needed to go — but will also have the additional benefit of helping to reassure the public as they return to transit."

The agency is also working with four companies to pilot new technology aimed at better data collection, disinfecting and air filtration systems.

Portal Bridge funding gets OK

The board unanimously approved a full funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration at Wednesday's board meeting, approving the terms of a grant to help fund the construction of a new Portal North Bridge.

Plans to replace the more than century-old, swing-span rail bridge over the Hackensack River have been in the works for years and a trouble spot on the Northeast corridor for decades. A sledgehammer is sometimes required to lock the old bridge into place after it opens for marine traffic, which causes severe delays going into and out of New York Penn Station and throughout the multi-state rail corridor.

Its $1.73 billion replacement will receive about $766.5 million in federal money, with the rest paid by NJ Transit and Amtrak. The project must be completed by June 30, 2028, according to the agreement.

More transportation news: NJ spending $190M to renovate Newark Penn Station. Here's what improvements you can expect

NJ COVID update: When latest modeling predicts second wave will peak

Concerns were repeated by several members of the public at Wednesday's meeting about the merits of the grant application and whether it meets one of the main requirements to increase capacity by at least 10%.

Eric Daleo, senior vice president of capital programs at NJ Transit, said the agency repeatedly complied with FTA requests to prove the application meets the standards and capacity increases.

"The project will lead to higher capacity through a number of measures including elimination of movable bridge failures, higher speeds and through the acquisition of an additional 25 multi-level vehicles," Daleo said of the agency's expectations that the new bridge will prove higher capacity numbers after it's built.

The FTA must now notify Congress of the funding agreement and then the agency can begin procurement for construction.

PTC confidence continues as deadline nears

Dec. 31 — the positive train control deadline — is rapidly approaching, and those charged with overseeing NJ Transit's testing and installation of the mandated braking system reiterated to board members they are comfortable with the agency's ability to get the safety system certified in time.

Terry Fetters, project manager at Parsons, said once the North Jersey Coast Line enters extended revenue service demonstration next week, all lines will have entered this phase of testing, which takes place while customers are on board trains. Final software loading and updating is expected to be completed by Friday, according to his remarks to board members at the meeting.

Interoperability testing to ensure that NJ Transit's PTC system of radios, transponders and software can communicate with other PTC systems of railroads that use the same tracks, like Amtrak and Norfolk, is ongoing.

NJ Transit was named by the Federal Railroad Administration as the only railroad considered at risk of not making the deadline, according to a quarterly report published a few weeks ago. The lagging interoperability compliance was among the concerns highlighted by the federal agency.

"After we’ve done our own testing, FRA has their own staff come out and we send them all the data and they come out and ride the test trains for us and verify that they’re comfortable with all the data that they see from the test runs we’ve done," Corbett said.

If the system is not certified in time, NJ Transit could have to shut down service and could face $27,000-a-day fines.

Public ire over Transitgrid re-emerges

Environmentalists are back on the attack about two months after they largely praised agency officials for developing an RFQ for bids on ideas to improve the sustainability of a proposed microgrid intended to provide a back-up power source for the railroad in the event of an outage.

Several advocates, who for more than a year had criticized the agency for proposing a natural-gas power plant, said the document seeking bidders through Jan. 25 does not reflect the spirit of the conversations had in recent months about efforts to reimagine the Transitgrid plant.

"Not only is the RFQ deceptive, but it could totally exclude contractors who can’t develop both a gas powered power plant and a renewable energy microgrid. The concept of being inclusive from the start has been wiped out," said Paula Rogovin, a member of the Don't Gas the Meadowlands coalition.

Corbett said the agency sees the project as a hybrid model, but the degree to which it is reliant on renewables versus carbon-producers will become more clear once the bids are in.

"We just have to make sure we balance the needs of providing reliable service to all members of society while also addressing the very laudible goal of having the project be 100% fossil-free," Corbett said.

Members of the board and chairwoman Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti told the public their concerns were heard and requested agency staff to distribute a copy of the RFQ to the board as not all had read it. Gutierrez-Scaccetti directed Corbett to "slow" the bid process down while the documents are reviewed and to inquire about the ramifications of withdrawing the air permits.

"I would be disappointed to think that we have structured a document that narrows the opportunity or the field of those who can participate, and so we have to look at the RFQ and perhaps pause for a moment or two to make sure that that playing field is as broad as it can be," Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. "This board’s job is to create advocacy for all, and we will do that, and we will do it together as a board, we will do it together with Kevin and his team, and we will do it with all of you."

Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. 

Email: cwilson2@gannettnj.com 

Twitter: @colleenallreds 

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/transportation/2020/12/09/nj-transit-board-delves-into-covid-ptc-transitgrid-and-portal-bridge/6505757002/