Over 100 people were injured when a New Jersey Transit train sped through Hoboken yesterday, and although no cause of the accident has yet been identified, commentators are already pointing to the transit system’s well-known weaknesses. The New York Times editorial board writes that the root of the problems is a lack of funding:
What we do know — have known, in fact, for years — is that there are technologies to make trains safer that New Jersey Transit and many other commuter systems have been slow to install. The most promising of these can slow or stop trains automatically.
Congress in 2008 passed legislation requiring freight and passenger railroads to install the technology known as positive train control by the end of last year. Lawmakers acted after 25 people died in the head-on crash of two trains near Chatsworth, Calif., which could have been prevented by such a system. The technology could also have prevented an Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in 2015 and the derailment of a Metro-North train in the Bronx in 2013, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Yet, most railroads, including New Jersey Transit, failed to meet the 2015 deadline, and Congress last year gave them three more years to finish the job. Commuter-train systems like New Jersey’s have struggled in large part because federal and state governments have not provided enough money to help them buy the necessary equipment and software.
The Times‘ analysis is incomplete, but it’s not wrong. Governor Christie has refused to fund many important infrastructure projects, from positive train control to the Gateway Project tunnel which would expand train capacity between Manhattan and New Jersey. New Jersey Transit has suffered from big cuts to its budget which have forced the agency to press pause on hundreds of projects. Direct state support for New Jersey transit fell by over 90 percent from 2005–2016.
But Governor Christie’s approach to infrastructure isn’t born of a hatred for commuters. Christie has actually been cutting budgets because he feels American infrastructure spending is wasteful.
There’s a lot of truth to the governor’s thinking. The salaries and benefits of New Jersey Transit workers, much like those of their peers across the country, are absurdly high. The engineer of the train that derailed on Thursday makes $111,000 a year before benefits. And many New Jersey Transit employees, like public sector employees across the country, receive perks unheard of in the private sector—supplemental health insurance once Medicare kicks in after retirement, for example. It’s all getting even pricier too: In March, a federal labor board sided with unions over New Jersey Transit, mandating that the agency raise salaries by 18 percent over the next two years.
But while Christie is right to see waste, his strategy for combatting it isn’t working. Unions aren’t giving way and personnel costs are rising. The budget cuts are simply putting a hold on critical capital improvements and thus making commutes more horrible and dangerous. It may not have been Christie’s intention to strangle them, but commuters have suffered more from his actions than anyone else has. Something will have to give because such high salaries and such generous benefits are eating up infrastructure budgets, but cutting budgets as a sort of punishment for incompetence and bloat isn’t solving the problem.
We hope the governor and other reform-minded politicians take note and figure out a way to make infrastructure both cheaper for taxpayers and safer for commuters. “Starving the beast” has been the GOP way for decades. But the compounding effects of deferring maintenance and the continuing power of public sector unions add up to mean that with infrastructure, this tactic is a blunt and often counterproductive tool. New Jersey is learning the hard way that if you shrink the pie, well-organized interests will still eat as much as ever. It’s everyone else who will be left hungry.