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NJ Transit chief: train storage in storm 'sound'

Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey Transit's executive director on Monday defended his decision to store rail cars in Hoboken and Kearney to protect them as Superstorm Sandy barreled toward the region in October.

Jim Weinstein told the state Assembly's Transportation Committee that rail yards in the two cities had never flooded before and that models showed an 80 to 90 percent chance the yards would not flood even with a massive storm bearing down on the region.

It turned out the models were wrong, and NJ Transit trains sustained about $100 million in damage from flooding in the two storage yards.

"Sandy fooled us once," Weinstein said. "No Sandy in the future is going to fool us again."

Weinstein said his agency is looking into places where rail cars and other equipment could be kept dry in case of future storms.

Sandy's wrath in New Jersey hit commuter trains particularly hard, shutting down key stations on the PATH line between New York and New Jersey and flooding cars. As a consequence, rail lines across the state are still experiencing delays.

Weinstein said the dynamics of the storm changed as it arrived, bringing damaging storm surges to areas of northern New Jersey where unusually high water was not expected. By then, he said the 12-hour process of shutting down the transit system was already complete.

Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson was invited to attend the hearing, but did not. Later in the day, Joseph Dee, a department spokesman, said Simpson was willing to attend but didn't show up because of "a miscommunication."

Earlier, Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski, D-Sayreville, and committee chairman, blasted Simpson for not attending, saying in a statement: "His failure to appear today makes one wonder what he has to hide about his department's planning and response." Wisniewski said he wanted to probe whether the department's facilities and equipment were properly protected.

Transportation advocates who appeared before the committee said the storm made clear some troublesome priorities in state transportation policy.

"The storm did not create new vulnerabilities," said Janna Chernetz, a transportation advocate at Tri-state Transportation Campaign. "It exposed existing ones."

She called for the state to rethink how it spends money on transportation. More money should go to maintaining and rebuilding existing roads and rail lines, she said, largely to make them less of a risk during natural disasters. She said less should go to adding lanes of roads and that a stable funding source is needed for transportation projects.

Joseph Clift, a former official at the Long Island Railroad and Conrail, said the rail car destruction in New Jersey — including damage to nearly one-fourth of its cars and locomotives — was largely preventable.

He said that the yards are susceptible to flooding and that a 10 to 20 percent chance of flooding from Sandy was risky enough that the cars should have been put elsewhere. He said that leaving cars in Kearney "was the equivalent of making a one-in-five bet that $1 billion of equipment would be flooded. That's awfully bad odds."