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A simple way to make transit more safe

Voters will help decide the fate of America’s public transportation

Anthony Quintano

When a commuter train crashed into the platform at the Hoboken, New Jersey, station earlier this month, Governor Chris Christie called it an “extraordinary tragedy.” Now reports have confirmed that the crash, which killed a 34-year-old woman and injured over 100 passengers and employees, could easily have been avoided by safety improvements deferred by political decisions.

With elections coming up that will determine funding sources for many transportation projects across the country, how can transit systems make sure that what happened in New Jersey doesn't happen to them?

One of the most scathing accounts of the Hoboken crash came from engineer Karl Ward, who wrote a widely shared post on Facebook about being injured. In his post—warning, there’s a fairly graphic image of his injuries—he specifically called out Christie for allowing the incident to happen:

Of all the things that happened, in the end I am most furious with the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who has made a career of dismantling major transit projects and reducing capital investments in New Jersey's public transit systems. Under Christie's watch, our transit system has failed to secure the funds to implement train safety measures like Positive Train Control, a federally mandated safety technology that could have prevented this accident.

In addition, Governor Christie has used this crisis as a cover to raise the gasoline tax while massively cutting taxes for the wealthy by eliminating the NJ estate tax. I have little doubt that whatever money is raised to implement the long overdue train safety measures will instead be rerouted strictly to Christie's political benefit. And once again, our self-proclaimed fiscally responsible governor will have blown such incredible holes in the budget that New Jersey will continue to leave critical safety measures unimplemented.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of the crash will not be completed for weeks (potentially months), a preliminary report says that when the train crashed into the platform, it was going 21 miles per hour, almost twice as fast as the 11 mile per hour speed limit. In fact, the train sped up in the final seconds before colliding with a post.

It is impossible to speculate what caused the crash, but assuming all mechanical systems were functioning correctly, the Positive Train Control (PTC) system mentioned by Ward—a self-driving safety system that acts like the collision-avoidance feature on cars—would have very likely slowed the train to the correct speed.

All train systems have been federally mandated to install PTC by 2018, but due to lack of funding, the Hoboken train did not have it yet. Last year, the NTSB reported that PTC would have prevented the deadly Amtrak derailment outside of Philadelphia that killed eight people. It was scheduled to be installed, but had been delayed due to budget issues.

Deferred maintenance can become a dangerous liability for public transportation. As a New York Times investigation revealed, the New Jersey transit systems, once paragons of efficiency, have amassed deplorable safety ratings after budgetary decisions took funds away from transportation improvements.

And many of those decisions can be directly attributed to decisions made by Christie over the last few years, including canceling plans for a much-needed new train tunnel into Manhattan. (This has not been a good few weeks for Christie’s transportation record; a former aide testified that he knew about the Bridgegate scandal, where lanes were closed on a bridge to punish a local mayor.)

New Jersey is not an outlier here. Faced with these types of safety updates to make—paired, in many cities, with increased ridership that’s responsible for more wear and tear—transit systems all over the country have had to get creative. 2016 has seen more than 70 local funding initiatives like bond measures and sales-tax increases on local ballots, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence (see the full list here). The American Public Transportation Association estimates if the 45 measures on the ballot in November all pass it will mean $200 billion for new transportation investment.

But the decision about how to fund a transit system is only one part of the equation. For example, in New Jersey, as in states like Pennsylvania and New York, many transit improvements are paid for by gas taxes. All too often, though, money collected from the gas tax can be “raided” for other projects, leaving low-priority transit improvements unfunded.

In fact, New Jersey’s gas tax was raised by the state legislature just a week after the train crash, making it one of the highest in the nation (although some are still worried not enough of the money will make its way back to transit, like Ward says in his post).

This is why some states are trying to give control of these decisions back to the people. The citizens of Illinois, for example, are voting on a constitutional amendment this November that would create a “lockbox” for gas tax funds so they couldn’t be used for other projects.

With federal support for transit projects historically dwindling, and more cities scrambling to get people out of their cars, transportation decisions are falling more to local governments and the citizens they serve. But the horrific crash in Hoboken should serve as a reminder that when you head to the polls this November, you’re not just voting for a shiny new light-rail line, you’re choosing improvements that could save lives.