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New Jersey lawmakers press transit chief on storm planning

By Janet Roberts and Ryan McNeill

(Reuters) - New Jersey lawmakers on Monday pressed the head of New Jersey Transit to explain $100 million in damage to rail cars and engines flooded during Superstorm Sandy, particularly why his agency stored hundreds of cars and locomotives in low-lying railyards.

Executive Director James Weinstein told the General Assembly's Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee his agency relied on "best available" weather forecasts. He also said he would not raise fares to pay for repairs of storm damage because he expected costs to be covered by insurance and federal disaster funds.

All told, the storm caused an estimated $400 million in damage to NJ Transit's system, Weinstein That includes $100 million in damage to the flooded cars and engines.

"I can tell you unequivocally: The decisions on where to keep and move our rail cars and locomotives were sound, based on the best weather models and forecasts, historical experience and other information we had at the time, mid-day Sunday, when we had to launch the railroad shutdown," Weinstein said.

"The facts are, the weather models we used at the time indicated an 80 to 90 percent chance that the Meadows Maintenance Complex in Kearny and the western portion of the Hoboken rail yards would stay dry."

Assemblyman Ruben J. Ramos Jr., a Hoboken Democrat, said some weather advisories did warn of flooding in Kearny and Hoboken. He said his neighbors in Hoboken heeded those warnings, moving their cars from a street that had not flooded previously.

"My constituents are asking, ‘Why didn't Transit have the same common sense?'" he asked Weinstein.

"I would say to you that our common sense is informed by this event," Weinstein replied. "Sandy fooled us once. No Sandy in the future is going to fool us again."

NJ Transit had to make decisions early, Weinstein said, because it takes 12 hours to shut down its system and to move its buses and rail cars to safe haven.

His contention that he would not have to raise fares drew questions from Assemblyman Upendra J. Chivukula, a Somerset Democrat, who said the agency likely will see its insurance premiums soar because of storm damage. He asked how long Weinstein would stand by his pledge not to raise fares.

"As long as I am executive director," Weinstein replied.

"I don't know how long that will be," Chivukula said.

"I don't know either," Weinstein said.

A Reuters investigation last month showed NJ Transit stored equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars in low-lying rail yards that forecasters warned could flood. NJ Transit saw a third of its locomotives and a quarter of its railcars flooded in the storm.

NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder has said the agency relied on a National Hurricane Center advisory issued early on Sunday morning, October 28, more than 30 hours before the storm made landfall near Atlantic City and many hours before the agency shut down its rail system to prepare for the storm.

The Hurricane Center issues a range of maps, from rosiest to worst-case scenarios. At the time in question, the rosiest scenario showed seawater lapping at the edges of the yard. The worst case warned of inundation.

(Reporting By Janet Roberts and Ryan McNeill)

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