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Report on NJ Transit's gridlock at Super Bowl is overdue

By Karen Rouse, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 04--It's been about five months since hordes of Super Bowl fans found themselves stuck on train platforms for hours, waiting for NJ Transit to get them home from the big game.

And added to the unresolved question of why that happened is the question of whether a consulting firm hired to predict game-day ridership provided good advice for its $1.2 million fee.

In the time since the Seattle Seahawks marched off the field victorious, there has been no explanation of why, after more than a year of planning, NJ Transit was ill-prepared to handle the 33,000 football fans who took its advice to "take the train" to the big game, only to end up trapped for hours in a crush of people trying to get home.

A report on the agency's handling of Super Bowl transportation is now three months overdue.

Since the Feb. 2 contest between Seattle and the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium, blame has shifted between NJ Transit – the agency charged with moving people to the stadium by train – and the National Football League -- an organization that some say held rigid control over logistics during planning for the game. No one is explaining how NJ Transit arrived at its pregame projections that 10,000 to 12,000 people would get there on the Meadowlands rail line.

But a $1.2 million contract between NJ Transit and a global planning firm, AECOM Technical Services Inc., raises questions about how the transit agency's ridership projections could go so wrong. That contract was specifically for travel-demand forecasting – a data-driven technique that transportation planners use to project crowd levels -- related to the Super Bowl.

NJ Transit's board approved the contract in May 2013.

Jim Weinstein, who was executive director at NJ Transit at the time of the Super Bowl, had been a senior vice president at AECOM until he joined NJ Transit in 2010.

AECOM'sApril 26, 2013, contract proposal laid out an ambitious plan that included helping NJ Transit coordinate and prepare "a unified operating plan for Super Bowl followed by a risk analysis and peer review of the plan," according to documents reviewed by The Record. The proposal also carved out $29,000 to send a team of AECOM employees to the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans to do transportation planning even before the contract was signed, and it lists an unexplained budget of $50,000 for "lessons learned."

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An NJ Transit spokesman, John Durso Jr., declined to explain what the agency got for that $50,000 or whether it covered the 2013 or 2014 Super Bowl.

If the lessons-learned provision applied to the Meadowlands game, it is unclear why NJ Transit's board began a probe of the agency's handling of the game.

"The NJ Transit board of directors is leading an independent review of NJ Transit's planning and operations related to Super Bowl XLVIII," Durso, who left the agency last month, said in a written statement about all issues related to the contract. "In light of that independent review, which is continuing, we would respectfully decline to offer any further comment regarding this at this time."

He refused to discuss how NJ Transit arrived at the 10,000-to-12,000 figure; or when the evaluation of the Super Bowl performance will be produced. It was due in March.

AECOM also declined to answer questions about why the crowd estimates that NJ Transit relied on were so low.

Paul J. Gennaro, AECOM's senior vice president and chief communications officer, referred questions to NJ Transit.

AECOM's proposal said it would "provide subject-matter experts on an as-needed basis covering technical specialty disciplines such as crowd/pedestrian modeling ... risk management, NFL considerations ... and agency coordination."

Among other things, the $1.2 million covered:

--Conducting field observations and preparing "general recommendations for accommodating visitors and guests at Secaucus Junction, Hoboken Terminal, Newark Penn Station and New York Penn Station."

--Developing diagrams and graphics "to address any issues or challenges with the proposed major transportation facilities."

--Performing initial risk assessment of the initial operating plan, including a list of contingency plans.

--Convening a working group of transportation officials who were involved in the planning of the Indianapolis, Dallas and New Orleans Super Bowls, and the London Olympic Games to review the transportation-management plan for the Super Bowl.

Another NJ Transit spokesman, William Smith, said the agency has paid AECOM$1.14 million and does not expect to make any additional payments.

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David Peter Alan, chairman of a railroad passenger advocacy group, the Lackawanna Coalition, said that spending any public money on travel-demand forecasting for the Super Bowl was unnecessary.

"The direct beneficiary of this effort is the National Football League, and not New Jersey's taxpayers or NJ Transit riders," he told the NJ Transit board at the May 8, 2013, meeting at which the AECOM contract was approved. "This management and board plead poverty when it comes to benefiting riders or employees. When it comes to providing a benefit for a monopoly like the NFL, it seems that money is no object," he said.

"I don't see how they could have done much worse if they had no outside advice," he said. But he stopped short of blaming AECOM.

"Maybe the NFL gave them a number that was wrong," he added.

In its recommendation to the board before the board approved the contract, the NJ Transit staff wrote that AECOM's plan for transit services "will ensure a seamless travel experience for both visitors and regular commuters during Super Bowl XLVIII week."

But for thousands of Super Bowl fans, the experience was anything but seamless. Fans heading to the game early got caught in a human traffic jam some estimated lasted 40 minutes as multiple trains unloaded passengers at Secaucus Junction – where fans had to go to transfer to the Meadowlands train – within minutes of one another. By 4 p.m., NJ Transit counted that more than 27,000 people had ridden the train to the game.

Despite those figures, the return home after the game – with most fans leaving around the same time – was worse. Fans complained on social media about being stuck on the platforms with no one providing any direction. Days after, the public and out-of-state fans said the handling of transportation was an embarrassment to the state.

Weinstein showered praise on the agency after the game, which irked riders.

However, then-state Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who stepped down earlier this month, said that "somebody blew the estimates" and asked two agency board members -- Bruce Meisel, a Bergen County attorney and founder of First Westwood Realty, and Jamie Finkle, a transportation lawyer -- to lead a probe. Both Finkle and Meisel had voted to hire AECOM to do travel-demand forecasting for the game. Neither could be reached for comment.

NJ Transit also sat out a legislative hearing on its Super Bowl performance. In that instance, the agency also cited the board's pending review as its reason to reserve comment.

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(c)2014 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

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