Are You Living Next to a Ticking Time Bomb? It’s a Secret in NJ
Last weekend’s partial collapse of a railroad bridge in Ridgefield Park served as a reminder that although road bridge inspection reports are public, operators of New Jersey’s commuter and freight railroads have been reluctant to share details about rail bridge conditions, citing security concerns.
Federal law requires railroads to provide some detail to state and local officials who request it, and a proposal passed by the state Senate that awaits a vote in the Assembly would compel the state Department of Transportation to request the reports at least annually for every railroad bridge in New Jersey.
Those reports would then have to be shared with the governor and Legislature.
The proposed change is included in a bill, S1883, primarily focused on trains carrying hazardous materials, such as crude oil. It would require them to post information online monthly about their routes, volumes of what they carry and an analysis of that would happen if the contents are spilled.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said more than 30 trains each week carry Bakken oil drilled in North Dakota through New Jersey.
“The main reason for this bill is so that towns can be prepared, that there’s plans in place, that first responders get trained in case there’s an accident, in case there’s a spill,” Tittel said. “God forbid that would happen.”
“Public information is power,” said environmentalist David Pringle. “It’s the best way to hold these folks accountable.”
But not everyone’s on board with making the information public. NJ Transit has resisted requests for bridge inspection reports. The bill passed the Senate 26-13, with most Republicans opposed, and an earlier version of the bill was vetoed last year by then-Gov. Chris Christie.
Ron Sabol, the New Jersey legislative director for the transportation division of International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers union, said he’s for transparency for the rail bridge conditions – but not for the contents and routes of the trains themselves.
“Our people, they’re on those trains. And I’m concerned here that too much easy accessibility to the transparency of what’s there to the general public, especially in the form of the possibility of terrorism or anyone else that wants to play around over near the tracks where this stuff is, can cause more of a problem than what we’re really trying to prevent here,” Sabol said.
“I don’t want my members that are on these trains to become a target as well, or an easier target, for anyone,” said Sabol, a former CSX conductor.
Michael Fesen, a government relations manager for Norfolk Southern, hopes the bill is stopped in its tracks.
“These provisions are nothing short of a gift to ISIS, al-Qaeda and homegrown terrorists,” Faison said. “This bill takes all the hard work out of being a terrorist, and it flies in the face of our national efforts to protect our citizens, our towns and our hazardous materials from attack and sabotage.”