Surviving the Super Bowl's transit logjam

More than 30,000 rode NJ Transit to the game at MetLife Stadium. Many fans from Manhattan waited at the Secaucus Junction station 90 minutes or more.
More than 30,000 rode NJ Transit to the game at MetLife Stadium. Many fans from Manhattan waited at the Secaucus Junction station 90 minutes or more. (VERENA DOBNIK / AP)
Posted: February 05, 2014

Ron Katz has visited six of the last 13 Super Bowl host cities, traveling to the home stadiums for teams in Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, San Diego and New Orleans - twice.

He was excited to add New York and East Rutherford, N.J., to the list, but came away fatigued and disheartened.

"They should never, ever have another Super Bowl here," said Katz, 50, of Denver. "The area is one of the most, if not the most, amazing places in the country, but based on the logistics that I saw - and the disregard for fan comfort and safety - never again."

Katz was one of more than 30,000 people who took NJ Transit to the game at MetLife Stadium. Many complained of hours of stuffy, crowded, and confused mass transit, although the MetLife stands were full by game time.

State Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex) on Monday called for a review of the event's transit operations. NJ Transit continued to defend its performance.

The agency had planned for 12,000 to 15,000 people to take the train in what had been dubbed the first "mass transit Super Bowl." But nearly double that - 40 percent of attendees - opted for the rail line. People were encouraged to take the train to the game, and most bought their tickets the day of the contest, shattering NJ Transit's previous record of 22,000 rail riders for a U2 concert at the Meadowlands in 2009.

"The priority was to remove folks as safely and as quickly as possible," NJ Transit spokesman William Smith said Monday. "We had a record-setting event, and we really had a remarkable achievement, to get that many people away from the stadium with no significant incidents, no report of any injuries."

Even if the agency had been given a better estimate, Williams said, the rail line can remove only 12,000 people per hour.

Katz, who had never been to an actual game before Sunday - he prefers taking in the host city's pregame festivities and then watching in a bar to the high price tickets - won admission this year. He scored a virtual field goal on a Wii video game at a Manhattan H&M clothing store, which won him a scratch-off ticket that got him the grand prize of two tickets valued at $1,000 each.

But his good fortune didn't board the train with him.

It took Katz and his brother two hours to get to the stadium and three to get back to their hotel in Manhattan. The $51 bus shuttle was sold out as of Thursday, and parking passes cost $150.

Because of the security designation and accompanying 300-foot security perimeter around MetLife Stadium, parking was limited to 12,000 spaces, and no off-site parking was available. Walking to the stadium was not permitted.

Travelers to the game at the Secaucus Junction station described a sweltering stairwell where they were stuck for 90 minutes, stripping off layers of clothing, and complaining of feeling faint and claustrophobic. No injuries were reported. The first train to the Meadowlands was scheduled for 1:40 p.m., but many people arrived hours before that, filling the lobby and leaving the new arrivals from Penn Station stuck in the stairwell.

NFL executive Eric Grubman said Monday morning that the backup there created "the first unpleasant, anxiety-filled wait."

Outside, state police kept a massive crowd back from the boarding platform for fear of tramplings. NJ Transit sent in 20 buses around 11:30 p.m. to take New York City-bound travelers to the Port Authority, Smith said. He said the last train left around 12:40 a.m.

It took Ocean City, N.J., resident John McCarroll and his two sons an hour and a half to traverse 100 yards from the stadium to the train after the game. "The pileup was immediate and massive, tempers flared, and language was more akin to the docks than to a Super Bowl," McCarroll said. He left the stadium around 10:30 and got back to his home at 3 a.m.

The logjam raised questions about whether stadiums on the outskirts of large cities can handle the urban transit necessary to host the game.

Jerri Williams, spokeswoman for SEPTA, said Philadelphia's Broad Street Line can transport 10,000 to 11,000 passengers to an Eagles' game in half an hour.

It would take approximately three hours to clear the Sports Complex area of a crowd of 30,000, with each train holding 800 to 1,000 people and leaving AT&T station every five to eight minutes.

"Any public transportation system only has so many trains that can operate at the same time," she said.

She hesitated to "bring up bad memories," but said last week's snowstorm, which sent a rush of people home at midday, and the 2008 Phillies World Series parade, which packed Regional Rail lines to capacity, evidenced similar transit issues.

For both Williams and Katz, the crowds, the travel headaches, the one-sided game were still worth the Super Bowl experience. "I wouldn't trade it," said Katz, whose flight home to Denver was canceled due to snow Monday, adding insult to injury. He considered spending his extra night at the New Jersey Devils hockey game in Newark.

"I thought about getting on another train," said the Super Bowl ticket winner, "but decided I shouldn't push my luck."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.

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