N.J. Transit is learning the consequences of truth | Editorial

on December 19, 2016

 

In a moment of bracing candor, a Bergen County attorney named Bruce Meisel - upon announcing his departure after four years as vice-chair on the board of NJ Transit - admitted Wednesday that the third-largest commuter rail system in the U.S. is built on stupid and unsustainable economics.

"One conclusion from my term on this board," he said, "is that the funding arrangement for NJ Transit - whether dedicated or otherwise - has to become more reliable."

Insert slow clap here. Or booming applause, your choice.

That may not be illuminating, but it's a significant departure from the last public statement by a board member - namely, transportation commissioner Richard Hammer, who insisted the agency has "sufficient money to fund its operations."

The truth, however, is a fine deodorant. You just wonder whether NJ Transit - and the rest of Gov. Christie's board appointees - can handle the truth.

Because as we enter an interlude between hearings held by the legislative committee investigating the agency's personnel, funding, and safety defects, we have learned much through the first three rounds.

We learned that crucial safety positions remain unfilled, while 10 executive offices - including titles that sound straight out of the David Wildstein Employee Handbook - have been filled with the governor's cronies, Bloomberg reported this week. NJ Transit said these are senior management assets who fit the job. The committee co-chairs say they aren't aware of more than one with any transit experience.

We learned that installing Positive Train Control, which probably would have prevented the Hoboken tragedy, is a bone-crushing lift, should have commenced years ago, and - alarmingly - not many are trained to do it. "This gets back to underfunding, but NJT seems on the short end of resources to make these hires," says Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a co-chair. But in a sign the board is catching on, it voted to refinance bonds to provide $60 million to help pay for PTC.

Most importantly, as Meisel and executive director Steve Santoro admitted, we've confirmed that Trenton has starved the agency. As Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), the other co-chair, put it: "While ridership has increased substantially, there's a significant reduction in capital equipment and maintenance investment. How does that make sense?"

We're in the early innings here, but truth-tellers are setting the tone. We have yet to hear from other key employees, outside organizations, the feds, and commuters. The follow-up session with NJ Transit executives figures to be the blueprint for a historic course correction.

The hearings resume next month, probably around Jan. 17. The revelations are ongoing.

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