Probe of NJ Transit’s problems gets underway as commuters come out to complain

Updated Nov 13, 2019

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said the joint panel he formed to investigate NJ Transit’s problems will be on an express schedule to have recommendations to Governor Phil Murphy in time to possibly be included in the next state budget.

Commuters got a rare chance to tell lawmakers in person Wednesday evening about their issues with NJ Transit on their home turf – steps away from the buses and trains that would take them home from Hoboken Terminal.

A steady stream of rail and bus commuters testified to the 8-member panel for about two hours straight about NJ Transits problems and some offered solutions. Another 40 people submitted letters ahead of time.

Jeffrey M. Goldman of Paramus has ridden the Pascack Valley Line for 30 years and said he considers it one of NJ Transit’s neglected lines.

“The conductors are nice, but trains are canceled routinely and we know the next train will be packed,” Goldman said. “It has ancient equipment and the doors don’t open.”

Vincent Fedor of Bayonne rides the 81 and 119 bus and said the NJ Transit app is good but has some issues telling riders when the bus will arrive and there are buses with windows that don’t stay shut.

“When there is a no show, I’ll never receive any alerts,” he said. “NJ Transit isn’t just for commuters, it’s for shoppers and people with kids.”

Roger Heitmann, treasurer of the Riverview Neighborhood Association in Jersey City, said while they met with NJ Transit and some additional buses were added, it is not enough to keep up development such as 15 high rises planned around Journal Square. Most advertise transit access to Manhattan as an amenity, he said.

“By and large I don’t see a lot of improvement. It doesn’t seem there is any plan to handle all those additional commuters,” he said. “It’s like management by crisis. Why not have a trust fund developers pay into?”

Wednesday was not the only shot commuters had to testify. Sweeney said other hearings are planned.

In an interview with NJ Advance Media ahead of the meeting, Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he’d like the panel to have its proposals to Murphy in time to discuss funding them in the state budget.

“We would tell him what we recommend. If he’s not on board, we’d ask what he recommends," Sweeney said.

Sweeney joined transit advocates and experts who have called for a dedicated, stable source of operating budget funding, instead of depending on what is recommended in the governor’s budget. That would allow NJ Transit to do multi-year budget planning and to stop raiding capital funds to make up the difference, he said.

“What I see is we don’t budget for tomorrow. There is no five-year long-range plan,” he said.

NJ Transit officials said a five-year strategic plan is coming in 2020 to meet a recommendation in the audit that Murphy ordered in early 2018.

“Part of this (the panel’s work) is to identify where the money is coming from. It has to happen,” he said. “We have to make sure there is a vision to grow. We don’t want to fix it today and 15 years later, it goes back to what it was.”

One place it won’t come from is from a fare increase, Sweeney insists.

“I won’t support a fare increase,” he said, adding fares are among the nation’s highest. “At what point does it become cost-prohibitive and push people into their vehicles?”

The job of the panel is not to blame, but to make recommendations to fix NJ Transits problems.

“I’m not laying it all on (Gov. Phil) Murphy, but if he denied it exists, then we’ll have more of the same problems,” Sweeney said. “This shouldn’t be perceived as the legislature versus the governor. We’re looking to make NJ Transit a premier system.”

Committee members include powerful Democrats like state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County, Sen. Sandra Cunningham of Hudson, and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Patrick Diegnan of Middlesex. Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman R-Somerset, and Senator Kristin Corrado R-Passaic, were named to the panel.

Sweeney said his staff has examined recommendations and findings of the joint legislative oversight panel’s 60-page report that probed NJ Transit after the Sept. 29, 2016 train crash that killed a woman walking through Hoboken Terminal and injured 108 others after the train failed to stop and crashed through a barrier.

That committee exposed problems in the agency including a shortage of engineers, lack of classes to train replacements, a lack of progress to install a federally mandated safety system called Positive Train Control, communication problems getting information to commuters and issues with delays and equipment breakdown.

That investigation has provided some answers and Sweeney said the joint panel has made requests to NJ Transit for documents and testimony.

Some of NJ Transit’s forgotten riders, specifically the disabled who use AccessLink, also will see some relief. Sweeney said he’s heard from those riders about issues that he wants to address.

“When we fix it, we’re not leaving anyone behind,” he said.

Brian Hornak of Hoboken may have summed up the task ahead, telling lawmakers they “have a better job of fixing the Titanic than righting NJ Transit.”

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