NJ Transit needs a full board and further reform. This is a recording. | Editorial

Posted Aug 05, 2021

It has been 2½ years since the last NJ Transit reform bill took effect, mandating a board of directors with 13 members. As of today, there are still four vacancies, after one of Phil Murphy’s appointments – a conductor recommended by the union, making $200,000 a year – dropped out last week upon being arrested for insurance fraud.

It’s been nearly 11 months since the “customer advocate” position created by the reform bill was left vacant, after the last guy was run out of town for being an NJ Transit mouthpiece who mostly tweeted PR fluff, and the agency hasn’t tried very hard to hire someone who actually advocates for riders.

These are just a few reasons why NJ Transit could use another round of reforms, and Sen. Loretta Weinberg vows to get it right this time: Her second reform package, which calls for more board oversight and shifts some hiring responsibility to its directors, is expected to be taken up during lame duck.

But you can forgive the Majority Leader for doubting Murphy’s sincerity in embracing reforms. The governor made it clear that board vacancies and the advocate position aren’t priorities for him, and this should be an alarm bell for advocates and riders alike.

“I challenge you to walk up to somebody standing on a platform and ask him: ‘When you judge whether NJ Transit is working or not, do you include the size of their board of directors?’” Murphy told NJ Spotlight News last week.

“No one is going to say that. What folks want is, they want the train or bus to show up on time, to get them there reliably, to have a positive, healthy, safe, reliable customer experience.”

That is not only tone-deaf, it is a repudiation of the reform bill he signed nearly three years ago – breaking a promise to add oversight and expertise to a board that didn’t voice a nay vote for more than a decade.

Instead, nearly one-third of the board is vacant, and despite some strong additions last year, it is still dominated by chair Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the transportation commissioner, and the ex officio members from the administration.

The original Reform 2.0 bill would have allowed the board to select the chair, but Weinberg removed that provision last week. The advocates wish she didn’t do that.

“Riders want a Board that demands accountability and gets results,” says longtime advocate Len Resto of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers. “Not having a full board is testament to this administration not caring about riders -- pure and simple. And there is also no reason a Customer Advocate, reporting to the board, hasn’t been appointed.”

“The Customer Advocate position could have helped the agency during COVID, as a direct line of feedback on safety and service,” says Janna Chernetz of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “And now that it’s faced with the challenge of regaining ridership post-COVID, the agency would benefit significantly from that feedback. The clock is ticking.”

Weinberg’s reply to Murphy: “The average commuter may not know the size of the board, but they care about what the board does, and they want a more responsive, accountable agency.

“So why wouldn’t the governor want a full complement of board members?” she added. “And why would you leave the Advocate position vacant? Is it because the Transit bureaucracy doesn’t want anyone around who might cause problems or raise issues?”

Murphy can point to some gains at NJ Transit, notably the elimination of the engineer deficit, beating a deadline to install the automatic braking system, and big updates on the bus fleet and rail stock, even though the train deliveries are still a few years away.

But he’s suspiciously blown off board appointments: He never explained why he pulled two off the table last year -- Chernetz was one of them – and he routinely uses on-time performance and other pandemic-skewed metrics as proof that NJ Transit has turned the corner.

That is a fair, but facile, analysis, given that ridership cratered in 2020. Only greater transparency and accountability will prove that the country’s third-largest commuter agency is being run properly, and that will take additional reform that the governor clearly resists.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-08-07 03:55:54 -0700