NJ Transit still needs major reforms. And that’s Murphy’s blind spot | Editorial

Published: Dec. 15, 2021

There is a bipartisan New Jersey Transit reform bill that makes the agency far more transparent, fortifies a Board of Directors that is still treated as an afterthought, and promotes customer service that isn’t just PR piffle.

But that bill is still stuck in the Assembly, which is another sign that Gov. Murphy doesn’t seek to change much at the nation’s third-largest commuter system, no matter how often he dusts off the if-it-kills-me sales pitch. Indeed, his stewardship suggests a preference for a status quo that could send NJT careening into another ditch.

Start with this reform package, which passed the Senate two weeks ago in a 25-5 avalanche, with five of the governor’s closest allies the only dissenters.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has voiced his support for more reform as well, which leads Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg to this conclusion: “I have little doubt that the administration is holding it up,” she said, “and I still can’t understand its resistance to treating the riding public with respect.”

This bill does that.

It re-creates the position of Customer Advocate, which has been vacant since the last occupant – a $127,000-per-year cheerleader, not someone who represent customers – was drummed out in Oct. 2020.

The new position comes with teeth and a mandate: Protect the riders and report their concerns directly to the Board, not to NJ Transit management. This Advocate is no flunky: He or she would initiate studies, conduct investigations, meet with customers monthly, and testify on their behalf at Board meetings.

There is much more: The bill requires that the Board hires the Executive Director, the Customer Advocate, and the Auditor General, and approves of all hires above the Senior VP level.

It also creates a position of Board vice-chair – elected by the other members – and the new seat cannot be filled by an ex-officio member of the body.

And the bill requires NJ Transit to hold two public hearings before a capital program is adopted, and mandates that the audit department shares all audit documents with the Board.

Such provisions, of course, could bridle Murphy and Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who as NJ Transit Board chairperson is one of the most powerful people in state government.

But four years into the job, they routinely avoid Board scrutiny and public accountability, and that needs to end.

This agency still has no stabilized funding source, exposing it to the annual budget wrangle, and Murphy raided $360 million from the capital budget to pay for operations, which sets crucial projects back for years.

There are still four empty seats on the board, including two very qualified nominees Murphy yanked back in a petulant snit in May of 2020 -- and he has never tried to fill them, as required by the reform bill he signed three years ago.

Transparency is still opaque, judging by Gutierrez-Scaccetti’s negotiation with New York and Connecticut for $14 billion in federal transit aid: She told the Board that the controversial deal was “hard” to explain on the phone (actually, the Port Authority does slide decks on Zoom all the time), which left members feeling more like intruders than advisors.

As Janna Chernetz of Tri-State Transportation Campaign put it, “If the Board wasn’t involved in something as crucial as funding, what else has been kept from it?”

And NJT has yet to put a single electric on the road in its 3000-bus fleet, despite the governor’s promise to make 50% of its purchases electric by 2026.

The list goes on.

Assembly Transportation chair Dan Benson isn’t ruling out debating the bill before lame duck ends, and Coughlin wants to consider it “in the near future.”

Still, it’s up to the governor, whose office won’t discuss how he feels about the proposed reforms, and he could veto the bill once it reaches his desk.

But Murphy faces a simple choice here. He can take the steps that will bring NJ Transit into the 21st Century, or he will continue to manage the agency as he has all along – through a series of avoidable blunders.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-16 03:33:09 -0800