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Opinion: NJ Transit reform law is key to improving service

Weinberg Void centered hi res

To New Jersey Transit rail commuters, who are still frustrated by the never-ending wave of train cancellations or bus riders stuck in seemingly interminable traffic, the enactment of NJ Transit reform legislation two weeks ago may not seem to matter much. But it does matter, because commuters are still paying a price today due to the failure to make systemic reforms in the past.

Few agencies in state government have a greater daily impact on the quality of life of millions of New Jerseyans, or on our state’s economic competitiveness, job creation and housing values.

Yet, as we learned through months of joint legislative hearings, few agencies have been less responsive, less transparent and less accountable to those who depend on their services than the nation’s fourth-largest public transit agency.

Once one of the nation’s top public transit agencies, NJ Transit suffered from years of budgetary neglect, a lack of long-term planning and maintenance, and mismanagement by patronage hires under Governor Christie.

Christie’s cancellation of the ARC Tunnel in 2010 will not only cost North and Central Jersey 10 to 15 years of lost economic growth, but it started a “brain drain” of demoralized executive talent to other transit agencies around the country.

The failure to invest in NJ Transit’s infrastructure and employees led inexorably to one of the nation’s worst accident and safety records, culminating in the fatal derailment of a Pascack Valley Line train that killed a young mother on the Hoboken rail platform and injured a hundred rail riders.

NJ Transit’s failure to train enough engineers is still causing almost daily train cancellations. In addition, the agency paid out millions in racial and sexual harassment lawsuits that were hidden from the public. The Human Resources department needs a complete and transparent overhaul.

Service reliability declined, while bus and rail fares rose an infuriating 35 percent under Christie because inadequate state subsidies forced NJ Transit to rely more on fare box revenues than other mass transit systems.

As NJ Transit cycled deeper into crisis, rail and bus commuters felt that the agency had stopped listening and stopped caring about their needs – and too often, it seemed that they were right because NJ Transit did not really answer to anyone.

The bipartisan NJ Transit reform bill that I sponsored, along with former Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), is designed to change that by making NJ Transit one of the most responsive, representative and transparent public transit agencies in the country.

No management, no matter who is in charge, likes change — especially change that requires it to publicly defend its decisions — which is why the reform negotiations took months. Gov. Phil Murphy and NJ Transit’s new leadership deserve credit for agreeing to these major reforms.

NJ Transit will never again be able to go into a bunker, make its decisions behind closed doors and then stonewall people asking for answers — a pattern of behavior that was all too familiar to me from my months of being refused answers by the Port Authority Board over the ‘Bridgegate’ lane closures in Fort Lee.

The new law will completely overhaul a NJ Transit Board that has too often been fully and tightly controlled by past governors, expanding it from eight to 13 members and requiring transit-related expertise.

By March, the reconstituted Board will have at least one rail and one bus commuter, plus one appointee recommended by the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and by the South Jersey members of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

The Senate President and Assembly Speaker, whose chambers gain critical legislative oversight powers over the agency under the new law, also get to recommend one board member each. Both the largest rail and bus employee unions will be represented by non-voting members.

This new broadly representative board embodies the best practices developed at the recommendation of the Tristate Transportation Campaign, drawing from the governance of agencies like New York’s MTA, Philadelphia s SEPTA, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Massachusetts and Rhode Island state transit agencies.

To make sure the Board is fully informed of commuter concerns, the law also sets up a pair of15-member commuter advisory boards for North and South Jersey.

It also creates a Customer Advocate, as recommended by the Governor’s NJ Transit Management Audit, to represent the needs of commuters within the agency on a daily basis.

The law requires public hearings not only for fare increases, but also prior to the elimination or substantial curtailment of service on any rail, bus or light rail line — and for the first time, requires board members to attend those hearings to listen directly to the public, mandates that the full Board vote publicly on those service changes.

NJ Transit will no longer have the power to unilaterally eliminate rail service on the Atlantic City Line or wipe out one-seat rides on the Raritan Valley Line without hearings while the agency has to take weeks to redeploy its engineers and conductors anyway. The law also requires at least one half of all Board meetings to be held in the evening when commuters can attend.

As vice-chair of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee that worked with the Assembly Judiciary Committee to expose patronage, mismanagement and neglect at NJ Transit, I understand the importance of continued legislative oversight. One of the most important provisions of the reform legislation requires NJ Transit to provide a two-year budget, detailed financial information and ridership projections to the Legislature by April 1 of each year.

This will give us the information and the time we need to meet our legislative responsibility to ensure that the agency is adequately funded in the budget we are constitutionally required to adopt by June 30, regardless of whether it is a priority of the governor at the time.

The new law also requires detailed reporting of accident and safety records and of discrimination and harassment lawsuits, both of which emerged as major areas of concern during our oversight hearings.

As I said at the Dec. 20 bill-signing, this law is not a panacea. But it will put NJ Transit on the road to again becoming one of the nation’s premier public transit agencies and will provide commuters with the safe, reliable, on-time service they need and deserve.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, serves as Senate Majority Leader and represents the 37th Legislative District in the New Jersey State Senate.


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