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State Lawmakers Call for 30 Pages of Reforms at New Jersey Transit

Extensive recommendations include more commuters on agency's board of directors, targeted focus groups for fare hikes, closer state oversight

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Gov. Phil Murphy is calling for an overhaul of New Jersey Transit, ordering up a comprehensive financial audit and announcing an experienced transportation specialist will take over the troubled agency. Now, state lawmakers are backing him up, advancing legislation that calls for a full 30 pages of major reforms.

Among the many significant policy changes that would be made under the legislation, which is receiving bipartisan support, is an overhaul of NJ Transit's board of directors to enhance the influence of regular commuters and transportation advocates.

The measure would also force NJ Transit to hold more public hearings, particularly in areas that would be impacted by any proposed fare hikes. It would also create a new passenger-advisory panel, a position of chief ethics officer, and enhance legislative oversight of the agency and its finances.

Assemblyman John McKeon, a primary sponsor of the bill, said the raft of proposed reforms were inspired by a series of legislative oversight hearings that he led along with Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) in the wake of a fatal rail accident that occurred at Hoboken Terminal in 2016.

Mounting frustration

But McKeon (D-Essex) also highlighted the building frustration of everyday commuters during an Assembly hearing last week as he urged colleagues to ensure the reform effort advances swiftly to Murphy's desk. Other witnesses raised concerns about the impact NJ Transit's poor performance is having on the state economy.

"I've had so many parents tell me about ballgames they missed (and) family dinners that were disrupted," McKeon said. "How many moms or dads have told me that they're on the phone with daycare saying, 'Please, it's not my fault?'"

"Just think of it from that perspective, how much it means to people that I know each and every one of you care about," McKeon said.

The Christie years

During his eight years in office, former Gov. Chris Christie drew regular criticism from transportation advocates as NJ Transit fares were hiked even as the agency also hired and gave raises to many Christie allies. State funding for NJ Transit's operating budget was also cut back, or replaced with monies raided from other sources. Christie also continued a practice of using funds earmarked for capital improvements to help sustain day-to-day operations, and there were also long periods of time when NJ Transit's board of directors did not hold any public meetings.

But the agency also experienced the fatal rail accident inside Hoboken Terminal on September 29, 2016. The crash killed one person standing on a nearby platform, and it injured 110 passengers and crew. Federal investigators have yet to declare an official cause, though that announcement could come later this month. Initial information released by the National Transportation Safety Board suggested sleep apnea was a likely factor.

The fatal accident also prompted Gordon and McKeon to hold the joint legislative oversight hearings, where everything from agency finances to safety regulations and infrastructure were closely scrutinized. While a final report is still pending, the joint hearings also inspired the drafting of the lengthy reform bill. First introduced by Gordon in the Senate last November, McKeon's Assembly version had an initial review last week during the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee's first meeting under new Chair Dan Benson (D-Mercer).

Policy changes

Among the many policy changes proposed in the reform bill is language that would make it easier for lawmakers to compel NJ Transit officials to appear before them. It would also require agency officials to turn over key internal documents to lawmakers upon request.

The measure would also increase the roster of public members on New Jersey Transit's board of directors from four to eight, which would bring the board to 12 members, up from eight. Transportation-advocacy organizations would also get more say in the selection of board members, with new requirements for commuting experience added.

The bill would also establish that a minimum of 10 public meetings be held by the board annually. And if a fare hike or major change in service is proposed, the legislation would require a series of public hearings to be held, including in areas that would be directly impacted by the new rates. Regular audits of the agency's finances would also be required, along with the reporting of detailed information about agency personnel and salaries. NJ Transit would also be forced to distribute multiyear budget documents to the leaders of the respective transportation panels in the Assembly and Senate.

Anthony Pizzutillo, representing the state chapter of the NAIOP commercial real-estate organization, was among those who testified in favor of the bill, linking it to recent efforts to attract millennials to establish roots in New Jersey.

"Our interest is obviously that a valuable and credible transit system is critical if we need to continue to create jobs in New Jersey," Pizzutillo said.

Meanwhile, some Republicans raised questions about the bill, including whether it makes sense to move ahead with the legislative reform effort before the results of the full-scale audit that was ordered up by Murphy have come in. They also noted Murphy only last week announced his pick to lead the agency as its executive director, and that his nominee to lead the state Department of Transportation has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

"We're going to have new leadership at these agencies, and at the state level," said Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean). "It seems to me maybe we would want to have their input before we move forward with the bill."

But with a full hearing on the legislation still pending in Gordon's Senate Transportation Committee, McKeon said he is open to making amendments in the future if necessary. A Senate staffer also said after the hearing ended that the bill will be reviewed by Murphy's team. The measure ultimately advanced out of the Assembly committee with full GOP support in an 11-0 vote.

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