Profile: The Policy Wonk Who Shaped New Jersey’s Transit System

Mark J. Magyar | March 19, 2014 | Profiles, Transportation
Martin Robins, who helped create NJ Transit, is still bitter over Christie’s cancellation of the ARC Tunnel

Martin E. Robins
Who he is: Martin E. Robins

What he does: Director emeritus, Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center

Why you need to know about him: Robins is the sharpest critic of Gov. Chris Christie’s cancellation of the ARC rail passenger tunnel, his politicization of the Port Authority, and his reliance on billions of dollars in borrowing, rather than a gas tax increase, to pay for the Transportation Trust Fund.

Why his criticism matters: Robins spent more than 25 years as a principal architect of New Jersey’s mass transit system. As a premier policy planner for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Port Authority, and other government transportation entities, he helped create NJ Transit; the Midtown Direct rail service to Manhattan; Secaucus Junction; and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line. He also planned the ARC Tunnel. Robins then served as the founding director for Rutgers’ Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center.

How he got into transportation policy: A Harvard Law School graduate who spent four years as an assistant prosecutor in Hudson County, Robins joined the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in 1974 and was assigned to work on public transportation issues with the Department of Transportation, then headed by Alan Sagner, later chairman of the Port Authority and of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. When Lou Gambaccini took over as DOT commissioner in 1978, he put Robins in charge of the newly created Office of Policy Analysis.

How NJ Transit was created: Commuter rail service in New Jersey was so bad in the late 1970s that rail commuters in Monmouth County knelt on the tracks in protest to stop trains.

“It was Lou Gambaccini, who was without question the most outstanding commissioner of transportation New Jersey ever had, who saved New Jersey’s commuter rail system from collapse,” Robins said. “He negotiated with all of the competing interests in the Legislature to create New Jersey Transit. Then he got legislative funding for highway and public transit construction that culminated in passage of the 1979 bond act, which was the first to pass in more than a decade and broke a losing streak of three consecutive bond issues.”

Gambaccini sent Robins to Newark to serve as NJ Transit’s associate executive director, then as deputy executive director. When Congress passed legislation allowing Conrail to sell off its passenger rail service in 1983, Gov. Thomas Kean decided to take over its New Jersey rail lines.

“My last assignment was to negotiate new rail labor agreements with the unions,” Robins said. “We had 16 unions and these were the first negotiations on passenger rail service in 60 years. We suffered a six-week strike. We were in negotiations before and during the strike, but we got the deal we needed.”

Jim Weinstein, who resigned last month as NJ Transit executive director, was a member of Robins’ negotiating team.

Expanding rail service in North Jersey: Robins moved to the Port Authority as director of planning and development during the summer of 1983 and spent four-and-a-half years working on various plans to relieve trans-Hudson congestion. “We had a close working relationship with Hazel Gluck, Gov. Kean’s transportation commissioner, who was tremendous to work with,” Robins said. “The Midtown Direct rail service to Manhattan and the Secaucus Junction project both grew out of that partnership.”

Robins also worked on plans to replace the antiquated Goethals Bridge, a project that is finally getting underway more than 25 years later. Robins then spent six months working with the American Public Transit Association on national issues before working with Gluck again as director of planning for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line.

“Kean loved that project,” recalled Robins, who took it through the environmental impact planning stage under Gov. Jim Florio, another mass-transit advocate.

The life and death of the ARC Tunnel Project: Robins moved back to an office in the Port Authority headquarters in 1994 when he became director of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) Tunnel Project, a post he held for four years. “This was my second time at the Port Authority, and I really respected the organization because it had a very high-minded professional staff who were mindful of the Port Authority’s proud history,” he said. “That’s what makes what Christie has done to politicize the workings of the Port Authority a matter of such great concern.”

Robins worked closely with the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who eventually obtained a $3 billion federal funding commitment that would have made ARC the biggest public works project in the nation. Christie cancelled the project in October 2010, citing concerns over potential cost overruns, then diverted more than $3.3 billion in Port Authority and New Jersey Turnpike toll money that was supposed to go to ARC to fund the Transportation Trust Fund.

By doing so, he avoided a gas tax hike that would have broken his “no new taxes” campaign promise.

“Without question, I was very bitter about that, and it remains the biggest disappointment of my career,” Robins said. “As Sen. Lautenberg said, the cancellation of the ARC tunnel was the biggest policy blunder that has ever occurred in New Jersey. It stifled the development of our public transit system, and we will be paying for that blunder for years.”

What Robins calls “retirement”: Robins retired from government in 1998 and poured himself into the creation of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, working with his mentor, Lou Gambaccini, with whom he is still friendly, to launch the transportation policy institute, which is housed in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

Robins served as the center’s founding director, writing policy papers on New Jersey’s transportation policy needs, particularly the importance of providing a dedicated source of funding for the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for highway, bridge, and mass-transit capital projects. Now retired from Voorhees, Robins has a small transportation consulting practice, counting Rutgers, New York Waterways, and Edison Properties among his clients. He has been working with Rockland County’s government on the new Tappan Zee Bridge project. He also helped to found a transit-oriented development newsletter published by Pace University.

Where he comes from: Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Linden at age 10 and graduated from Linden High School (he noted proudly that Linden High just won the Group IV state basketball championship). He served as editor of the Daily Princetonian at Princeton University, where he met his wife Lesley when she was visiting from Vassar and he discovered she was a fellow Mets fan. Married 48 years, they have lived since 1967 in Westfield, where they raised their three sons and entertain their six grandchildren.