Profile: She’s Tuned Into All Things Transportation in the Garden State

Meir Rinde | August 5, 2015 | Profiles
Janna Chernetz of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is keeping close watch on NJ’s roads, rails, streets, cars, bikes, buses, and …

Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Name: Janna Chernetz

Age: 39

Title: Senior New Jersey policy analyst

Who she is: If you’ve followed news about transportation in New Jersey over the past four-and-a-half years, you’ve read or heard Chernetz’s words. Since she joined the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign she’s given hundreds of interviews, testified before the Legislature, and lobbied local and state officials in support of the organization’s mission of reducing car dependency; improving road safety; and encouraging walking, biking, and the use of transit in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Funding fights: Chernetz’s highest-profile issues recently have been securing stable new revenues for the state Transportation Trust Fund, which will soon run out of money for new projects, and the related problem of funding for NJ Transit, which approved a 9 percent fare hike last month over advocates’ vociferous objections.

She and others thought the Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie might agree to a gas-tax hike that would allow long-term replenishment of the TTF, but the administration instead pieced together enough money from various sources to get through just one more year.

“We’ve managed to flip up every single couch cushion in Trenton to get us through, and there are no more couches left,” Chernetz said. “The writing is on the wall; it’s very clear; the math is there: Come 2017, New Jersey does not have enough money to even pay for (TTF) debt. So something has to happen. This is not a problem that occurred overnight, and not a problem that occurred with just this administration. It’s just coming to a head at this point.”

Town-level advocacy: In addition to lobbying, Chernetz and TSTC regularly issue reports on transportation safety, funding, and other issues. Those include the annual Most Dangerous Roads report, which reliably generates headlines and helps communities focus road-improvement programs.

Chernetz sits on many committees dedicated to improving bicycle and pedestrian safety and has helped towns create Complete Streets plans to make their roads more accessible to all users. She’s run workshops and “walking audits” of neighborhoods with the Newark Conservancy. Last year she worked closely with the police, mayor, city engineer, and principals in Linden in Union County to create a system of safe routes to school.

“Crosswalks, sidewalks, signage — even just working with PTAs,” she said. “We went to three different elementary schools and presented to all the different grades — a little assembly, if you will — talking to children just about how to be safe and smart when you’re out and about in your city.”

Notch one up for cyclists: One advocacy success she is proud of is the state Department of Transportation’s decision last year to create 10 miles of bike lanes between Bay Head and Island Beach State Park as part of the rebuilding of Route 35 after Hurricane Sandy. The bike lanes, which were not originally part of the reconstruction plan, will make cycling safer and more attractive, reduce traffic, and benefit the beach-tourism industry, TSTC said.

Jumping right in: Chernetz had worked as a lawyer for other organizations and law firms before she joined TSTC, but never in such a public role. She’s learned how to hold press conferences, appeared on numerous news and political talk shows, and is on a first-name basis with reporters.

[related]“It’s been a huge media blitz for me. I kind of hit the ground running. As a litigator I had those skills. It’s not even that bad, because when I go to testify no one’s throwing questions at me like a judge would,” she said, laughing.

“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve really embraced it. I see it as a way to educate, (for example) people who read the newspapers, through op-eds and letters to the editor — anyway that I can to try to explain our positions,” she said.

Personal experience with transit: Chernetz grew up in Westfield, attended Rutgers and Vermont Law School, and served short stints as a law clerk in Middlesex County Family Court and as a divorce lawyer. While she had taken the train often in New Jersey, she traces her interest in transportation to the subsequent year she spent working in San Diego, CA, which she says was made possible by the local commuter rail line.

“While it wasn’t perfect, they had shuttles that would meet you at the train station and then drop you off near your job. It was incredible,” she said. The system made “transit a viable option that it would otherwise not have been. I realized just how important it was. It was important for quality of life, both in terms of being able to support myself as well for not sitting in traffic.”

Inequality close to home: She saw the difficulties and inequalities caused by a lack of transit options at her next job as a legal-services attorney in Cumberland County, where her low-income clients could not afford to buy cars or to move closer to bus or rail lines. She went on to serve as assistant legislative counsel at the state Bar Association and worked at another law firm before getting her current job.

“I experienced how transportation policy is so powerful, and there’s so much potential,” she said. “I’m very passionate about being able to bike and run safely and now I have a family. This job came up at Tri-State and I’m like, this is perfect.”

Family: Chernetz and her husband, who is a chef, have a 7-year-old daughter and live in Scotch Plains.

A daily streak: Chernetz has been an avid runner for years. In law school she did a two-week-long charity run from Florida to Maine, and she has run three marathons, two half-iron man triathlons, and many other races, she said. She co-leads the Union County Moms Run This Town club and participates in the Running Streak Association, whose members promise to run at least one mile every single day.