Commuters who take New Jersey Transit trains to work every day are once again struggling with regular delays and overcrowding. But this year their suffering could have a silver lining.
The regular infrastructure breakdowns — and two recent train derailments — are bringing new attention to the issue of mass transit. And that heightened awareness is coming just as the candidates in this year’s gubernatorial election are starting to make big promises as they work to win over the state’s more than 5 million voters.
In fact, several of the candidates running in next month’s gubernatorial primary election have been rolling out detailed transportation plans in recent days, promising things like increased funding for NJ Transit and the removal of political patronage appointees at the agency. The latest to do so was Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany who is currently leading in the polls among Democrats.
In addition to calling for more money for NJ Transit out of the state budget, Murphy said during a news conference yesterday that the agency should also have a dedicated source of revenue — and he didn’t rule out a tax hike as part of that conversation. Murphy also said he would hire an “emergency manager” to work directly with Amtrak officials on ongoing issues related to New York’s Penn Station, which is owned by the federal government but used by NJ Transit.
Turn NJ Transit around
Murphy also called for an audit of NJ Transit, its personnel, and capital spending, and said he would launch a major effort to improve the agency’s communication with its customers to provide the best information possible about delayed trains.
“I am ready to be the governor who turns NJ Transit around,” Murphy said during the news conference at the Trenton Train Station.
The mass-transit overtures made in recent days by Murphy and other candidates like Democrats Jim Johnson and John Wisniewski have also come as commuters themselves are stepping up efforts to organize in a push for better funding of mass-transit and capital improvements. And they’ve made it clear on social media and other platforms that they are ready to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire this year as they try to win their votes.
“Recent Penn NY and NJ Transit failures have affected people so deeply at this point, that they’re wanting to take these issues to a higher level,” said Michael Phelan, co-founder of the New Jersey Commuters Action Network.
Most of the problems that NJ Transit commuters have been suffering through in recent weeks stem from breakdowns at Penn Station in New York. After two recent derailments there, the federal government launched a stepped-up inspection effort, and now major repair work is planned for this summer that will likely cause serious disruptions for commuters.
Christie’s record under microscope
But blame has also been heaped on NJ Transit in recent weeks for not better communicating with customers about delays and schedule changes, and it’s also put Gov. Chris Christie’s record on mass-transit under a microscope. That record includes canceling the long-planned Access to the Region’s Core trans-Hudson rail tunnel in 2010, but also patching together funding for NJ Transit in a series of state budgets by taking money from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and raiding the Clean Energy Fund.
Christie’s record on mass-transit was widely panned by voters in a poll released yesterday by Quinnipiac University. When asked about his handling of the trans-Hudson commute, the second-term Republican received an 18 percent approval rating from New Jersey voters.
Wisniewski, a Democratic lawmaker from Middlesex County and longtime chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, has been an outspoken critic of Christie’s transportation policies. In a transportation agenda that Wisniewski put forward last week, he called for more robust support for NJ Transit out of the annual state budget and a rooting out of political appointees at the agency. Wisniewski also called for the creation of a longer-term planning strategy for the Transportation Trust Fund, and a restructuring of TTF spending priorities to emphasize investment in mass transit. He also said that investing should be more strategic, making sure areas with affordable housing are better linked to employment centers.
Wisniewski, Johnson offer plans
“This state has lost focus on why transportation is so essential,” Wisniewski said. “New Jersey Transit has become a tool for political patronage and has seen its reputation as a world-class transportation service destroyed by Christie and his cronies.”
Wisniewski released his plan the same week Democrat Jim Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury official from Montclair, put forward his own transportation platform. Johnson, who used to commute daily by train to New York, said the state’s transportation infrastructure is “on the brink of catastrophic failure.”
Johnson called for better funding for NJ Transit, and specifically for Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment that matches train speed to track conditions and can override an engineer to automatically slow or stop a train before it crashes. He’s also calling for a removal of patronage appointees in favor of transportation professionals, and said more data analysis should be done to predict maintenance concerns before they become a full-blown crisis. In addition, Johnson’s plan calls for more transportation investment in South Jersey, and an overall focus on transit-oriented developments that take advantage of private capital.
“New Jersey needs a Governor who will stand up for our public transportation system,” Johnson said.
During the event Murphy held in Trenton yesterday, he echoed some of the same issues that were raised by his primary opponents, and he also took specific aim at Christie, suggesting the decision to pull the plug on the ARC tunnel — which could have opened as early as 2018 — will do lasting harm to the state and its economy.
“We will pay for that mistake for many years to come,” Murphy said.
Phelan, the co-founder of the commuter organization, said those who are riding the region’s trains, buses and ferries are generally patient and resilient, and he said it’s not too late for Christie to salvage his reputation on a mass-transit legacy by making some key policy changes before he leaves office in early 2018.
But Phelan suggested the patience of the commuters — which is sure to be tested over the summer as the Amtrak work at Penn Station progresses — also has its limits.
“If by mid-summer, New Jersey Transit rail commuters haven’t seen an improved commute and thoughtful, practical policy proposals from the candidates for governor, or incumbents at all levels, you’re bound to see us heighten the rhetoric, improve our organizing skills, come knocking on doors, and perhaps even run a few commuter candidates for office who will show a sincere interest in our concerns,” Phelan said.