An influential labor organization that represents thousands of New Jersey’s mass-transit workers has decided to pick a side with only weeks left before the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
The 10 New Jersey locals of the Amalgamated Transit Union announced yesterday that they are endorsing Democratic frontrunner Phil Murphy, citing a mass-transit platform that Murphy recently put forward that calls for increased funding for New Jersey Transit’s operating budget out of the state’s own annual spending plan.
“It’s time to elect a governor who recognizes that we have a transportation crisis,” said Ray Greaves, chairman of the New Jersey State Council of the Amalgamated Transit Union, during a news conference the union held in Newark yesterday.
“The ATU believes Phil Murphy is up to the challenge,” said Greaves, who also serves as a nonvoting member on NJ Transit’s board of directors.
Murphy, a Middletown resident and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, also attended the news conference, saying he was “incredibly honored” to pick up the union’s endorsement.
“It’s not that long ago that New Jersey was held up as a model,” Murphy said of the state’s mass-transit system. “I want to be the guy working with you all to get us back so we can say that again.”
Though maybe not as important an endorsement as those Murphy has already locked up from Democratic county party leaders across the state, securing the backing of the 8,000-member union of NJ Transit bus drivers and Newark light-rail operators will now make it that much harder for the other Democrats who are seeking to make up ground against Murphy in the final weeks of the primary season.
Murphy, 59, is a newcomer to elected politics, but he received 26 percent of the support from voters who were recently surveyed by Quinnipiac University. That put him well ahead of the other candidates, former U.S. Treasury official Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, and state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who were all grouped together in the single digits and within the poll’s 2.8 percent margin of error.
A former Goldman Sachs executive who was also the finance chair for the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean, Murphy has also won endorsements from other key organizations in recent weeks, including environmental groups like the New Jersey Sierra Club. Former Vice President Joe Biden will also be coming to New Jersey later this month to hold a rally with Murphy, according to his campaign.
Mass transit has emerged as a major issue in the Democratic primary this year thanks to a series of problems that NJ Transit commuters have been dealing with in recent weeks, including two derailments at Penn Station in New York and near-regular delays and overcrowded conditions. The problems have also come in the wake of two fare hikes that have been put into effect in recent years by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, as well as a series of service cutbacks.
Christie, a second-term Republican who cannot run for reelection due to the state constitution’s term limits, has faced sharp criticism for his own handling of NJ Transit, including a 2010 decision to stop construction on the long-planned Access to the Region’s Core trans-Hudson rail tunnel. He’s also significantly reduced the subsidy out of the annual state budget for NJ Transit, relying instead on funds diverted from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the state’s Clean Energy Fund to help maintain state aid for the agency.
Promising more for NJT
All four leading Democratic candidates in the June 6 primary have pledged to deliver more financial support for NJ Transit, and Republican hopeful Jack Ciattarelli has also released a plan for NJ Transit that would provide the agency with more aid by establishing a reciprocal income-tax agreement with New York.
But in addition to calling for more funding for NJ Transit, Murphy’s mass-transit platform also says the state should explore creating a dedicated source of revenue for the agency, something that echoes calls that many of the state’s leading transportation advocates have made in recent years amid the fare hikes and uncertain state budget support. And while many have interpreted that to mean a tax hike — something Murphy hasn’t altogether ruled out — it could also mean creating a new carveout of an existing state revenue source to shore up the agency’s finances.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes in New Jersey, and that’s completely understandable,” he said yesterday.
Murphy’s mass-transit plan also calls for the hiring of an “emergency manager” to work directly with Amtrak officials on the ongoing issues related to New York’s Penn Station, which is owned by the federal government but used on a daily basis by NJ Transit.
Murphy is also calling for an audit of NJ Transit, its personnel, and capital spending, and he said he would also force the agency to make a major effort to improve its communication with customers to provide the best information possible about delayed trains. He’s also promising to work closely with the federal government and the Port Authority on plans to build new rail tunnels into Manhattan and to replace the Port Authority’s aging bus terminal.
Greaves, the union leader, credited Murphy for putting forward a detailed and “well thought-out” plan on mass transit, and he said although the union’s endorsement was announced during the primary season, it will hold through the general election this fall.
“Today is the beginning of a campaign for change,” Greaves said.