Lesniak’s Last Campaign — to Give NJ Transit Commuters Seats on the Board

Outgoing senator wants to give a real say to NJT’s harried passengers, who’ve dealt with crashes, fare hikes, service reductions, and reduced reliability

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak
Veteran state legislator Ray Lesniak will leave office in a few months, having decided earlier this year not to seek re-election. But the longtime Democratic Senator from Union County has a final public campaign in him.

Lesniak is mounting a petition drive to generate grassroots support for legislation he’s sponsoring that would give New Jersey Transit commuters a bigger say in how the organization is run by creating seats for regular bus and train riders on the agency’s board of directors.

The quest for commuter signatures is largely playing out online for now and relying on social-media posts to pick up steam. But Lesniak said once this year’s election season ends, he’ll be going out personally to collect signatures from commuters, who in recent years have dealt with fare hikes, service reductions, and diminishing reliability.

His goal, Lesniak said in an interview yesterday, is to make sure the bill — which has strong support from transportation advocates — wins final approval in both houses of the Legislature before the end of an upcoming lame-duck session early next year. That’s also when Lesniak will leave the State House for the final time as a lawmaker after four decades of public service.

“I expect this is going to move in the lame-duck session,” Lesniak said. “I expect it to move no problem.”

Large fare increases

The push to add commuting members of the public to NJ Transit’s board was launched after Gov. Chris Christie’s administration enacted a 9 percent fare hike and implemented a series of service cuts that went into effect in late 2015. Those changes also followed a larger, 25 percent fare hike that NJ Transit’s board approved in 2010, shortly after Christie took office. Despite complaints from commuters, the increases were approved without dissent by agency board members.

More recent events, including fatal NJ Transit train and bus crashes last year, and this year’s series of derailments and long delays, have only increased commuter concern with how the agency is being run. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have been holding a series of hearings to go over NJ Transit’s finances, management, and safety regulations. Figuring out how to restore confidence in the agency is also a key issue in this year’s gubernatorial election.

The legislation that Lesniak is sponsoring would allow the governor to retain the right to appoint NJ Transit board members, including ex officio members from the administration and those who represent the public. But the two new members would be required by law to be NJ Transit commuters. One seat would be filled by a bus rider, and the other by a train commuter, according to the legislation. The names of the commuting board members would be submitted to the governor by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an organization that’s been heavily engaged in New Jersey mass-transit issues in recent years.

“NJ Transit customers need to have a voice at the table if we are serious about improving the transportation system that is supposed to serve their needs,” said Janna Chernetz, the organization’s senior New Jersey policy analyst.

‘Patronage hires … low morale … chronic delays’

“They pay some of the highest fares in the country to an agency that is in disarray with misaligned priorities that include patronage hires, low employee morale, funding shortages, chronic delays, and cancellations,” Chernetz said. “NJ Transit is in desperate need of reform and this bill delivers a key first step in making that happen.”

In addition to adding commuter voices to NJ Transit’s board of directors, the legislation would also give the panel’s sole labor representative, Ray Greaves, chairman of the Amalgamated Transit Union state council, the right to cast votes, a power that he currently does not have.

While the measure has already passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, it was amended earlier this year in the Assembly, forcing new votes to be held in both the Senate and the Assembly. Lesniak is confident the measure has enough support in both houses to win approval during the upcoming lame-duck session. But less certain is whether Christie, who has feuded publicly with Lesniak on a number of issues in recent years, will sign the bill.

Getting a flood of support from commuters through the petition drive will help to show just how much commuters want to have a bigger voice, said Lesniak, who opted to not seek re-election this year in favor of a bid to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that was unsuccessful. And Christie is also due to leave office early next year under term limits set in the state constitution, meaning the state’s next governor could ultimately determine the issue.

Democrat Phil Murphy, the contest’s current frontrunner, includes a promise to “ensure NJ Transit’s board has commuter representation” among his transportation-policy proposals. Meanwhile, Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for Republican candidate Kim Guadagno, Christie’s longtime lieutenant governor, said she is “open to ideas that ensure more commuter input in NJ Transit and would weigh the specific merits of any bill once in office.”

No matter the election’s outcome, Lesniak is promising that he’ll soon be leading the effort to collect signatures in person, one commuter at a time. “I’ll be out there at train stations, after the election,” Lesniak said.