There was no sugarcoating the state’s transportation challenges yesterday, as Gov.-elect Phil Murphy announced his pick to lead the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, a former New Jersey Turnpike Authority executive director who’s been leading a similar agency in Florida for the past several years, will take on what may be the toughest cabinet-level job in Murphy’s still-forming administration.
Roads and bridges are crumbling, and New Jersey Transit has become a “national disgrace,” Murphy said as he introduced Gutierrez-Scaccetti during a news conference at the Secaucus Junction train station.
To add more pressure, he also said that his vision of a reinvigorated state economy that provides more opportunity for New Jersey residents — and increases tax revenues for the cash-starved state budget — will require there to be a transportation system that’s firing on all cylinders.
“We are in crisis mode,” Murphy said.
But he also emphasized the experience of Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who will leave her job as executive director of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise and come back to New Jersey to join his administration. The Democratic governor-elect portrayed the Newark native as a strong leader who is up to the task of leading the DOT and overhauling New Jersey Transit.
Knocking down the house
“It’s time to not just clean the house, but to knock it down and rebuild it,” Murphy said. “I will empower Diane to do just that, helping us put in place the new commuter-focused and future-focused leadership that riders deserve and expect.”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti acknowledged that she will be taking on an “awesome responsibility” if confirmed by the Senate after Murphy takes office next month, but also said transportation is her “passion” and that she’s ready to get work.
“It is not going to be easy, it is not going to be simple, but I promise you 100 percent of my time and dedication to that task,” she said.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti is the fifth woman to be selected by Murphy so far for a cabinet-level position, and she is in line to be the first woman to lead DOT since 1994. Her selection drew praise yesterday from a host of transportation-industry officials, and lawmakers cited her experience as a valuable asset.
Gov. Chris Christie has struggled mightily with transportation issues during his two terms in office, including suffering through a prolonged shutdown of state-funded road and bridge projects last year during a partisan fight with lawmakers over the gas tax. The Republican’s tenure has also seen two rounds of NJ Transit fare hikes, and the agency last year dealt with a fatal train crash in Hoboken, the cause of which is still under investigation by federal officials.
Christie, meanwhile, has also been roundly criticized by transportation advocates for his 2010 decision to cancel the construction of a trans-Hudson rail tunnel that was called Access-to-the-Region’s Core ARC), which was to open sometime next year. The state is now hoping that the federal government will help fund a new tunnel as part of the broader Gateway infrastructure initiative. Christie last year also signed off on an unpopular, 23-cent gas-tax hike that extended the state’s Transportation Trust Fund for another eight years.
That record gave Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who has never held an elected office, a big opening to make transportation a cornerstone issue during his successful campaign against Republican Kim Guadagno earlier this year. Murphy regularly pledged to revitalize a network of roads, bridges, and rail lines that he said is a foundational element of the state economy. During the news conference yesterday, he continued to stress the idea that the transportation system is heavily linked to New Jersey’s economic success.
“If we (don’t) start now, we will never be able to build the strong infrastructure we will need to carry our economy and our people into the future,” Murphy said.
Born in Newark but raised in Lawrence, Gutierrez-Scaccetti started her career at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and she worked her way up the ranks over two decades to the top job before leaving for Florida in 2011. Murphy said the New Jersey DOT commissioner is not a job “for just any political appointment,” and cited her prior experience in government as crucial. He also deferred to Gutierrez-Scaccetti on several occasions yesterday while answering questions from reporters, including on issues like positive train control (PTC), a safety technology that agencies like NJ Transit are working to bring online to prevent accidents like the fatal Amtrak derailment that occurred earlier this week in Washington state.
“We have to get to it and get it done so that we can make certain that we don’t have a situation like Washington had,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said yesterday. “We’re going to focus on that.”
With the Christie administration also coming under fire for allowing patronage to flourish at NJ Transit, even as the agency has been forced to use capital funding to help cover its operating costs, Gutierrez-Scaccetti promised that as DOT commissioner — Murphy has yet to announce his pick to lead NJ Transit — she will take a hard look at the agency’s employee roster.
“I don’t like to refer to them as patronage jobs, but if they are jobs where people aren’t performing, then we need to deal with that,” she said. “We need to make certain that we have people in the right seats on the bus.”
While praising Murphy’s DOT pick, Bob Briant Jr., chief executive officer of the New Jersey Utility and Transportation Contractor’s Association, said Gutierrez-Scaccetti played an “instrumental” role in a $2.5 billion New Jersey Turnpike Authority widening project that was started during the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine and was eventually finished in 2014.
“Diane’s extensive knowledge of our transportation network and needs, along with her decades of experience in governance roles, makes her an outstanding pick for the state of New Jersey, and its transportation community,” Briant said.
A joint statement issued by labor leaders Greg Lalevee and Mark Longo called Gutierrez-Scaccetti a “superb choice.”
“We look forward to working with Gutierrez-Scaccetti and NJDOT to improve our roads, rails and bridges and reinvigorate our transportation system,” the statement said.
Sen. Robert Gordon, who has been leading a series of hearings into NJ Transit and other regional transportation issues like the Port Authority’s aging bus terminal, also cited the role Gutierrez-Scaccetti played in the turnpike-widening project. He suggesting the project has helped allow New Jersey’s warehouse industry to flourish as retail sales continue to shift to online-shopping outlets like Amazon.
“I understand that the challenges the new transportation commissioner will face in improving mass transit are even larger than those she will face in repairing our crumbling roads and bridges,” said Gordon (D-Bergen). “I look forward to meeting with Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti to discuss those challenges in detail.”