Murphy’s Pick to Fix NJ Transit Is Infrastructure Expert, Veteran Commuter

John Reitmeyer | January 31, 2018 | Transportation
Kevin Corbett, who has a lot of experience in big subway projects but none in running a mass-transit agency, says he won’t accept status quo at NJT

Gov. Phil Murphy introduces Mendham resident Kevin Corbett as his pick to serve as executive director of New Jersey Transit at a news conference in New Brunswick yesterday.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s pick to lead New Jersey Transit is a longtime private-sector infrastructure consultant whose background doesn’t include running a publicly-funded mass-transit agency, let alone one as large as NJ Transit. But Kevin Corbett, a Mendham resident, is also a veteran commuter who does have a lot of firsthand experience when it comes to riding the agency’s harried trains into New York.

Murphy formally introduced Corbett yesterday as his pick to serve as NJ Transit’s next executive director during a news conference in New Brunswick, highlighting his experiences in the private sector that include working on subway projects in New York, and with the Port Authority on PATH-train service.

“This breadth of experiences, and breadth of vision, is exactly what we need now at New Jersey Transit,” Murphy said.

But Corbett also took a few moments to highlight his commuting experience with NJ Transit, including riding the Morris and Essex line last summer during the “Summer of Hell” after trains were temporarily diverted to Hoboken to allow for lengthy repairs at Penn Station in New York.

“We learned the mantra, ‘improvise, adapt, overcome,’” Corbett said.

Return to former glory

Those personal experiences, which also include serving on the boards of prominent regional planning and transportation-advocacy groups, drew praise from lawmakers and other advocates following yesterday’s announcement.

“As a regular commuter on NJ Transit, Kevin knows the benefits — and challenges — of the system firsthand,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an agency where Corbett serves on the board.

Murphy’s selection of Corbett to serve as NJ Transit’s executive director comes as the new governor has made restoring the state’s mass-transit agency to its former glory a key goal, saying it is a foundational piece of his broader economic-growth ambitions.

Last week, Murphy announced the launching of a large-scale audit of NJ Transit, which suffered through years of underfunding during former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, and watched its safety and reliability record deteriorate in recent years. Murphy’s administration also released a transition report on transportation issues late last week that calls for, among other recommendations, creating an operating plan for increasing agency funding.

Downplaying expectations

Still, Murphy tried his best yesterday to downplay expectations that an immediate turnaround can occur. Other transportation officials did their part, too, walking back earlier projections made by Christie’s administration that a major safety initiative known as Positive Train Control will be implemented by a key, end-of-the-year deadline. But Corbett also said there are improvements he called “low-hanging fruit” that can be made more quickly through improved management.

“The governor mentioned he would not accept the status quo, neither will New Jersey commuters, frankly, and I certainly don’t intend to either,” Corbett said.

Murphy’s selection of Corbett to lead NJ Transit, which will have to be approved by the agency’s board to become official, marks a departure from current executive director Steve Santoro, who has nearly 20 years of experience at NJ Transit.

Corbett comes to the agency from Aecom, a major international infrastructure and engineering consulting firm. As a vice president based in New York, he’s worked on major projects like New York City’s Second Avenue subway expansion, and the restoration of the Port Authority’s PATH line after superstorm Sandy. In addition to being on Tri-State’s board, Corbett serves on the executive committee of the Regional Plan Association, an influential nonprofit research and planning organization.

Light on relevant experience?

Before joining Aecom, Corbett was the chief operating officer and executive vice president of New York’s Empire State Development Corporation and executive deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Economic Development.

While it remains to be seen whether Corbett’s lack of experience running a major public mass-transit agency will become an issue at an agency as large as NJ Transit, Murphy highlighted Corbett’s leadership abilities during yesterday’s news conference, saying he has “lived and breathed transportation and infrastructure” for decades.

“Kevin has been at the head table, designing and implementing solutions for some of the most pressing transportation issues that face, not just our state, but our entire region,” Murphy said.

Among those key experiences is also decades of riding the agency’s trains and seeing firsthand the everyday experiences of an NJ Transit commuter, said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey and co-chair of the New Jersey For Transit coalition. That’s important because the agency’s board currently lacks the voice of a regular daily commuter, he said.

“Frankly, for too long, transit riders have been left on the platform, and finally they’re going to have someone who feels their pain, and is going to do something about it,” O’Malley said.

He ‘understands the frustrations’

Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) said Corbett’s commuting experiences show he “understands the frustrations of riders.”

Gordon also pointed to Corbett’s professional background in the infrastructure industry, saying it “demonstrates that he knows how to manage and realize large-scale infrastructure projects.”

“I am confident he will install qualified operations managers at New Jersey Transit so that the trains and buses can run on time,” Gordon said.

A key to how successful Corbett’s tenure could be will likely involve how quickly NJ Transit’s finances can be put on more firm footing. The report released last week by Murphy’s Transportation and Infrastructure Transition Advisory Committee called for the drafting of an “action plan” to increase operating funding for both NJ Transit and the Department of Transportation. The report also identified the planned Gateway Hudson-tunnel initiative and replacement of the Port Authority’s midtown Manhattan bus terminal as top priorities for the new administration, suggesting a senior-level staffer should be assigned to monitor those two projects. The report also raised the issue of generating more money for infrastructure by using tools like tax-incremental financing and “value capture,” a financing system that involves capturing some of the upside enjoyed by developers and building owners as infrastructure improvements lead to increased property values.

Murphy cautioned yesterday that it was too early to talk in detail about things like value-capture financing because transportation officials, including Corbett, and his selection to run the Department of Transportation, former Turnpike Authority executive director Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, have yet to get established in their new agencies. But, he added: “The sense we’ve got, from the outside, is that there’s untapped value.”