Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday announced a series of immediate steps that New Jersey Transit is taking to cut down on overcrowded trains, including bringing in train cars from out of state to help boost passenger capacity. He also signaled the state budget he’s planning to present next month will treat the beleaguered agency as a top priority.
Addressing problems at NJ Transit has been an area of emphasis for Murphy since he was sworn into office last month, and one of his first actions as governor was to launch a full-scale operational audit of the agency. That audit is ongoing.
Murphy’s administration also determined that NJ Transit was operating with nearly 40 fewer cars than it would need for a full fleet, with many sidelined for maintenance and equipment upgrades — conditions that have contributed to overcrowding on trains that often force passengers to stand, a common complaint aired on social media and other forums by regular commuters.
To address the issue, the Murphy administration is putting 20 cars back into service that had been sidelined. Another 20 cars will be leased from Maryland’s mass-transit agency, with NJ Transit sending a surplus locomotive the other way to help cover costs. Agency officials are also working with parts suppliers to reduce parts shortages and accelerating efforts to hire electricians and other skilled laborers who can perform equipment maintenance and other key services.
Funding cut back during Christie years
These actions, announced yesterday, were immediately praised by lawmakers who have been conducting their own lengthy review of NJ Transit operations and finances in the wake of a 2016 train accident at Hoboken Terminal that killed one person.
During his eight years in office, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, drew regular criticism from transportation advocates for his handling of NJ Transit, including levying fare hikes even as the agency also hired and gave raises to many Christie allies. State funding for NJ Transit’s operating budget was also cut back, or replaced with monies raided from other sources. Christie also continued a practice of using funds earmarked for capital improvements to help sustain day-to-day operations, and there were also long periods of time when NJ Transit’s board of directors did not hold any public meetings.
Murphy, a Democrat, repeatedly emphasized the need to re-establish NJ Transit as a top mass-transit agency during his successful campaign for governor last year. He also linked the agency’s health to his broader plan to reinvigorate the state economy.
During yesterday’s announcement, which was held at the NJ Transit train station in Trenton, Murphy said he remains committed to making “long-term managerial and operational reforms” at the agency. He also stressed the immediate steps the agency is taking to ease overcrowding are not being done “for show.”
Fleet short 37 cars
“At the least, these steps should help alleviate some of the immediate concerns and greatest headaches for commuters,” Murphy said.
In all, the agency was running 37 cars short of a full fleet when the Murphy administration took over from the Christie administration last month, said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the Department of Transportation’s acting commissioner. Part of the reason for the shortage was that cars were taken out of service so that they could be fitted with Positive Train Control — equipment that can stop cars to prevent a crash. About a dozen of those cars have already been returned to service, and the others are due, she said.
NJ Transit is also arranging for up to 20 cars to be provided through a lease with the Maryland Transit Authority, with NJT giving the MTA a surplus locomotive to help to cover the lease.
“The idea here, obviously, is to increase capacity and allow our commuters to sit down on the train,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.
The agency is also working with its parts suppliers to provide incentives to prevent parts shortages from occurring. It is also expediting hiring efforts; it recently held a job fair at Bergen Community College in Bergen County, she said.
‘…empowering NJ Transit staff’
Gutierrez-Scaccetti credited NJ Transit employees for coming forward with suggestions that led to many of the steps being taken to ease the overcrowding on trains. “These ideas are not my ideas,” she said. “These ideas came from empowering NJ Transit staff.”
After the announcement, Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) praised the Murphy administration for acting to address “commuter frustration and overcrowding on trains.”
“Using the expertise of the NJT staff is vital to rebuilding the organization and restoring morale,” Gordon said. “And while these commonsense measures will not solve the larger issues plaguing the agency, they are a great first step toward bringing much needed changes to the organization.”
Fatal accident prompted more scrutiny
Gordon helped lead a series of legislative hearings on NJ Transit’s operations and finances in the wake of the fatal accident in Hoboken, which federal investigators have linked to sleep apnea and the agency’s failure to properly screen for the sleeping disorder. He’s also sponsoring along with Assembly John McKeon (D-Essex) legislation that would significantly overhaul NJ Transit’s management and operations, including by expanding its board of directors to increase commuter influence.
“This is another great step by the new governor to restore NJ Transit to its former prestige,” McKeon said yesterday.
Meanwhile, Murphy also talked briefly about his first state budget, which he’s due to present to a joint session of the Legislature on March 13. Whereas Christie was known for reducing NJ Transit’s operating subsidy out of the state budget, and using funds from other sources to fill gaps, Murphy suggested shoring up the agency’s finances would be a core mission.
“We’re putting our budget together, so bear with us, we’ve got a couple of more weeks to do that, so we’ll give it to you in specificity when we’re ready,” Murphy said. “But we campaigned bemoaning the enormous cut of state support to NJ Transit, so you should assume that this is a very high priority for us going forward.”