How to Repair NJ Transit — Start with the Top Brass

Money isn’t enough. New report suggests governing board of beleaguered transportation agency needs significant reform

NJ Transit
New Jersey Transit just got a hefty infusion of cash from the latest state budget, but an influential transportation-advocacy group is urging policymakers to press ahead with reforms of the beleaguered mass-transit agency, including by overhauling the structure of its governing board.

The current, eight-member board is too small, and its members need more expertise in key areas like transportation and public finance, according to a report from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an organization that’s been heavily engaged in state mass-transit issues in recent years.

In addition to calling for a bigger board, Tri-State’s report also notes that two seats are currently vacant, and it recommends that potential new members better represent the people who use NJ Transit services. New additions should include those “who are regular transit users in order to ensure that members of the board have firsthand experience on the system they manage,” the report says.

To back up its recommendations, Tri-State compares NJ Transit to some of its peers in the public-transportation industry, including mass-transit agencies in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. The report suggests New Jersey’s policymakers could take cues from what’s working best in other places; some of those agencies operate with much larger and more diverse governing boards.

“Having a small board with vacant positions has created a massive leadership vacuum — one that is mirrored in similar vacancies in NJ Transit’s senior management, which holds back the agency from making crucial reforms,” the report said.

Board should reflect ‘actual ridership’

The release of the Tri-State report comes as Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has been calling for a revival of the state’s mass-transit agency as part of a broader effort to strengthen the state’s economy. The fiscal year 2019 budget enacted earlier this month by the governor increases operating support for NJ Transit out of the state’s general fund by $242 million. Murphy has also ordered a large-scale audit of the agency, with initial results expected to be released as early as next month.

State lawmakers have also gotten in on the act, with the Senate last month advancing a lengthy bill to reform NJ Transit. That bill, which would revamp the agency’s board of directors, among other changes, remains under consideration in the Assembly.

Right now, NJ Transit’s board has seven voting members, all appointed by the governor, and one nonvoting member, who is recommended by the labor groups that represent agency workers. But in recent months, the board has been operating with only five voting members as there are currently two unfilled gubernatorial vacancies.

While the legislation under consideration in the State House would add four new members to the NJ Transit board, the Tri-State report points to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, whose board has 13 members, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, whose board has 15 members, as industry peers that NJ Transit could emulate. It also highlights improvements in service that occurred after the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority added two regular users of its services to its board.

“Ensuring the board is reflective of actual ridership will help secure policy outcomes that improve the transit experience for daily riders,” according to the Tri-State report.

Members of board should have ‘relevant experience’

Tri-State also emphasizes the need for the NJ Transit board to have members with strong backgrounds in the areas that are most closely related the agency’s operations, something the current governing statutes do not specifically require.

“The new board members should be drawn from experts in rail and bus operation, finance and budget, land use and real-estate law, and environmental sustainability,” the report states. “Relevant expertise will help the board make informed decisions about matters that come before it rather than simply approving decisions made by agency staff.”

Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Another suggestion highlighted during an interview with report co-author Janna Chernetz, Tri-State’s director of New Jersey policy, is to consider adding new board members who better represent the diversity of NJ Transit’s customer base, factoring in things like gender, race, and economic status. Geographic location should also be a consideration given NJ Transit is a statewide transportation agency that covers a service area of 5,325 square miles, she said.

“If you don’t have a good, solid, diverse, knowledgeable, entrenched board of directors, I don’t think we’ll be able to fully optimize any reform effort,” Chernetz said.

In addition to overhauling the board itself, Tri-State is calling on the agency to improve its transparency and accountability practices, echoing frequent complaints aired by commuters on social media whenever there are delays or cancellations. Among the recommendations is a call to hold board meetings in easily accessible locations, and to stream the meetings live over the internet, as the Port Authority does. A better use of internet technology could improve the agency’s accountability to its customers, according to the report.

“Tracking NJ Transit’s performance will help to restore the general public’s trust in the agency and also help make the case for additional funding in line with agency priorities,” the report asserts. “NJ Transit can implement this industry best practice by creating online performance dashboards that track service levels of bus and rail, as well as a budget dashboard displaying capital project costs.”

There’s been a heavy emphasis recently on the increased funding for NJ Transit, but Chernetz said it’s also a “prime time” for the agency to adopt new structural reforms as the Murphy administration is in the midst of its organizational audit and lawmakers are still considering legislative changes.

“I think it’s critical and imperative that it be done now,” Chernetz said.