After a difficult summer filled with long delays and last-minute cancellations, Gov. Phil Murphy is promising New Jersey Transit commuters that things will eventually get better as his administration continues to work on the agency’s thorniest operational problems.
Progress has been made in recent weeks on two key issues, a continuing shortage of engineers and the installation of new safety equipment in advance of an end-of-year deadline set by the federal government.
“We’re obsessed with getting this right, and we will,” Murphy said earlier this week during a public-radio call-in show.
For their part, state lawmakers who’ve been giving close scrutiny to NJ Transit’s operations in recent years, also promised to take more action in coming weeks. The lawmakers met with key transportation officials from the Murphy administration earlier this week to discuss mass-transit issues, and they emerged with a promise to make passage of an NJ Transit reform-bill that boosts transparency and legislative oversight a top agenda item for the fall.
“We look forward to ensuring that our bill receives final legislative approval in the next few weeks and is signed into law by Governor Murphy this fall,” said the bill’s primary sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex).
Problems mounted, fares rose
Once known as one of the nation’s top rail agencies, NJ Transit has struggled in recent years with a number of operational issues, including declining reliability and lax communication with its customers, despite increasing fares. Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has called for a revival of the mass-transit agency and he boosted funding for its operations in the state budget enacted earlier this year.
But Murphy has also been taking heat in recent months as commuters have struggled to deal with long delays and last-minute train cancellations with little advanced warning. The governor recently conceded that his administration underestimated the scope of the problems that developed during former Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms in office, and he promised to eventually make things right.
Earlier this month, the Murphy administration secured a waiver from the state Department of Labor Residency Review Committee that will allow for the hiring of so-called “mission-essential” employees, including train engineers, who live in other states. That should help NJ Transit reduce the frequency of cancellations by beefing up a roster of engineers that is close to the bare minimum needed to maintain normal operations.
Murphy also said during the radio show that the implementation of federally required Positive Train Control safety equipment is more than 60 percent completed compared to the very little that had been accomplished when he took office at the beginning of the year. The deadline, set by the federal government, for completing the PTC project, is December 31, and NJ Transit has suspended some service for several months to ensure it is met.
“We know what we’ve inherited, we have a plan to deal with it, we’ve looked in the mirror in terms of our own communications, in particular, and we are on it,” Murphy said.
Murphy: ‘It won’t be overnight’
“It won’t be overnight,” he went on to say. “We’re going to continue to have challenges, but we will get back to where we used to be and where we need to be.”
Meanwhile, the lawmakers have been working on their own set of NJ Transit reforms after holding a series of public hearings in the wake of a fatal train accident at Hoboken Terminal in 2016.
Among the proposed changes included in their bill is an overhaul of NJ Transit’s board of directors to enhance the influence of regular commuters and transportation experts. That’s a key issue for transportation advocates, who’ve studied the best practices followed by other, similarly-sized mass-transit agencies.
The reform legislation would also force NJ Transit to hold more public hearings, particularly in areas that would be impacted by any proposed fare hikes; it would also enhance legislative oversight of the agency and its finances. The requirement that employees hail from New Jersey that has been temporarily eased by the Murphy administration would be lifted on a permanent basis if the bill becomes law.
The measure has already cleared the full Senate, but legislative leaders slowed down its advancement in the Assembly earlier this year after Murphy announced the launch of a full-scale audit of NJ Transit. With the results of that review due to be released within weeks, the lawmakers say they are getting ready to send a final version of the reform bill to Murphy for consideration. In fact, they met earlier this week to discuss the legislation with Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett and other senior Murphy administration officials.
“We will be working closely with administration officials to finalize our legislation, which will expand and strengthen the NJ Transit Board and make NJ Transit more responsive, transparent and accountable to the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who rely on the agency to deliver safe, reliable rail, bus and light rail service every day,” Weinberg and McKeon said afterward in a joint statement.