Revised Draft of NJ Transit Reform Bill on Track, Ready for Murphy to Green-Light

John Reitmeyer | December 11, 2018 | Transportation
Updated measure addresses issues raised by administration’s in-depth audit of agency, seats commuters on governing board, mandates public hearings before fare hikes can be made, adds ‘customer advocate’

Credit: NJ Transit via Facebook
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More than a year after lawmakers first put forward a bill to overhaul the way New Jersey Transit operates, they appear to have a version that can win Gov. Phil Murphy’s approval.

The latest draft of a lengthy NJ Transit reform bill was advanced by a key legislative committee in Trenton yesterday, putting the measure back on track to arrive on the governor’s desk before the end of the year.

Among the changes: The bipartisan legislation would expand the size of NJ Transit’s governing body to give commuters and transportation-policy experts a louder voice. The embattled mass-transit agency would also be required to hold public hearings before making any major service changes or fare hikes. It would have to submit long-term budget documents to lawmakers each year. A “customer advocate” would also be created within the agency, and contracting rules would be revised in an effort to improve efficiency.

Tough negotiations with governor’s office

Sponsors said yesterday that the latest version of the bill comes after intense negotiations with Murphy’s office. There had been a long period of inactivity once the Senate adopted an earlier version of the measure in June. Since then, the results of a comprehensive audit of NJ Transit operations was released by the Murphy administration, providing fodder for additional amendments.

“We have worked very hard with the governor’s office and we think that this is a fine agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said yesterday.

The proposed reforms wouldn’t be “the panacea” for all of the problems that regular NJ Transit riders
have experienced in recent months, Weinberg said, including frequent delays and last-minute
cancellations. But she added, “We are reforming New Jersey Transit’s structure, which we hope
will help to lead to a better New Jersey Transit service.”

NJ Transit’s tumble from the top

Once known as one of the nation’s top transportation agencies, NJ Transit has struggled in recent years as state funding has not kept pace with increased ridership. The agency also experienced a fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal in 2016, an event that triggered a series of legislative hearings scrutinizing the agency’s operations and finances, and other areas. Issues uncovered by lawmakers during the hearings included concerns about political patronage, regular raiding of capital funds to help sustain annual operations, and failure to make significant progress installing positive train control safety equipment during former Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms in office.

An initial piece of NJ Transit reform legislation was first introduced by former Sen. Robert Gordon last fall before Murphy, a first-term Democrat, was sworn into office. But one of the governor’s earliest actions was signing an executive order calling for the comprehensive audit, which wasn’t released until this fall.

Building out NJT’s governing board

Both the audit and the original piece of legislation proposed expanding NJ Transit’s governing board, and the version that was approved unanimously yesterday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee would overhaul both the size and makeup of the current, eight-member board.

The proposed 13-member board called for in the bill would have to have at least one regular bus commuter and one regular rail commuter, and there would also be four transportation-policy experts appointed by administration officials and legislative leaders. The board would continue to be chaired by the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, which is a gubernatorial cabinet position, and representatives from the unions for the largest rail and bus employee groups would hold two nonvoting positions.

In addition to the new board, the legislation would also add steps the agency must take when it makes major service changes or raises fares. They include requiring NJ Transit to convene both daytime and evening hearings that must be attended by at least two board members when major service changes are being proposed. Full board votes would also have to be held to approve any major services changes or fare hikes.

The measure would also beef up legislative oversight of NJ Transit by requiring the agency to submit two-year revenue and ridership projections to lawmakers annually. The latest reports on accident and safety performance would also have to be regularly disclosed, along with information about any discrimination or sexual harassment lawsuits. In addition, the bill also calls for a general requirement that top agency officials will appear before lawmakers when called upon.

Protection for whistleblowers

Meanwhile, NJ Transit would have to fill an in-house position of chief ethics officer, and establish a whistleblower-protection program and a toll-free hotline that employees can use to report improper conduct. The position of customer advocate would also be established within the agency, which was one of the key recommendations included in the October audit.

Agency contracting and procurement rules would also be updated as part of the reform bill, another feature of the legislation that follows recommendations that were made in the audit.

The full Assembly and Senate are scheduled to hold their last voting sessions of the year on Monday, and the amended reform bill is expected to be posted for final approval in both houses. A spokeswoman for Murphy declined comment on the legislation yesterday, citing general office policy of not weighing in on pending legislation.

But Assemblyman John McKeon, a bill cosponsor who led the legislative hearings that were held in the wake of the Hoboken crash, suggested lawmakers are expecting Murphy to sign the latest version of the bill.

“We worked cooperatively with the administration on the final amendments, and we are confident that the legislation will move swiftly through the Legislature and be signed into law,” said McKeon (D-Essex).