With an aging infrastructure and an ever-growing fleet of buses and trains to maintain, NJ Transit has had no shortage of shortfalls. The agency has a progressive capital plan, but it’s unclear if the funding will follow, and passengers are all but fed up.
Brenda Flanagan of NJTV News put those concerns and more to NJ Transit’s executive director Kevin Corbett.
Here are excerpts from the extended interview:
The bus fleet
Kevin Corbett: We move more than a half million people a day by bus in New Jersey and we have a lot of old buses but last year we ordered from MCI 85 of the longer articulated buses and 183 of the 45-foot standard buses … Starting in October we’re taking delivery of almost one every day. In that sense it’s almost like a wartime production, and we’re going to bring down the average age of the fleet… and adding more capacity at the same time.
Brenda Flanagan: And I know you’ve hired more drivers, 350 more drivers. I think what [a lot of riders want to know] is, is when is it going to get better, where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? I think people could endure a lot more maybe if you could have a date for when this is going to improve.
KC: I think it’s incremental; it’s like turning around a battleship; buses and rail cars have a long lead time. You know, over the last 10 years before coming in there was $500 million a year that was supposed to go to capital funding and it was taken away from capital to put into operating because there was a shortage of operating money in the budget and that meant well over $5 billion … that was not invested in buses, rail cars and our facilities. So, we have a lot of time to make up for all that lack of investment. But on the bus side you’re seeing it already with the new buses coming. We have 500 additional new drivers now so we have capacity; it’s very rare that we have any bus cancellations and by bringing down the average age of the fleet with new buses you get into a virtuous cycle so that you’re not constantly draining the maintenance resources.
BF: You’re going to be adding buses, replacing buses; then the question is, how many peak-hour buses can you add when you’re looking at the Port Authority Bus Terminal that’s already over capacity? Are you really going to be able to offer some relief to these people standing at the bus stop … What is a realistic expectation for riders?
KC: …We have improved the velocity inside [the Port Authority], the turnaround within the terminal … But ultimately the solution is going to be improvements at the Port Authority Bus terminal and a new terminal.
Fixing rail service
BF: Are there short-term goals that you can talk about in terms of what’s going to get better by the end of 2019, what about by summer 2020? What can people hope to see?
KC: I think there are a number of things. Certainly on the rail side it’s well-known we had the PTC (positive train control) crisis which we got through the end of the year and that really hit people hard. And I think a lot of people’s frustration has also been cumulative after a number of years of headaches, and we get that. But I think the engineer shortage was something that was surprising when I came into the job last year, just how bad that was. The 20-month training program — it’s like becoming an airline pilot — it’s a lot more difficult than people would imagine. But we started right away, and we have seven classes right now in training. So we have the first class graduating in October, another one in November, another one in January, another one in March, etc. As far as train cancellations, shortage of engineers, they’re going to start seeing, starting next month, an improvement, month by month. So by next summer, to that point, we’ll have enough engineers so we’ll not be having to have a summer where legitimately people take vacation and there’s no engineers…
BF: Let’s talk about next summer. I think I read that Amtrak is going to be doing a lot of this maintenance program next summer at night, perhaps on weekends, that it won’t be as intrusive into the rail schedule. Will NJ Transit again suspend train service next summer or in the coming months either because of Amtrak repairs or for Positive Train Control installation?
KC: No, should not have to … When I came in we had a very hostile relationship, a bad relationship between New Jersey Transit and Amtrak and we’ve worked really hard with Amtrak in a positive way. The Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak owns and we run on, we need to invest in that with them and we’ve got a good partnership so a number of projects are going ahead … where we’re working collaboratively with them. So I think we have a lot better operational relationship now too so next summer the work they’re doing, the way we’re coordinating schedules, there’s no particular concern right now. Obviously, we’ll update in the spring, but right now there’s no anticipation that will affect passenger service.
A question of funding
BF: The Legislature gave you additional funding this past budget. Advocates say that really NJ Transit needs a dedicated source of funding, that it depends too heavily on rider fares, 40% to 45% of the operating budget that comes from the riders. Do you have a plan, a suggestion to work on for that kind of a funding source so that you don’t have to keep on raiding your capital budget to make ends meet?
KC: I think the governor certainly has been very much out front about the need to keep the operating budget separate from the capital budget and is trying to push the transition more and more of “Stop raiding capital,” and get dedicated funding for capital and let the operating budget be transparent, what’s being funded, which is certainly good public policy … We did not have a five-year capital plan when I came here which was quite a surprise for a multibillion dollar enterprise. So as we are reviewing all our facilities, for state of good repair, all our equipment, rolling stock, etc., we’re looking to really be a class A transit system. It’s going to take significant investment and we’re going to quantify that, saying here’s all the facilities, stations, etc. This is what it’s going to cost to bring them up to speed…