Sweeney Impanels ‘Select Committee’ to Investigate NJ Transit’s Continuing Troubles

John Reitmeyer | October 2, 2019 | Transportation
Calling mass-transit agency’s record ‘inexcusable,’ senate president says he will personally lead the proceedings of new panel
Credit: NJ Transit/Facebook
Legislative hearings will focus on transit agency’s continued struggles with cancellations, delays and funding.

New Jersey Transit will be back on the hot seat with a new round of legislative hearings focusing on the agency’s continued struggles with cancellations, delays and funding.

Senate President Steve Sweeney announced the formation of the “select committee” Tuesday, calling NJ Transit the “lifeblood” of the state economy whose prolonged poor performance could slow growth and depress home values.

“NJ Transit’s record of service cancellations, delays and breakdowns is inexcusable, its long-term planning is non-existent, and it is already laying the groundwork for a fare hike next summer,” said the Gloucester County Democrat.

The state’s mass-transit agency came under scrutiny several years ago at hearings convened by the Senate’s designated oversight panel, during former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure.

By choosing the select-committee format, Sweeney this time is creating a panel similar to the one formed a year ago to scrutinize state government employment procedures in the wake of a hiring scandal involving Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.

Administration says fixing system will take time

Sweeney — who has clashed openly with Murphy on several issues related to the state budget and economic policy — said he will personally lead the NJ Transit hearings.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat, didn’t directly address the launch of the new Senate investigation during a public event in Glassboro on Tuesday. But his spokesman, Dan Bryan, issued a statement outlining ways Murphy has been working to rebuild NJ Transit since he took office last year, including by increasing state funding for the beleaguered agency.

“The previous administration spent years gutting and destroying NJ Transit, and Governor Murphy knows that a sustainable rebuild of the system takes time,” Bryan said. “Only the hard work of investing in and stabilizing NJ Transit over time will deliver better service to commuters.”

Meanwhile, NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said her agency “looks forward to working with the Legislature.

“We all share the common goal of ensuring our customers have the safe and reliable service they deserve,” Snyder said.

Riders are frequent critics

Once known as one of the nation’s top transportation agencies, NJ Transit has struggled since the Great Recession as state funding declined and capital dollars were diverted to help sustain its day-to-day operations. The combination of reduced reliability and a series of fare hikes enacted during Christie’s tenure has also upset riders, who lash out regularly on social media.

Murphy has highlighted efforts like  upgrading railroad safety equipment as indications of progress. He’s also pointed to increased funding for NJ Transit in the state budget and has suggested conditions will improve as more engineers are hired and undergo the intensive training needed to operate the agency’s trains.

But cancellations and other service issues remain a major area of concern, one that was brought into all-too-sharp relief with the recent publication of a story by The New York Times labeling a train on NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line “the very worst commuter line in America.”

In addition to public hearings, the Senate investigation will also involve roundtable discussions and “site visits.” The panel won’t start out with subpoena power, but a spokesman for Sweeney suggested it could be obtained if necessary.

Senators who have been picked to serve on the select committee include Kip Bateman (R-Somerset); Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic); Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson); Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex); Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union); and Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

Funding is critical part of fix

Weinberg sparred with Murphy’s transportation commissioner, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, over NJ Transit funding during a budget committee hearing earlier this year. Weeks later, the version of the state’s 2020 budget signed by Murphy included the funding boost that Weinberg sought, even as some other legislative add-ons were put on hold.

“The New York Times just told the world that the worst commuter train in America is an NJ Transit train,” Weinberg said Tuesday. “We need to hear from commuters, transportation experts, and others to determine an appropriate increase in operating funds to adequately support an agency that carries more than 900,000 bus, rail and light rail passengers.”

The announcement of the NJ Transit hearings comes as Murphy and Sweeney are locked in a high-profile stalemate over the future of state economic-development tax incentives that the governor has refused to renew this year amid an ongoing investigation into whether they were abused during Christie’s tenure.

Last year, Murphy impaneled a special task force to investigate the programs, and that panel has already made at least one criminal referral. And last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story that said a federal investigation of the incentive programs has been launched by authorities in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Sweeney, who has criticized the work of the governor’s task force, put together a separate, legislative panel earlier this year to conduct another review of the tax incentives, which remains ongoing.

Murphy on Tuesday highlighted reforms he would like to see incorporated into the state tax-incentive programs during his public event at Rowan University. First unveiled a year ago, the reforms have yet to be embraced by Sweeney and other legislative leaders amid the ongoing disagreement.

‘A game of inches’

The governor also spoke yesterday about the role played by NJ Transit in the broader push to improve the economy and announced a new effort to generate economic development near its train stations.

“That’s a game of inches,” he said. “You are one foot in front of the other, like a lot of the other challenges we’ve had.”

Meanwhile, his spokesman pointed the finger back at lawmakers and said they bear some responsibility for the state of NJ Transit.

“We welcome the Legislature’s scrutiny and look forward to the discussion of their budgets that were negotiated with Governor Christie and sent to his desk, which reduced state funding to the agency by as much as 90%,” Bryan said.

“This administration is doing the long, difficult work of putting NJ Transit on the path to recovery, and Governor Murphy will not stop until New Jersey commuters have the world-class transportation agency they deserve,” Bryan said.