NJ Transit Governing Board Gets New Members, Ending Lengthy Stalemate over Nominees

John Reitmeyer | January 14, 2020 | Transportation
Decision made on last full day of legislative session, brings board closer to its full complement of 13
New members of NJ Transit’s governing board (left to right): Robert Gordon, Cedrick Fulton, Robert Maroko and James D. Adams

Four new members are joining New Jersey Transit’s governing board, thanks to last-minute action in the state Senate aimed at beefing up the leadership of the beleaguered mass-transit agency.

New to the board is former state lawmaker Robert Gordon, who led a series of hearings that probed NJ Transit’s shortcomings in the wake of a fatal train accident in 2016. Gordon also helped write a major agency reform bill enacted by Gov. Phil Murphy two years ago.

Other new board members include James D. Adams, a civil engineer who has worked for agencies like the New Jersey Schools Development Authority and New Jersey Highway Authority; Cedrick Fulton, a former longtime employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; and Robert Maroko, a labor union official who is a regular rider on NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton line.

Resolving long-standing dispute

The new board members were approved on the final full day of the legislative session that ends Tuesday afternoon. Their advancement after a long delay helped resolve a lengthy dispute over NJ Transit nominees that pitted the Democratic governor against the Senate’s majority Democrats.

“I think we have before us a unique set of people with appropriate backgrounds to serve on the New Jersey Transit board,” said Senate Majority Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) as the nominees went through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This has been a long time coming and … there’s a couple more coming, hopefully in the new (legislative) session,” said Weinberg, who played a key role in negotiations with the Murphy administration.

Murphy spokesman Matthew Saidel said the governor is “thrilled that the Senate has voted on these qualified appointees who are committed to rebuilding New Jersey Transit and supporting reliable and safe service for New Jersey’s commuters.”

“The governor looks forward to working with these new board members in the years to come,” Saidel said.

Reviving NJT a core goal

Murphy, who took office in early 2018, has made reviving NJ Transit one of his core missions, saying it is an important part of a broader effort to strengthen the state’s economy. He’s boosted operating funding for the mass-transit agency in two consecutive state budgets. He also ordered a major operational audit that was completed in 2018.

Among the many recommendations made by the auditors was a call to expand NJ Transit’s eight-member board. New members, the auditors said, should add “technical skills in relevant professional disciplines, regular ridership, diversity of perspectives and geography.”

Last year, Murphy sent the Senate the names of several people to consider for board openings, including for seats created in the reform law the governor enacted in 2018 that, among other changes, expanded the size of the agency’s board to 13. But the board positions are subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate, and they were held up for review amid concerns about the relevant experience of some of the candidates.

The selection of Gordon, a Fair Lawn resident who was not among Murphy’s initial nominees, appeared to break the long-standing logjam last week. In fact, the names of Gordon, Adams, Fulton and Maroko were added at the last minute to Monday’s agendas for both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate.

Veteran of NJT train-wreck investigation

Gordon stepped down from the Senate in 2018 after being picked by Murphy to fill a seat on the state Board of Public Utilities. But he became well-versed in matters relating to NJ Transit after leading a series of oversight hearings that probed the agency following 2016’s fatal train crash at Hoboken Terminal. During testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Monday, Gordon said improving NJ Transit operations is crucial to maintaining the state’s economic vitality.

“We are beginning to see some progress, but we have a long way to go,” Gordon said. “I’m confident that we can turn this organization around.”

“Working together, we can rebuild this organization and provide our customers with a quality of service they expect and deserve,” he said.

Also testifying before the committee on Monday were Fulton, Maroko and Adams.

Fulton, the Port Authority’s former director of bridges, tunnels and terminals, said he has more than three decades of relevant transportation-agency experience focusing on safety and customer service.

“I’ve seen both the good and the bad,” said Fulton, a Hamilton resident. “The truth of the matter is that there are no easy answers to what we are about to tackle, but I welcome the opportunity.”

Maroko, recording secretary and general counsel for the New York-based Hotel Trades Council, said he commutes regularly to work on NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton line and is well aware of the frustrations experienced by fellow riders.

Knows what commuters deal with

“I am personally familiar with the challenges facing commuters,” said Maroko, a resident of Montclair. “I’m acutely aware of the transportation problems faced by New Jersey residents, in terms of affordability, accessibility and reliability.”

Maroko also pointed to his labor background as an asset since NJ Transit’s workforce, which is largely unionized, has struggled to retain engineers and other employees in recent years.

“I welcome the chance to lend my personal expertise and hard work to seizing these opportunities and making New Jersey Transit the reliable resource it should be for millions of people in this state,” he said.

Adams, of West Orange, cited his own experience working as a civil engineer for three decades, including holding leadership roles at several government agencies and serving on the board of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

“Safe, efficient and cost-effective transportation is vital to the economic viability of not only New Jersey, but of the region as a whole,” Adams said. “New Jersey Transit, again, must become a leader in that area.”

No one on the committee questioned the qualifications of the four nominees after they testified, and they were easily cleared to the full Senate in a near-unanimous vote. They were also approved by a 40-0 margin by the full Senate.

But several lawmakers faulted majority Democrats for putting the NJ Transit nominees up for review on the final full day of the legislative session, and without leaving enough time to conduct personal interviews with them before Monday’s hearing.

“I understand the pressures of getting things done,” said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen). “But I would hope that in the future that we would have greater (advance) notice, if not just for the members of the committee, for the members of the public who may have an interest.”

“There is a lot going on with New Jersey Transit, and not all of it is very good,” said Cardinale, who ultimately voted for the nominees.

“Senator, I can’t argue with any of those points,” responded committee chair Nick Scutari (D-Union).