New faces on NJ Transit board confront commuter outrage

In its first monthly meeting since being reinforced with new members, the board that oversees NJ Transit received a warm welcome and a cold reminder of the magnitude of the task that lies ahead in reforming the state’s troubled mass transit system.

“We’re very happy to not be the only three people sitting up here anymore,” said Chairwoman Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who’s also the state Transportation commissioner, addressing the new members attending their first meeting.

Even as the meeting commenced, though, NJ Transit commuters were penned up at Penn Station, delayed by another in a series of recent problems that have added to the agency’s already lengthy record of delays and cancellations — in this case another Amtrak power problem. Some riders communicated their frustrations via social media:

One new board member commiserated, and noted how important it was for the agency to turn the thing around.

“I believe that unless we restore services to the level expected by the public, the economic future of the state is at risk,” said Bob Gordon, a former Bergen County legislator who was one of four board gubernatorial nominees recently confirmed by the Senate. “At some point, given the impact of commuting on quality of life, people will leave the state or decide not to move here.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, another Bergen County Democrat, who’s wrangled behind the scenes to restore a full transit board, was on hand, and underlined the mission for the new board members.

“That is the people you are here to represent,” she said. “Not each other. Not the corporation. But the hundreds of thousands of people who take public transportation.”

Joining Gordon on the board Wednesday were fellow Gov. Phil Murphy nominees Cedrick Fulton of Hamilton, who works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, James D. Adams of West Orange, an executive with an engineering firm, and Richard Maroko of Montclair.

Also on hand were Sangeeta Doshi, a Cherry Hill councilwoman named by Senate President Steve Sweeney, and David Rasmussen of Woodbridge, who was appointed by Murphy to a non-voting union position on the board.

The Senate has yet to act on two others Murphy has nominated: Janna Chernetz of Scotch Plains, who serves as policy director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign transit advocacy group, and small business owner Michael Beson of Ocean Township, who chairs the Democratic Municipal Committee in his hometown.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has yet to name his appointee.

Rounding out the board are present members Brian Wilton, Murphy’s representative, State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher and Ray Greaves, who fills another non-voting labor seat.

Though approved, Gordon cannot yet vote, pending action by the legislature to tweak a century-old state law that bars him from participating because he’s also a commissioner with the Board of Public Utilities, where he earns a salary of roughly $140,000.

Among those who made it to Wednesday’s board meeting in Newark was a rider who talked about the need for better digital communication with commuters facing delays and cancellations and looking for commuting options.

“There is no communication between train and bus,” said Norm Sutaria of Bloomfield. “So if you could start to work on processes that would help bridge that gap, that would be very, very helpful.”

Underscoring his point was Jordan Rosenbloom, who studied NJ Transit’s rider apps at the end of last year for the Sierra Club and found multiple errors and weaknesses, even though the apps having been updated and refreshed.

“Many other aspects of these digital services are at best, lackluster, and at worst buggy or limited in function,” he said.

“A severe hurdle to use your accessibility is the lack of a single source for riders to get all scheduling, fare and route disruption information in one place,” he said.

NJ Transit’s chief executive also discussed the need for better communication, especially with Amtrak with which the agency shares many elements of the regional rail infrastructure, like the Amtrak-owned Penn Station.

“We’ve got to get better about communicating and we’re working with Amtrak and our comms people to make that so at least people know if a train is stuck or the power goes out […] for us, as soon as we know, to keep regularly advising our customers,” said CEO Kevin Corbett. “That’s really important and we’re working with Amtrak to resolve that.”

Corbett also said NJ Transit is gaining traction as it installs a $500 million safety braking system known as positive train control. A recent state audit questioned whether software problems would keep the agency from meeting the federal PTC deadline at the end of this year. But Corbett said the agency’s now ready to test trains with passengers.

“We’re getting great support from all the other railroads, and we’re cooperating and helping each other, and getting fantastic help from FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] so very optimistic” he said.

Among the issues facing the agency is how to fill an $86 million hole in the budget for the fiscal year that begins in July, and helping to identify a dedicated revenue stream that will help NJ Transit avoid having to depend year-to-year on allocations from Trenton.