Senate President Steve Sweeney will personally chair a new select committee that he’s creating to investigate what he called the “continued failures” of NJ Transit during the tenure of his fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy.
“The reality is NJ Transit is a disaster,” Sweeney said. “It needs to be fixed.”
Sweeney, who has sparred frequently with Murphy since the former Wall Street executive took office in January of 2018, said he didn’t blame the governor for the deteriorated state of the transit system, just the slow pace of its promised recovery.
“It’s been two years and there’s no improvement,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think there’s been any improvement. I don’t think you can point to anything and say, ‘We’re better now than we were two years ago … since this new administration’s come in.’ The time of blaming others has to be over, at this point.”
The governor’s office on Tuesday released a statement noting the creation of the committee and at the same time stressing the Legislature’s role in striking past budgets that cut NJ Transit’s state funding.
“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%,” the statement read.
Both men have said they see NJ Transit as a critical cornerstone to economic development in the state. But even amid the added attention, the agency’s record has been spotty at best.
NJ Transit has hired 500 more bus drivers, and it’s training several classes of new locomotive engineers. It’s also buying more buses, and implementing the federally-required safety system known as Positive Train Control.
But it’s also providing service that’s often late, cancelled or delayed by equipment or staffing problems. The New York Times just published a story singling out one its trains — the 2606 on the North Jersey Coast Line — as the single worst commuter train in America.
“We’re going to get answers,” Sweeney said. “We’re going to come up with solutions and we’ll offer them to the administration.”
Sweeney also said the Murphy administration is acting “like everything is fine.”
“Tell that to a bus rider or a train rider trying to get into New York to get to their job, when it’s like going to the casinos,” he said. “Like a crap shoot: whether the buses show up on time, whether it’s working well, if the train’s going to make it or not.”
In its statement, the administration said: “Governor Murphy knows that a sustainable rebuild of the system takes time.”
Transit advocates say vacancies on the agency’s recently expanded board of directors need to be filled and that NJ Transit needs a dedicated source of funding. The agency got a net budget increase of $75 million in the current state budget.
“This is another much-needed effort in order to institute a lot of the changes that are needed to bring about the agency,” said Janna Chernetz, deputy director of the influential Tri-State Transportation Campaign, adding that the group was “especially optimistic that there will be a plan resulting from this select committee.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who will have a seat on the panel, stressed the importance of adequate funding.
“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” passengers, said the Bergen County Democrat who’s been a frequent critic of the agency.
Sweeney said he’s concerned a fare hike is coming next summer.
Murphy did not dispel that notion during a forum Tuesday at Rowan University’s College of Business, saying the current fare structure was in place until “at least until June 30 of next year, while we get this thing fixed.”
“In the last administration, commuters paid 36% more over those eight years to ride NJ Transit,” he said. “We’ve now frozen it two years in a row.”
Murphy also announced Tuesday that NJ Transit had signed an agreement with the state Economic Development Authority to develop creative transit hubs around big stations like Newark Trenton Jersey City and MetroPark.
The select committee will also include Democrats Sandra Cunningham and Patrick Diegnan, chairman of the Transportation Committee, as well as representatives of the GOP.
Public hearings and roundtables are also planned. The meetings will start after the November election.