NJ Transit works to improve communication with commuters

Gov. Phil Murphy toured NJ Transit’s so-called war room where a wall of screens and data streams alert staff to problems. They’re alerts that now get blasted out on social media. When last summer’s engineer shortage caused a plague of canceled trains that left commuters stranded, Murphy ordered the operation into high gear.

“Much more aggressively going to commuters. As opposed to making you find us, we increasingly are finding you,” Murphy said.

But NJ Transit’s war room can’t solve its chronic issues with budget and staffing. The governor’s proposed fiscal year 2020 spending blueprint boosts the agency’s operating budget by a net $25 million. Senate President Steve Sweeney wants $100 million more.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg addressed NJ Transit’s board last week.

“Both Senate President Sweeney and I have questioned whether a $25 million increase in the operation of a $2.5 billion agency, which equals really to about a 1 percent increase, is adequate to even continue service at current levels, much less improve service,” said Weinberg at the meeting on March 13.

“Let me say that I agree with those who’d like to see us invest even more in NJ Transit,” Murphy said.

But Murphy Tuesday drew a line, saying he refused to hit up the state budget surplus, which he estimates will approach $1.2 billion next year.

“One thing we can’t do is simply look at our surplus as a pot of money to be raided. The surplus is our state’s, essentially, rainy day fund,” Murphy said.

The governor’s admittedly laboring to dig NJ Transit out of a deficit created by eight years of starvation budgets under Gov. Chris Christie. The agency’s training 100 new engineers to replenish deep staff shortages. By contrast, Metro North has such a big engineer surplus that it pays some of them to stay home. Officials had hoped NJ Transit might borrow a few of those extras, engineers who used to work for NJ Transit, and would require minimal refresher courses. But Metro North said the railroad’s unions couldn’t agree on a plan.

“The training time that it would take would be past the time when we have our own engineers coming up. So we looked at it very closely and collaboratively with them but it didn’t work,” said NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett.

Which means as NJ Transit starts testing its positive train control installations this summer and engineers take days off, its emergency operations center will likely be tweeting.

“I believe that the engineering class size is more of a summer risk than positive train control, is that fair to say? In other words we’re building this pool up as aggressively as we can, but we’re not going to be in the promised land by Memorial Day,” Murphy said.

NJ Transit’s got six engineering classes underway, with the first class of 12 scheduled to graduate in May. That’s not soon enough, though, to avoid a potential summer of hell.