Experts to state Senate: Better management, new vision needed for NJ Transit

Two transportation experts testifying at a New Jersey Senate panel criticized the management of NJ Transit this week and called for reforms and a new vision for the ailing state agency on the same day that Gov. Phil Murphy called for a “full-scale”audit of the troubled agency.

Janna Chernetz, director for New Jersey policy at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and Martin Robins, a former deputy executive director of NJ Transit, told the Senate Transportation Committee that both leadership issues and funding problems got worse during the Christie administration’s eight years. Robins, who was the first deputy executive director of NJ Transit under governors Brendan Byrne and Tom Kean, said the agency used to enjoy strong administration support and a strong board of directors.

Now “we’ve been operating in a period of total lack of transparency,” Robins said. Chernetz cited  various financial challenges for the agency: a 51 percent reliance on passenger revenues; weak and unstable funding from the state and federal governments; a lack of long-term planning; and a pattern of raiding capital-improvement budgets for day-to-day operations.

She said $6.2 million in federal infrastructure funding was recently lost because of a management lapse – the highest amount lost by any state that was part of the funding program. “This should not happen,” she said, adding that figure could rise to $90 million. “It’s a very dangerous way to fund an agency that lets people get to work and get to school,” she said.

New sources of revenue must be found to fund mass transit in the state,  Chernetz and Robins said. For example, the air rights over the Secaucus Station might be worth a fortune to the developer of an office tower, Robins said. Both speakers bemoaned NJ Transit’s turbulent relationship with Amtrak, which owns the Northeast Corridor tracks that NJ Transit uses. Chernetz and Robins stressed the urgency of the Gateway Project, which would create an additional train tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Penn Station. Robins said the over-burdened existing tunnels, long a major chokepoint, still suffer technical problems stemming from flooding during Hurricane Sandy. Chernetz said a “Plan B” must be developed in case the Gateway Tunnel Project falters. Funding for its completion is uncertain. The Trump administration recently announced plans to significantly cut the federal share of funding for the project. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, said not funding the project would be wrong, because Gateway is “a project of national significance.”

Calling NJ Transit reform “a subject dear to my heart,” Gordon listed several partial backup measures if the Gateway Project fails. Possibilities include expanding bus service to New Jersey from a re-imagined Port Authority bus terminal; increasing PATH service, including a direct line from Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport; and developing rail service from Hudson and Bergen counties to river ferries.

The previous plan for a new river crossing, called Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), was canceled in 2010. After construction started. Former governor Chris Christie canceled the project, citing possible cost overruns. Chernetz, criticizing the agency’s sloppy record keeping, noted that ARC still shows up as a live project on at least one page of the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s website.

Chernetz also suggested that the New Jersey Senate Transportation Committee prioritize the Swedish-born “Vision Zero” approach to road traffic. The goal is to design policy in such a way that no more lives will be lost as a result of traffic accidents. New York City adopted Vision Zero in 2014. Mayor Bill de Blasio cited the lower speed limits and increased law enforcement as key to a 32-percent drop in pedestrian fatalities the city posted at the close of this past year. In 2017, New Jersey pedestrian deaths rose by 13 percent. Bicyclists and pedestrians could have much to gain from Vision Zero, she said.