The state’s legislative leadership will launch a series of investigations into NJ Transit to look at its “continued failures,” and gauge how the statewide transit agency can be turned around.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, will chair the select committee tasked with the investigation, according to a Tuesday morning statement from the Senate Democrats Office.
By his side will be Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, an advocate of state transportation issues and frequent critic of NJ Transit both under Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican predecessor Gov. Chris Christie. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Pat Diegnan, D-18th District, will also sit on the committee.
Murphy proposed $25 million for NJ Transit in his 2020 budget, but lawmakers successfully bumped the amount up to $75 million – an amount still woefully below what the agency needs according to Weinberg.
The governor has been highly critical of Christie’s handling of NJ Transit, often accusing him of siphoning off money for long-term improvements instead using it to handle day-to-day maintenance and blaming him for a myriad of problems such as a shortage of engineers and available trains.
Murphy, a Democrat, has often made a point to“remind everybody of the mess we inherited, and we’re still digging out from it.”
“But, at the end of the day, if folks are frustrated, they ought to be,” the governor said in April.
The committee will hold hearings and rountables, and conduct site visits, according to the Tuesday statement.
The creation of the committee comes at the heels of a New York Times report, detailing how the “very worst commuter train in America” is NJ Transit’s Train 2606, which was a no-show 20 times so far this year amidst many more delays.
“The failure to turn around NJ Transit hurts our economic growth,” Sweeney said in a prepared statement. “NJ Transit’s record of service cancellations, delays and breakdowns are inexcusable, its long-term planning is non-existent and it is already laying the groundwork for a fare hike next summer.”
Indeed, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett would not rule out a fare hike, during a television interview last month with NJTV.
“While there is still much to be done, NJ TRANSIT has made notable progress investing in recruiting, infrastructure and new vehicles, while enhancing safety for riders,” Nancy Snyder, a spokesperson for NJ Transit, said in a statement to NJBIZ.
“We look forward to discussing these issues with the Legislature in the months ahead as we continue improving the quality of public transportation throughout the state.”
“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 [percent],” Dan Bryan, a spokesperson for Murphy’s office, said in a statement to NJBIZ.
“There is no turning back the clock: The previous administration spent years gutting and destroying NJ Transit, and Governor Murphy knows that a sustainable rebuild of the system takes time. Only the hard work of investing in and stabilizing NJ Transit over time will deliver better service to commuters,” he added.
The woes with NJ Transit came to a head several times over the year. In April, attendees of Wrestlemania in the Meadowlands were hounded by delays that lasted upwards of two hours.
NJ Transit blamed WWE officials, saying they were told the program would end by 10 p.m., though WWE denied ever giving a set timeline for how long the program would last.
Then in August, the governor fell under fire for dolling out roughly a dozen pay raises to high-level executives, a move considered inappropriate by lawmakers who argue the agency still has too many problems.
Still, Murphy defended the raises, pointing out that they were in the October 2018 179-page audit, which recommended “fewer executive positions.” Paying those higher salaries, the governor contended, was vital to attracting top talent that might otherwise flee for higher pay at neighboring transit systems in nearby states.
The agency made a mad dash last year to install the federally mandated emergency braking system by December last year after revelations surfaced following a fatal 2016 Hoboken train crash that less than 20 percent of the system had been installed. State officials have until 2020 to make sure the entire braking system actually works.