Legislators confident NJ Transit reform bill is a good first step

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

You can’t exactly blame beleaguered rail riders for expressing a little skepticism over a new package of NJ Transit reforms that are designed to make the agency more transparent and accountable. In fact, before Jennifer Green — a commuter who spends 12 hours a week on NJ Transit trains — formally introduced Gov. Phil Murphy for the ceremonial bill signing at Summit’s train station, she just had to kvetch first.

“We face issues of delays, of random stops, and even rainwater sloshing overhead in the light fixtures. I mention these frustrating day-to-day events because it’s not right that this is our normal way of getting to work every day. It’s not right that we’ve all paid a lot for this broken system,” she said.

Murphy acknowledged commuters’ aggravation, particularly their concern that he might fix NJ Transit’s ongoing budget woes, in part, by raising fares.

“We are loathe to make the commuter bear the burden as the commuter has over the past decade. So we’ve already committed to no fare increases through June 30. I’d love to see our ability to extend that, but it’s too early to tell,” Murphy said.

“NJ Transit riders pay some of the highest fares in the nation. They outpace inflation, and we’ve had five fare hikes since 2000. NJ Transit relies heavily on passenger revenue for their operating budget — almost 50 percent,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign state director Janna Chernetz.

A comprehensive audit Murphy ordered found NJ Transit needs a stable, dedicated funding source. While the governor indicated Wednesday he might consider tax increases in next year’s state budget, Senate President Steve Sweeney Thursday shot back, “… tax increases are not part of the solution. Until we make the desperately-needed structural reforms to government spending and fiscal practices, we will not consider tax increases …” and ended it with, “Period, full stop,” — a Murphy catchphrase.

“I look forward to dealing with the Legislature and working that through. Period, full stop,” Murphy said.

Meanwhile, rail service will not improve dramatically anytime soon as NJ Transit continues training more engineers and installing positive train control. But the reform measures Murphy signed into law Thursday will open the agency’s books to ongoing scrutiny by adding a consumer advocate and an ethics officer; boost board membership from eight to 13 members — including more rail and bus commuters; and require more public hearings and having some held at night.

“I hope commuters know that we’ve been listening. This will require some evening board meetings where people who actually go to work every single day will have a place and a time that they can come and share their issues,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

“This is an important first step, and the next step is making sure we constrain the costs,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.

“Everywhere you look, the prices are hiking, hiking, hiking. I mean, put a stop on it a little bit, fix what’s going wrong, and then maybe we might smile with the hike,” said Irvington commuter Thomasene Grooms.

Finding the money to avoid fare hikes means Murphy will have to come up with another revenue stream, and that sets up a pitched budget battle with the Legislature.