“I did not come here, by the way, to browbeat or yell,” said Gov. Phil Murphy.
It was a kinder, gentler New Jersey governor who addressed the NJ Transit board Wednesday morning. On the day after his first budget address, Murphy said he came to the meeting to underline the fact that restoring the agency to its former glory was not just a vague aspiration, but a top administration priority, backed up with dollars.
“I was proud to propose a near tripling of state aid to NJ Transit,” he announced. “A new investment of $242 million as our first step to restore this once-model system.”
It was music to the ears of the cash-starved agency. And, for commuters?
“As a first matter,” he added, “we’re taking a fare hike in fiscal year 2019 off the table. The public isn’t asking for much more than that as a start.”
Murphy says he wants the agency to consider him a partner, and asked them to be responsible and realistic when they put together their own budget. He acknowledged the need for new blood, both among administrators and the rank and file. And toward that end, he encouraged them to fill vacancies, from train conductors to engineers, to techs and bus operators. For 30-year employee and union boss, Stephen Burkert, that was refreshing.
“We were number one in the world at one point, so it’s not like we’ve never been there. We do have a history; we know how to do it,” he said. “We just have to get it back online, and get back to that point. You have excellent workers here. You have good management here, and I think between the new executive director, our new commissioner and governor, they’re giving us the authority to go to that level, to put passengers and their safety back on line.”
Even the usually contrarian, David Peter Alan of the Lackawanna Coalition, one of the most dogged of NJ Transit watchdogs, expressed almost optimism.
“Well, it sounds great. It couldn’t have sounded any better, but of course, we’ve heard this before,” he said. “We hope that he can perform as well as he talks. We really need the money, especially on the operating side and we will be watching. We hope this will signal some real change at NJ Transit.”
There is some interpretive math in the governor’s budget. The agency is actually losing some $75 million in redirected Turnpike tolls and another $60 million or so from lost state and federal reimbursements and decreased ridership, knocking off over $100 million from the governor’s net allocation. Asked about it Wednesday, Murphy rejected the suggestion.
“This is an historic investment in NJ Transit by any measure, trust me,” he countered. “We’ve looked at the history. This is an all-time high and the increase, as we see it, is literally a tripling.”
The governor warned commuters to not expect miracles. Rome wasn’t built in a day, he said, and you shouldn’t expect all the trains and buses to be running on time Thursday.