The scene at the legislative hearing at the Hoboken train station Wednesday evening was all too familiar for NJ Transit riders: Once again they had a chance to bemoan the service they get from the state’s mass transit system, with its aging equipment, persistent delays and frequent cancellations.
But the focus of this group, a select committee impaneled by Senate President Steve Sweeney, was more on the frustration felt by both patrons and lawmakers over the lack of apparent improvement in the face of renewed promises that a new day was dawning for the beleaguered agency.
“Unfortunately, our first person to give testimony, his train was delayed,” said Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat. “Symbolic, right?”
It was indeed an emblematic start to the first public hearing before the Select Committee on NJ Transit. When the witness — Len Resto, president of the state Association of Railroad Passengers — eventually arrived, he said he couldn’t get a reason for his train cancellation from NJ Transit, despite the agency’s new $8 million Emergency Operations Center.
“It has not improved,” Resto told the lawmakers. “I have no confidence that it will improve, because, you tell them until you’re blue in the face — ‘You have to do better’ — and they recognize it. And it keeps happening. So I have absolutely no confidence that communication will get any better.”
Sweeney created the committee six weeks ago, and named himself as chair, saying he wanted the group to investigate what he called the “continued failures” of NJ Transit during the tenure of his fellow Democrat, Gov. Phil Murphy. The Gloucester County lawmaker, who has sparred frequently with Murphy since the former Wall Street executive took office in January of 2018, said he didn’t blame the governor for the deteriorated state of the transit system, just the slow pace of its promised recovery.
“It’s been two years and there’s no improvement,” Sweeney said at the time. “The time of blaming others has to be over, at this point.”
In a statement Thursday, NJ Transit said it’s looking forward to discussions with lawmakers: “NJ TRANSIT has made notable progress investing in recruiting, infrastructure and new vehicles, while enhancing safety for riders.”
But riders Wednesday night said they don’t feel the improvements touted by the agency. NJ Transit says it is buying more equipment, has hired more than 500 new bus drivers and is training more than 100 new train engineers. But riders said they still see crowded buses blow past stops and are still late for work when trains get cancelled due to engineer shortages.
Rider Vincent Fedor of Bayonne was particularly critical the agency’s new app.
“When there [are] no shows, I sign up for alerts on these different bus lines,” he said. “And I never receive any alerts.”
Sweeney express surprise at that news.
“Really,” he said. “This is the first time I’m hearing how this app is not working, because it’s been promoted so well.”
The agency’s creaky, old equipment was also a target of criticism.
“Oftentimes the doors don’t open,” said Jeffrey Goldman. “This morning there was — I’ve never seen this before — a sticker on the door that says, ‘out of service.’”
NJ Transit’s board of directors was also cast as being autocratic and opaque — and under-appointed. The body has nine vacancies because lawmakers and the governor keep arguing over nominee qualifications.
“We are working with the administration,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Bergen County Democrat. “I’m hoping this will be done by the end of the year.”
The lawmakers and riders also talked about a persistent problem —trains that are cancelled when engineers call out.
“That ability in the contract to take these extra days off with no notice — it’s crippling the system,” said Republican Sen. Tom Kean, the Senate minority leader. “That’s not the fault of an actual piece of equipment. It’s not anything else about more engineers being necessary. It’s an individual making a decision and then there’s no downside penalty.”
Resto, too, was critical of the status quo.
“You can’t run a business that way,” he said. “’Eh, you know what? I’m not going to show up today.’ Or give an hour’s notice. That’s not unacceptable. It does not happen in corporate America.”
A union representative noted that front-line staffers often take the brunt of rider complaints.
“The way it’s been for so long, it just beat down everybody, and that includes management, that includes the rail employees, that even includes the engineers,” said Jerome Johnson of the conductors’ unit. “And once morale gets beaten down, it takes a long time for it to revert back to where it should be, right?”
The big question both before the committee and the governor is identifying a steady source of money for NJ Transit, to free it from the political vagaries of having to rely on annual allocations from the state budget.
This year, with both legislative leaders and the governor’s office saying that the agency was a priority, NJ Transit emerged unscathed from otherwise nasty budget battles with a $75 million boost in the state allocation.
But that’s not been the case in prior years.
When Sweeney established the select committee and focused it on the slow pace of improvements under Murphy, the Governor’s Office shot back in a statement that noted the senate president had signed off on “budgets that were negotiated with Gov. Christie and sent to his desk, which reduced state funding to the agency by as much as 90%.”
“It is up to you to fight for funding,” David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, said at the hearing. “They say maybe you didn’t fight enough during the Christie era, but you need to now because we really need the money or we’re not going to have decent transit.”
Sweeney was noncommittal when asked about a funding source for NJ Transit.
“Well, as we go through this process, we’ll figure it out. I’m not going to say, ‘This tax, or that tax’” he said. “ I can tell you what I will rule out: a fare hike.”
The committee will hold more hearings and meet with advocates and experts. Its report is expected to include a plan for a sustained source of funding for the agency and to be submitted in time for the governor’s budget message early next year.