“I want to assure this committee and the public we run a safe operation,” said NJ Transit Rail Operations Vice President and General Manager Robert Lavell.
The good news: NJ Transit officials insisted the nation’s largest transit system is safe. The bad news: At a final hearing before joint legislative committees, they could not promise to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to install and operate a federally-required safety upgrade called positive train control, or PTC.
“NJ Transit is making every effort humanly possible to meet that 2018 deadline,” said Lavell.
“From our understanding, only six percent of our trains are certified, and only 137 of the 1,100 people that need to be certified from a personnel perspective have been accomplished thus far. We’ve got a mess,” said Judiciary Committee Chair Assembly John McKeon.
NJ Transit executives admitted the agency is already facing a $12,000 federal fine for missing a PTC planning deadline, but the joint committee co-chairman later revealed the transit agency could miss the final deadline by years.
“I can’t tell you how many employees that are in the know, have come to us to say, ‘Here’s what’s really going on,'” said McKeon. “People will tell me, off the record, that were afraid to come here today, that they’re at least two to three years away. So hopefully new management will accelerate that pace, but based on where they currently are, that would be my prediction.”
One problem is the agency is understaffed across the board. Even though Executive Director Steve Santoro, who is resigning, authorized NJ Transit to hire more people, its salaries are not competitive.
“We have lost several people to retirement, and not retirement, as well. People have just left the agency. The feedback I’ve gotten from Bob is salary differential,” said Santoro.
“Metro North has a significantly higher management salary but they also have something really enticing for their managers — a defined pension plan — which NJ Transit does not. We’ve lost several managers over the last few months for those specific reasons,” said Lavell.
The cash-strapped agency has raised some salaries but continues to struggle financially. Under the Christie administration, NJ Transit routinely raided its capital fund to pay operating expenses. It will request a four percent increase, some $80 million more, for its next fiscal year. That, as commuters increasingly ride without valid tickets, or buy cheaper senior or disabled tickets hoping not to get caught, according to the conductor’s union, who claims it’s also significantly understaffed.
“It is such a common practice. Our crews, between senior and disabled tickets, probably every third ticket that we physically collect is a senior or disabled ticket,” said United Transportation Union Local 60 General Chairman Burkert. “You just know it’s just going on, because why should they lay out the money if NJ Transit is understaffed on trains to collect the fares? They could use that money elsewhere, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s not going into NJ Transit’s pockets.”
“It’s one thing if a ticket doesn’t get collected, but it’s another thing that it’s undated. So just simply putting a date on what’s purchased would seem to me to be a part of the solution,” said McKeon.
The committee will issue a report with proposed legislative fixes by Feb. 1. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Governor-elect Phil Murphy, who recently called NJ Transit a “national disgrace,” is poised to soon put his own stamp on the agency.