Transportation officials say NJ Transit is turning the corner

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Reforming NJ Transit has been at the top of the legislative agenda in Trenton. At a Senate Transportation Committee hearing Monday, the agency announced it will not make the federally mandated Dec. 31 deadline for installing positive train control. That’s been at the crux of a lot of frustrating delays and cancellations for commuters. But before red flags are waved, transit leaders say the state qualifies for a two-year extension to get PTC fully up and running.

If you’re a commuter, you know that the situation on NJ Transit has already hit crisis level. There are trains that get stuck in tunnels, trains that get stuck on bridges, trains that get canceled without notice, and trains that are generally filled to dangerous capacity. But for the people that run the system — the Department of Transportation commissioner and the NJ Transit executive director — their sense at Monday’s Transportation Committee meeting is that they have stopped the bleeding.

“I am happy to report that we are 95 percent complete as of Nov. 30 with the installation required to meet our year-end equipment installation federal milestone,” said Kevin Corbett, executive director of NJ Transit. “We will be running service on Jan. 1, and that was not a given back in February when I came to NJ Transit.”

“The bottom line with PTC and all the work that’s been done, so the pressure is off of us to take rail cars off the system so frequently — which is a lot of what affects our on-time service. A lot of what affects cancellations was moving cars on and off the system to be outfitted with PTC, and so the real benefit is our customers should see less of that,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.

As the governor outlined last week at a news conference, the agency really needs to work on its communication skills. At the committee meeting Monday, officials said that that work had already begun.

“I think the immediate improvements come with the use of the app and we encourage our commuters who are our regular users, and even those who are infrequent users, to use the app. It’s got good information. It gives them the opportunity to follow better the train line that they use,” said Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “If we know in the morning that we’re going to have problems, we’re going to get on social media early, we’re going to let people know because when you tell people what’s happening then they can plan their day. The frustration comes in when if you had known two hours earlier, you could have done something, and by the time we tell you it was too late.”

Upstairs on the fourth floor, the Senate Appropriations Committee was meeting to discuss two commuter-centric bills.

“One which would put forth a number of reform efforts for NJ Transit in terms of leadership, governance, transparency and accountability,” said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey policy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee held hearings between October 2016 and August 2017 and it really unveiled a very troubling agency. Everything from top to bottom needed reform.”

Another bill related to commuter benefits was introduced.

“What this bill would do is require certain employers to offer a pretax benefit for commuters. Think of it like an FSA but for your commuting benefit,” Chernetz said. “This would be a great savings, and this is something that can be implemented now to bring relief to commuters now.”

The take-away for commuters? Officials say please have patience. If you’re a commuter, you know that that’s the one thing you have very little of.