In the few years under the leadership of Gov. Phil Murphy, NJ Transit has added staff, kept fares flat, increased spending on new buses and train cars, but have these improvements translated to a better experience for the riders looking to return to the daily commuting grind?
The answer depends on who you ask.
“It’s going to be a dramatically different experience for the commuter,” Murphy said in a recent interview with NorthJersey.comand the USA Today Network New Jersey. “I don’t want anyone to think that we’ve accomplished everything and we can declare victory — that’s not what I’m saying at all, but we’ve done the stuff that we said we would do.”
Len Resto, a Chatham resident who rides the Morristown line and is president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, said clean vehicles, reliability and restoring service cuts over the years are the key factors for an improved commuter experience.
“It’s all going to come down to when people feel safe taking the train and when they feel it’s going to be reliable — and right now riders aren’t seeing that,” Resto said. “They need to get those issues resolved before you can have good service.”
While improvements at the agency are undeniable, some riders say they are not yet seeing the payoff on their commutes.
Improvements behind the scenes
The strides made by the Murphy administration in the last three years were desperately needed.
Getting positive train control installed and conditionally certified before the federal Dec. 31, 2020 deadline improved safety and avoided potential hefty fines and service shutdowns. A nearly full roster of bus and train operatorsshould lessen needless cancelations. And increasing capital investment from tens of millions during the Christie administration to billions under Murphy is going to upgrade some of the oldest vehicles, stations and bridges to improve service in the long-run.
“Let’s remember the state of the reality of NJ Transit that we inherited, it had been completely hollowed out,” Murphy said. “We’ve used the COVID period aggressively, whether that’s buying new rolling stock, whether it’s completing PTC and continuing to hire engineers, so I’d almost say we’ve doubled down in the period where ridership has been way down.”
In addition to those major projects, Kevin Corbett, who was handpicked by the governor to lead the turnaround at NJ Transit three years ago, has the painstaking job of changing the way an antiquated 12,000-person institution functions. These changes included tech upgrades from the paper systems that were still in place in payroll, human resources and maintenance facilities, conducting routine performance assessments and expanding email access to its employees.
“It’s sort of like trying to change a tire while the car is moving at 60 miles an hour, so you want to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the existing system, but allows us to make some really significant leaps forward, and how we run the business efficiently day to day,” Corbett said.
Some changes that riders will notice immediately include, the ability to purchase tickets from their phones, push notification on the NJ Transit app, streamlined social media updates on late or canceled trains and buses and more recently an app feature that shows riders how full bus or train cars are to accommodate social distancing.
Other upgrades will take more time, Corbett said. Seventeen locomotives and 113 multilevel train cars purchased in 2018 and 2019, for example, won’t begin being delivered until 2022 and 2023, respectively.
“It took a decade to run the thing underground, and it takes years to build it back up,” Corbett said, adding that “the energy and effort we had to put to turn around and stop the hemorrhaging and start turning things around, it takes years.”
When will riders feelcommute changes?
But some straphangers say there are improvements left to be made — and some are among the most customer-facing elements of Murphy’s campaign to fix NJ Transit.
“Everything is dirty, they need faster service, the buses in particular cancel left and right, they’re not reliable … express planning for stops that are sleepy versus high traffic — we need something,” said Michelle Larner, a Bayonne commuter, who has always relied on public transportation because she doesn’t have a driver’s license.
She spent years waiting for the 119 bus to show up on time, or at all, leaving her with roulette-like chances of getting to work on time. Now, she chooses instead to walk 25 minutes out of her way to the nearest light rail stop.
The no-show buses have been a problem for years, but it wasn’t until Academy Bus, LLC, the company hired by NJ Transit to service the 119 and other Hudson County routes, became the target of a sweeping $15 million fraud lawsuit that the extent of Larner and thousands of riders’ poor bus experiences became known.
Issues with Academy’s missed bus trips were brought to the board’s audit committee — which in 2019 had one member, the governor’s board representative — for more than a decade, according toexclusively obtained audits, but the agency kept awarding them contracts worth tens of millions.
“The public is the best thing going for NJ Transit, to listen to us and to factor it in to move forward,” Larner said. “(There) should be your go-to person you can pitch ideas or have some kind of rapport with NJ Transit and your municipality.”
A law Murphy signed in December 2018 included two NJ Transit reforms directly tied to amplifying riders’voices to ensure their needs are met: a customer advocate and an expanded board that included appointments from the rail labor union, experts in fields related to transportation and commuters themselves.
Stewart Mader, who was hired for the position in April 2019 and parted ways with the agency 16 months later, caught early criticism from riders who questioned his independence and said it was difficult to reach him. Scrutiny heightened when NJ.com reported the job was posted before the law was signed or passed and included “chief spokesperson” in the description.
Adam Reich, an NJ Transit user for the last 20 years who has commuted from the Metuchen stop on the Northeast Corridor line for the last five, said the agency is on the right track with the PTC deadline met and accelerated workforce hiring.
Having a reformed customer advocate in place, he said, is one way to move the needle on improving the customer experience.
“There were issues with the way his position worked in practice, a lot of the messaging that did get put out was more of a PR tilt for the agency as opposed to truly taking in feedback from riders,” Reich said. “My hope is that the board is taking the time to deliberate this and ensure that somebody does get into that position who will display greater independence from agency leadership and is prepared to hold regular meetings with riders.”
Murphy said, “It’s something we want to fill, clearly, we do want an unfettered view from the commuter” and is “open-minded” about proposed legislative changes made by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg to make it more independent.
Weinberg, who has led multiple efforts in the Legislature to reform NJ Transit, said the agency would better meet the needs of riders “if they had proper channels and places for people to come and share their experiences both good and bad.”
While seven board seats were filled last year, the governor also reversed course on two board appointments — one of which was supposed to be a regular bus rider — leaving customers with empty board seats going on five years.
When asked about the status of the board appointments Murphy said, “It’s something that we want to fill out.” He added there have been other issues that took priority, but offered no indication about when new picks would be named.
“When the commuter was standing at the rail station three years ago … or waiting for the bus to show up, whether or not the board seats were filled or not was not the determining factor on whether or not they were having a good experience.”
Reich said the recently confirmed members have been positive additions after years of rubber-stamping, but a full board is essential.
“Advocates who believe in the agency but willing to challenge the status quo will go a long way,” he said. “It’s two more people that can look over everything, challenge agency staff, listen to riders and see if there are problems that maybe have been missed.”
Steady money: ‘Low-hanging fruit’ or ‘not the time’
The $4 billion investments in capital projects, maintaining the new PTC safety system, sustaining and expanding on tech upgrades, hiring in increasingly competitive markets and ultimately improving NJ Transit’s vast transportation system long-term comes down to one thing: money.
The foundation the Murphy administration has laid at NJ Transit will have a short life without reliable sources of revenue, experts say.
Unlike peer agencies that have state dollars dedicated to them by law, NJ Transit relies on funds determined year to year by the state Legislature and governor, namely from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, Clean Energy Fund and state budget.
Meanwhile, the agency has spent three decades diverting capital funds to cover operating costs, a practice that has not stopped under Murphy. Last year, $460.8 million was raided from capital to cover operating, the same as the year before.
On the campaign trail in 2017, Murphy said he would explore a dedicated funding source for the agency, but to date, no such legislation has been signed.
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State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, formed a select committee last year to highlight lingering issues at the agency and find solutions, including those related to funding. Sweeney and Weinberg presented their dedicated funding plan a year ago, but the conversation faded once coronavirus took hold of the region, halting local economies and decimating state revenue streams across the country.
Sweeney was not made available to discuss the status of plans to dedicate funds to NJ Transit despite repeated requests.
Janna Chernetz, the New Jersey policy director for the transit advocacy and research nonprofit The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said incremental steps could be taken now by the governor and Legislature to address the agency’s funding shortfalls.
The first of those should be finding money to dedicate to the capital fund to end the cannibalistic practice of filling operating budget holes. This could be done, she said, using new Turnpike Authority funds, an idea presented earlier this year by state DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who also chairs NJ Transit’s board.
“It would be a substantial win to have reduced these capital-to-operating transfers that have haunted the agency since 1990. It’s the next logical step in the renaissance of the agency,” Chernetz said. “This to me is a no-brainer, the money is there why aren’t we using it? It’s an easy win, it’s low-hanging fruit.”
Asked whether dedicating funding for NJ Transit is on the horizon, Murphy said there isn’t an “explicit need” for it right now because “what we’ve got right now is working.”
“Given this extraordinarily unique environment we’re in, I don’t think this is necessarily the time to put that in place. Is that something I’d be willing to sit down and consider, discuss? Absolutely.”
Corbett wouldn’t comment specifically on the governor’s remarks — except to say he believes this is a priority for the Legislature and governor — and cautioned about what would happen without dedicated funds.
“There’s obligations that go with being a statewide transit agency, and third largest nationally — that takes dedicated funding … you need it because a lot of it’s going to be public dollars or fare-payers’ dollars,” Corbett said, adding that as “projects on our list gets pushed back, then those improvements are going to get pushed back.”
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.