Frustrated Senate panel unloads on NJ Transit’s leader
TRENTON — Members of a special Senate committee looking into NJ Transit were frequently frustrated at a Friday hearing with the agency’s chief executive officer and say another meeting will be required to get the information they want about its finances and operations.
Senate President Steve Sweeney said NJ Transit provided incomplete responses to records requests submitted in November but seemed particularly disturbed that Kevin Corbett attended the hearing alone – without any of the half-dozen other senior executives the Legislature had requested to hear from.
“We sure as hell have to be confident that any money we give you is being spent in a very judicious way to ensure that transportation’s improved,” said Sweeney, who wants to dedicate $500 million a year in state funding to NJ Transit. “Not that confident right now.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said she plans to introduce legislation requiring the agency’s new customer advocate position be filled by and report to NJ Transit’s board, not hired by the chief executive officer.
She said the person holding the position, Stewart Mader, had originally applied for a communications position and viewed the position as someone who could “manage the message.” Mader was identified by the New Jersey Globe as the person who sent a since-deleted tweet criticizing a reporter from the North Jersey Record for a story about patronage questions about people hired at the agency.
“In my humble opinion, Mr. Mader has disqualified himself to continue being the customer advocate for NJ Transit because no one could have confidence in his ability to be a spokesperson for commuters when he is tweet-bashing reporters who might be reporting about accurate facts at NJ Transit hires,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg later told reporters that Mader should perhaps be reassigned to the communications department. Corbett told reporters Mader would not be reassigned.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, suggested more than once that Corbett wasn’t providing truthful answers to questions, such as the role a public relations firm, MWW Group, may have played in arranging laudatory testimony about the agency at a legislative hearing in November.
“We sent you questions. None of them were really answered,” Sweeney said. “Some of it was old, stale data that we were able to get. We will after this hearing probably have to have a follow-up hearing and hopefully whatever questions don’t get answered here will get answered next time with the staff that we request.”
“I changed my schedule to be here, so I’m disappointed that we weren’t given the same courtesy by your staff and that we will have to go to another hearing,” said state Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic.
Corbett said it was his decision to attend alone and that no disrespect was intended. He said other executives will attend the next hearing.
In his prepared remarks, Corbett said NJ Transit’s progress has been incremental but “significant and steadily moving in the right direction.”
“It is no secret that we still have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us,” Corbett said. “However, there are several examples of efforts that have yielded positive results for our customers – an indication that indeed the turnaround has begun.
“But an organization the size and complexity of NJ Transit, as the largest statewide transit system in the nation and the third largest overall, cannot simply pivot on a dime. Rather, much like turning a battleship in the middle of the ocean, restoring NJ Transit is not an overnight endeavor,” he said.
“Everyone at NJ Transit understands that we still have a lot of work to do before we’re delivering the service our customers expect and deserve,” Corbett said.
Corbett said the agency will release a 10-year strategic plan within weeks and a five-year capital plan in April.
Corbett also said NJ Transit plans “a major refresh of all the bus routes throughout the state” later this year, following hearings in every county. He said a similar effort probably hasn’t been done in at least the last 28 years.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.