Here’s what NJ is starting to do to overhaul NJ Transit
Lawmakers took a first step toward reforming NJ Transit on Thursday, advancing a proposal imposing roughly a dozen governance, oversight and accountability changes at the agency.
No lawmakers voted against the bill, though Republicans questioned the timing, given that the new Department of Transportation commissioner and NJ Transit executive director aren’t yet approved and that Gov. Phil Murphy ordered a top-to-bottom audit of the agency that will take months.
The bill also comes before a final report is issued by the Senate and Assembly committees that held a series of hearings last year looking at NJ Transit.
Assemblywoman John McKeon, D-Essex, the bill’s sponsor and co-chairman of last year’s hearings, said additional bills will follow and that the current bill might also be revised to reflect Murphy’s suggestions and those from lawmakers of both parties.
“I use the word bipartisan and bicameral for a reason,” McKeon said. “It’s too important to all us. Commuters are commuters. They’re not Democrats or Republicans.”
The bill would require regular audits of NJ Transits from the state auditor and an outside firm, public hearings before fare hikes and route changes, a new chief ethics officer and more.
It would also add four spots on NJ Transit’s board and require that all 12 board members either be commuters or experts in transportation or human resources.
“We’re talking about a board that isn’t just connected and being sitting in some prestigious seat but they’re going to know what the heck they’re doing and have a stake in it,” McKeon said.
The bill sets more specific expectations for the board of directors, including a directive to establish personnel policies, which he says is important because the agency “has become a dumping ground for political patronage.”
“As it relates to the leadership and people put into place in the most high-paying experience with zero by way of transportation experience really, quite frankly, is criminal,” McKeon said.
Also among the changes that would be made is one loosening the requirement that NJ Transit train engineers live in New Jersey for five years. McKeon said these workers are in short supply in part because of the residency requirement and that other rail agencies pay higher salaries.
“We just need to find them. We’re at dangerously low numbers,” McKeon said. “I guess on one level we have more engines mothballed than ever. But on the other end, just as bad, is we don’t have the talent here.”
Ron Sabol, a legislative director for the rail workers’ union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, said the change should be broader than just for engineers. He notes the agency has sites in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, and Port Jervis and Suffern in New York.
“The conductors, the engineers, the mechanical department – they should be completely omitted from the residency requirement altogether,” Sabol said.
Assemblyman Rob Clifton, R-Monmouth, was among the Republicans who supported the bill but suggested it might make sense to wait for Murphy’s audit and Cabinet appointees to be in place.
“Would it be in the best interest of the commuters to wait until the report is done and the new leadership is in place and then have a more comprehensive bill that also deals with the financial and the safety issues?” Clifton said.
The changes would also create two new passenger advisory committees, one for North Jersey and one for South Jersey. Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-Ocean, said the bill should ensure the committees are not stacked with people from a handful of counties.
“That’s always been a concern of mine, representing my district, the Shore area and our limited access to public transportation. It seems to me each county should have a representative,” McGuckin said.