NJ Transit stalled and started rolling backward long ago. A poor record on safety and reliability, failure to comply with a federally mandated upgrade, closed rail lines and ridiculous service outages are some of the results. Gov. Phil Murphy prescribed a $242 million increase in the agency’s state subsidy and a $1.3 million audit.
This month the state’s rail and bus transportation provider finally started to inch forward.
Last week, Murphy announced that the closed Atlantic City Rail Line would reopen 12 days earlier than expected. That’s not much, but better than previous announcements that twice pushed the reopening back from the original January.
He also announced tweaks to improve the service when it resumes. An additional train will get commuters to Philadelphia before 9 a.m. A late night train that the agency said had lower ridership will be dropped.
Murphy also is acting to increase NJ Transit’s responsiveness to customers and taxpayers by giving them a bigger voice on its board. His nomination of Absecon retired hospice chaplain the Rev. Janet Hewes Gasbarro, on the recommendation of Sen. Chris Brown, looks especially good. She’s a resident of neglected South Jersey and an experienced commuter on the A.C. Rail Line.
And yet, the agency also this month added to its shameful denial of service record. It stranded tens of thousands of Wrestlemania fans in the rain at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, and then tried to blame the event for not ending as soon as NJ Transit expected. Murphy rightly called this failure and blame attempt “unacceptable” and said he’d “be damned if it happens again.” Well, it already was happening again, echoing the 2014 stranding for hours of tens of thousands of Super Bowl fans.
Murphy has hardly made a dent in NJ Transit’s big problems. At year’s end he fooled most of the media into thinking it had made its deadline to install Positive Train Control, but in fact had only barely qualified for yet another deadline extension from the Federal Railroad Administration, this one for two more years.
Meanwhile, this decade NJ Transit has had the worst safety record by far for a U.S. commuter rail service, the highest rate of accidents attributed to human factors such as drug impairment and speeding, paid more than half a million in federal fines for safety violations (including 33 for drug or alcohol use) and had more derailments than the next four commuter rails combined.
Murphy’s audit blamed the Chris Christie administration for a 90 percent reduction in the agency’s in state subsidy. A Christie spokesman responded that NJ Transit funding actually increased 56 percent during his tenure when funds from other government sources such as the N.J. Turnpike Authority and a long-delayed fare increase are included.
The union workers of NJ Transit are well-paid, but since 1990 Democrats and Republicans have diverted more than $8 billion from its capital accounts to pay them and other operating costs. Murphy criticized such shifts, but then made a record one of $511 million last August.
The return of the Atlantic City Rail Line before Memorial Day Weekend and the additional morning train to Philadelphia are very welcome. The Legislature’s reforms of the agency will help. But if Murphy doesn’t improve NJ Transit’s management and staff performance while controlling its operational costs, showering more money on it won’t build this small start into inspiring momentum toward much-needed improvement.