COULD COMMUTERS AND LABOR REALLY GET A SAY IN NEW JERSEY TRANSIT?

John Reitmeyer, NJ Spotlight

Train accidents, fare hikes, and service cuts have all been part of NJ Transit’s recent history. Now there’s a bid to give riders and workers effective input to its future

After recent fare hikes, service cutbacks, and a fatal train accident, state lawmakers held hearings in Trenton to investigate New Jersey Transit’s finances and management. But they’ve also been working to change the makeup of the agency’s board to give commuters and labor more say.

A bill that would add two new members to NJ Transit’s board of directors who would have to be regular commuters on the agency’s trains and buses was advanced by a key legislative committee yesterday. The same bill would also give a labor representative who currently sits on the agency’s board full rights as a voting member.

Sponsors and other supporters of the legislation said making the proposed changes to the board’s structure would better connect the agency to the thousands of people who ride NJ Transit trains and buses every day. They also said it would give more weight to concerns about safety and rising commuting costs that daily riders have been raising in recent years, and foster more debate among a board that regularly votes on issues without any dissent.

“In our minds, the more the public can weigh in, the better,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey and co-chair of the New Jersey For Transit coalition. “This is not going to solve everything, but at the very least it gives the public a voice, and it gives transit riders a voice,” he said.

The effort to add commuting members of the public to NJ Transit’s board was launched roughly a year ago on the heels of a 9 percent fare hike and service cuts that went into effect in late 2015. That increase followed a larger, 25 percent hike that was approved by the board in 2010 shortly after Gov. Chris Christie took office; despite complaints from commuters, it was approved without dissent by agency board members.

But concerns have also been raised in recent months about NJ Transit’s safety record, especially after a woman was killed during the morning commute in a crash at the Hoboken Terminal. More than 100 other passengers and bystanders were injured.

State lawmakers called on NJ Transit officials to appear at a series of hearings in Trenton in the wake of the fatal accident, pressing them to explain the impact of unstable state funding and delayed efforts to install technology to improve safety like Positive Train Control — a system that can prevent accidents by overriding engineers to slow or stop trains.

With those hearings now wrapped up, lawmakers have resumed their effort to reshape the board in order to give commuters and labor more say. Under the bill passed yesterday by the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, the number of board seats would increase from eight to 10. It would also give the board’s labor representative, Ray Greaves, chairman of the Amalgamated Transit Union state council, the right to cast votes, a power that he currently does not have.

The legislation would allow the governor to retain the right to appoint public members to serve along with ex officio members from the administration, but the two new members would be required by law to be NJ Transit commuters. One seat would be filled by a bus rider, and the other by a train commuter, according to the legislation. The names of the commuter board members would be submitted to the governor by the statewide Transportation Management Association Council of New Jersey, and their approval would be subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

A spokeswoman for NJ Transit declined to comment when asked about the bill yesterday.

Several of the bill’s sponsors said that, if enacted, the legislation could lead to improved service and even increased funding from the state. During Christie’s tenure, the direct state subsidy for NJ Transit has dropped from over $300 million down to $33 million, though money from other sources, including the Clean Energy Fund and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, has been raided each year to maintain spending levels.

“Our state needs to think of NJ Transit passengers’ unique perspectives as a resource that, if employed wisely, can produce more efficient service and less congestion on our roads,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “We should give riders more of a voice on the decisions that impact their lives, both for the potential benefit to individual passengers and the overall potential benefit to the state.”

“No one knows the impact of fare increases and service delays better than those who regularly travel using public transportation,” said Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer). “Adding more public members to the NJ Transit board will better equip the state to work toward making mass transit a more affordable, more reliable and safer option for all passengers.”

O’Malley, the leader of the environmental group, said giving Greaves a vote on the board is also a meaningful reform since even though Greaves takes issue at times with board actions, his dissent isn’t counted officially as a vote like those cast by other board members.

“That’s a big step forward,” O’Malley said. “Mr. Greaves has obviously spoken out on issues where he hasn’t agreed with the board, but that vote hasn’t been recorded so that’s an important addition to the bill.”