Weinberg scolds NJ Transit while seeking answers on new turnpike funds, budget and transparency
Drone video of NJ Transit stations at Secaucus Junction and Hoboken Terminal on Thursday. Gov. Murphy announced NJ Transit train and light rail service will resume on July 6. NorthJersey.com
The NJ Transit board, administration and CEO received a public scolding from state Sen. Loretta Weinberg at Wednesday's board meeting about its transparency with the public while raising critical questions about budgets, how money gets spent, and the board's role as a watchdog of the agency.
Weinberg, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader,said the way the board operates stands in stark contrast to what the Legislature intended when it passed a2018 law that increased the board's size and how much experience was required, among other reforms.
She complained that the board had yet to answer numerous questions she had sent, and she asked many of those questions during the meeting.
NJ Transit customers have long faced challenges with the agency, including unpredictable schedules for bus and rail, crumbling infrastructure and vehicle breakdowns. While some of these are being addressed with new bus and train purchases, and hiring more bus operators and locomotive engineers, concerns have ballooned in the face of the pandemic as riders have been slow to return to public transit.
NJ Transit CEO and President Kevin Corbett later responded that the agency has a open dialogue with the senator and could address her questions.
"We’re always glad to meet and discuss any issues with the senator," Corbett said. "Sometimes she’ll write letters, sometimes she’ll call, sometimes we’ll go to her office, so we’re certainly going to respond to any questions that she wants responses to."
Weinberg asked about the impact that shuttered private bus companies and abandoned routes would have on NJ Transit commuters when bus ridership numbers return to normal. "Has the board been consulted on this issue?" she asked.
"Do you have any input into how much of the relief funds you received and when and for what purpose? If not, why not?" she asked,referring to federal CARES Act money to relieve financial losses for public transit agencies."It appears that $350 million of the $1.4 billion in CARES Act funding have been allocated. Will all of the remaining money be needed for fiscal year 2021, or will there be a surplus?" Corbett did not answer these questions in the meeting or afterward.
Weinberg raised the incident of a female rider who was recently locked inside an NJ Transit train for 90 minutes before being rescued.
"I understand that board members learned of this incident, as I did, from the news," Weinberg said. "In the reform law, the Legislature created an operations and customer service committee, under this board, which is supposed to advise the full board of day-to-day customer issues, among other things. Why isn’t the board or at least the relevant committee informed of these matters? How can you expect to make decisions that affect riders when you are unaware of the conditions these people ride under?"
Corbett did not answer, but when a similar question was asked last week he said it was up to the board to decide what information members wanted to receive during meetings.
Weinberg asked why it is difficult for the public to participate in the the board's public meetings, since they must sign up four days in advance to speak (though an announcement before the meeting said all who called in and signed up in the queue would have a chance to speak).
"It’s difficult to be transparent when you tightly control who can make comments and how," she said.
Corbett did not reply, but last week NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith said, "This process allows for the orderly management of these virtual meetings and works to ensure that all those that wish to speak have that opportunity."
Weinberg asked about the NJ Transit budget and where it stands, as other agencies have already provided their proposals to the Legislature. Corbett said the budget will be sent to Treasury, to the Legislature and to the governor's office next week.
Weinberg said that on May 13 in a letter to the governor, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the state transportation commissioner, who chairs the NJ Turnpike Authority and the NJ Transit board, pledged that $375 million raised from Turnpike Authority and South Jersey Transportation Authority toll hikes would be included in the NJ Transit budget for this fiscal year. "Is the board aware of that pledge?" Weinberg asked. "Is the $375 million going into the operating budget this year, and if not, why not?"
That funding allocation would eventually increase to a maximum of $525 million annually, Weinberg said.
"I think it needs to be worked out in the budget process," Corbett said. "Last week, we started, as you know, the budget hearings for the next few weeks for [fiscal year] 2021, the abbreviated year, and then beyond that obviously you’re aware of the toll increases that were done, so that’s up to the turnpike board."
Weinberg introduced a bill in June to expand the powers of the board so it could speak more freely about any topic affecting transit or customers, require that documents are provided to the board, and ensure that it is consulted on significant agency matters like strategic and capital plans or the budget.
Weinberg said she hopes the bill will "go through the Legislature pretty quickly" and "further clarify the board structure." The board's job is to critically analyze the agency, improve the way it operates and respond to customer concerns and issues — a job, she said, that had fallen on the Legislature until new board members were put in place earlier this year.
"I am not calling into question the integrity or the mission of the board of NJ Transit," Weinberg said. "I think each and every one of you want to assume the responsibility that we in the Legislature gave to you.
"These questions are critical to NJ Transit’s future, and each of you must be fully involved in ensuring that the public gets the answers, that there is transparency, and that strong board involvement, management and oversight will give the public what it deserves," she said.
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.