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'I underestimated state of affairs' at NJ Transit

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From left, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett and Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.
From left, NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett and Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. - ()

In a morning full of grilling by lawmakers and testimony by the state's top two transportation officials, New Jersey Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett admitted he misread the scope of the issues faced by the agency when he took the helm in January.

“I have to be honest … I underestimated the state of affairs at the agency when I arrived,” Corbett told lawmakers at a joint Assembly-Senate hearing on NJ Transit’s woes Thursday in Trenton.

And no immediate fix is in sight, added New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, who also testified.

“We are going to have to make very tough decisions to make sure New Jersey Transit gets back to where it needs to be,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.

“[It’s been] 213 days” since the Murphy administration took office, according to Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “If you go back 10 years, that’s 3,650 days to screw this up.”

The assignment of blame did not sit well with lawmakers on the panel, many of whom were at the hearing having heard from frustrated commuters in their district.

“My constituents are blaming me,” said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District, as he read out tweets from dissatisfied commuters.

In the past several weeks, commuters have had to ride out what’s been dubbed the “Summer of Hell 2" – weeks of cancellations and delays, equipment failures, staffing shortages and poor communication between the agency and commuters.

“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, D-21st District, who pointed to the Raritan Valley Line, which runs through his district and where NJ Transit recently said it would be ending off-peak one-seat service into New York Penn Station.

Corbett said that suspension would likely last until the Gateway Tunnels are completed.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti said that even with the $232 million budget appropriations increase in Gov. Phil Murphy’s first budget, the issue wouldn’t be resolved with additional funds.

“It’s not about money, it’s about time,” she said.

In the short-term, Corbett said, nine engineers will be graduating from training this week, which should help chip away at the dozens needed.

And in the midst of the hearing, Murphy’s office issued a statement calling on lawmakers to fast-track a bill that would remove the New Jersey residency requirement for would-be train operators and engineers.

“New Jersey Transit must be given the ability to hire mission-essential employees who live in neighboring states so they can be put to work turning around our system,” said Murphy, who has previously referred to the transit system as “a national disgrace.”

During the session, Senate Transportation Chair Pat Diegnan, D-18th District, indicated the Legislature and Murphy could pass such a bill within a month.

But agency officials still face the issue of worker outmigration, either by retirement or flocking to higher-paying jobs at transit agencies in neighboring states.

The timing of Corbett’s push to do away with the residency requirement drew skepticism from Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District.

“Why are you asking for the waivers now?” Weinberg pressed.

And neither was she pleased with what she termed a “reactive” approach to NJ Transit’s failures.

She cited a meeting with Corbett and agency officials scheduled for next Monday in Atlantic City that will occur weeks after NJ Transit announced it would be cancelling the Atlantic City line until early 2019 while it fast-tracks the installment of federally mandated positive train control braking system.

“You need to get ahead of the communications, not react to it,” Weinberg said.

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Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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