Revamped plans to reform NJ Transit are back on track

Revamped plans to reform NJ Transit, give riders a bigger voice is back on track

The bill would require greater review of budgets and other spending plans by the board administration committee

By Larry Higgs

Source: nj.com

July 19, 2021

The clock is ticking on efforts to get what’s been called “NJ Transit reform 2.0” passed by the state legislature and to the governor before the “lame duck” session of the 2020-2021 legislature ends.

The senate version of the bill, proposed by state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen and Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., was finally unanimously passed by that body on June 30 after the bill was amended. Introduced in June 2020 the bill which sought to address shortcomings in the NJ Transit reform law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in December 2018, had stalled out in the legislature.

What got it moving again?

Gone from the bill is a provision that would have changed the power structure of NJ Transit’s Board of Directors by reinstating the state Transportation Commissioner as board chairperson. The commissioner holds the board chairperson’s title at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the South Jersey Transportation Authority and the state Motor Vehicle Commission board.

The original bill would have had NJ Transit’s board members elect the boss of the board. But apparently, there was little legislative love for that change.

“The main amendment we made is removing the requirement that the chair of the board be elected by (the) board, but rather than being the DOT commissioner,” Weinberg said in an interview. “That is the compromise I felt I had to make to get the votes to get it passed in lame duck.”

The rest of the bill, except for select changes, is intact and would give the NJ Transit board more autonomy, including the ability to hire the chief executive officer and other top-level executives.

It would require greater review of budgets and other spending plans by the board administration committee, answering a concern of board member James D. Adams, who expected that group to have more oversight under the original reform law. He cast a rare no vote against the fiscal year 2021 budget because that committee wasn’t given the opportunity to review and discuss it.

The legislation also establishes the office of the customer advocate and mandates it operate independently of NJ Transit. The advocate would have to meet monthly with passengers, would prepare analysis of and represent passengers’ interest when fare increases and service cuts are proposed.

NJ Transit would be required to seek more passenger comments and suggestions by holding two public hearings about the annual capital and operating budgets and hearings on the agency’s capital plan, under the proposal. It would require more collaboration between NJ Transit senior staff and the board committees.

“We tried in this NJ Transit 2.0 (reform) to fill in the gaps of the first bill and to give the board more direct responsibility,” Weinberg said. “They should be a transparent, accountable group…that gives the public knowledge of what’s going on there and gives the public a place to go at board meetings with complaints, suggestions or input.”

The next step lies with the state assembly to reconcile its version of the bill with the approved senate bill, she said.

“I kept the Assembly sponsor abreast of the changes we made and hopefully he’ll join in the effort,” Weinberg said.

Assemblyman Dan Benson, chairman of the assembly transportation committee and a primary co-sponsor of that reform bill, said he supports the changes but would defer to Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Middlesex, who is the prime sponsor, on changing the bill.

McKeon was co-chairman of the joint legislative panel that investigated NJ Transit after the Sept. 29, 2016 train crash in Hoboken terminal that killed a woman and injured 111 other people. He could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

The second round of reforms would give NJ Transit’s board the tools needed to deliver the changes that were the intent of the original reform law, Weinberg said.

Weinberg has announced her retirement from the senate at the end of this term.

“I hope it’s signed by the end of the session, it is very important, not because of me personally,” Weinberg said. “I’m the messenger for the grassroots people who’ve come forward.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit nj.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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