Even as NJ Transit faces monumental problems, including budget shortfall and a renewed threat of a strike by two rail operating unions, turnover in the agency's upper management ranks continues. The position of executive director continues to be held on an interim basis by Dennis Martin, after announced plans to recruit ex-Amtrak executive William Crosbie fell through in early April. The last permanent executive director, Veronique Hakim, left at year's end to return to New York City Transit, and chief financial officer Kathleen Sharman had left the agency for greener pastures in Florida shortly before Hakim. The latest departure was that of deputy executive director Neil Yellin, who left his $199,000 post on Friday, May 6 after less than two years in the slot. Following this, NJT named Michael Drewniak, former spokesperson for Gov. Chris Christie, as NJT's interim chief of staff. Drewniak had joined NJT in April, 2015 as NJT's first chief of policy and strategic planning, a post created by Hakim during her tenure. Drewniak, in turn, is replacing Jacquie Halldow, who joined Christie's administration; all the changes, reported here at nj.com by Larry Higgs on May 9, seemed to indicate that a revolving door exists between NJT and the Christie administration's ranks, even as Christie himself seemed to be devoting increasing effort to supporting the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
The lengthy environmental studies required before new Hudson River tunnels can be built increase the probability that one of the 106-year-old existing tunnels might fail before the new ones are complete, resulting in what one lawmaker has referred to as a "transportation Armageddon." This is the conclusion of a study released on May 9 by the avowedly nonpartisan group Common Cause and reported by David Porter of the Associated Press (and published in the Star-Ledger on May 10). If environmental studies are complete by 2019, the tunnels could be built by 2026 -- but, the study says, there is a 25 percent chance that one of the two existing tunnels would have to be shut down as early as 2023. The probability of a shutdown before the new tunnels are ready would naturally increase if environmental studies drag on even longer. Shutting down one of the two existing tubes might reduce peak-hour capacity by as much as 75 percent, potentially crippling the area's economy.
Two NJ Transit unions, representing the railroad's locomotive engineers and its conductors, have rejected the proposed contract that averted a strike that might have occurred as early as March 13. The other 14 unions involved in the negotiations have approved the settlement. NJT said that the rejections do not mean that a strike is imminent; a new 60-day cooling-off period is now in effect, so no strike would be legal before late June. Larry Higgs reported the latest developments here for NJ Advance Media.
Ex-Amtrak manager William Crosbie will not be taking the NJ Transit Executive Director job after all, according to media reports, first broken by the Wall Street Journal. Reportedly, Crosbie was reluctant to relocate his family to New Jersey. Later reports noted that a compensation package had not been agreed upon before the announcement, and that, unusually, the negotiations were being managed by the state Department of Transportation, not by NJT. NJT said the search for a new Executive Director would continue.
With NJ Transit facing a reported $45 million budget gap, and Gov. Christie having proclaimed there would be no fare increases this year, advocates are expecting the worst: service cuts, noting that the Governor said nothing about reducing service. Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Alan, quoted here by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger (April 19), said "I am deeply concerned there will be severe service cuts, especially to off-peak riders. No fare increase means service cuts. (Christie) didn't pledge no service cuts." NJT spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said that the agency "anticipates additional receipts and reimbursements through the remainder of the fiscal year to mitigate the budget gap" but declined to be specific. Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, said, "They'll probably have to lay off non-union workers, freeze salaries, look at bus lines and rail trips that have the lowest ridership and eliminate some." Matt Walters, co-founder of the New Jersey Commuters Action Network, said he was concerned about the effect on riders who have no alternate means of getting to work. Advocates generally criticized the perennial underfunding of NJT by both the Governor and both political parties, and said a dedicated funding source is needed. Mr. Alan said, "These are decisions made at a political, not an operating level. It's support and recognition by politicians that NJ Transit riders deserve mobility (that is needed)."
Ever wonder why many cars seemed to be closed on your train? Sometimes even the coveted, ballyhooed "Quiet Cars?" NJ.com reporter Larry Higgs reports that many riders have this complaint; he reported it here. NJT spokesperson Jim Smith said those cars are supposed to be open, barring unusual conditions such as "platform work or to ease crowding at a particular station." (How does closing cars ease crowding, the rider may well wonder.) Higgs asks riders to report cases where cars are inaccessible.
Former Amtrak executive William Crosbie has been named by NJ Transit's Board to the vacant job of executive director. The Board action on April 6 has been widely reported in media, here by NJ.com commuter reporter Larry Higgs and Emma G. Fitzsimmons here in the New York Times. Well in advance of the formal announcement, the story had been broken by the Wall Street Journal; in the Journal's reporting, former colleagues described Crosbie as "an engineer by training and a shrewd manager who understands railroad operations and would make customers' experience a top priority." Crosbie succeeds Veronica Hakim, who left NJT last year for a top job at New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to oversee the city's bus and subway system. Dennis Martin, NJT's bus operations head, had run NJT on an interim basis since Hakim's departure, and will now return to his bus job. Crosbie underwent several interviews for the position, including extensive interviewing by NJ Gov. Chris Christie, and has been widely acclaimed as an experienced railroad operations person; former Amtrak chief executive David Gunn said "He is a very capable person, and those people are very rare." But Crosbie's job will not be an enviable one, according to Martin Robins, former director of Rutgers' Voorhees Transportation Center, quoted by the WSJ. "He will have nothing to do but cut, cut, cut," in an underfunded organization that has not received support from New Jersey's governor or legislature.
Although the proposed agreement which avoided a rail stoppage at NJ Transit was widely acclaimed, it still must be approved by the 11 unions involved. Each union votes separately on the details of their own contract. As reported by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (April 1), the Machinists union has become the first to accept the new contract, with over 90% of members voting to approve. Other unions must also approve, and a final signoff by NJ Gov. Christie is also required, but since Christie has already lauded the contract terms, that is expected to be a formality.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in an interview (March 31) on radio station NJ-101.5, says that although NJ Transit faces a $57 million deficit in the coming fiscal year, it's up to NJT to manage it, as long as they finish the year with no deficit. Gov. Christie also said that there would be no fare increase in 2016. (Reporting on WNYC, March 31) It was not clear whether the no-fare-increase was an order from the Governor, or whether NJT in its budget management process had determined that a fare increase this year is not necessary.
As unions begin voting on Tuesday, March 15 on the proposed new contract with NJ Transit, details of the deal are starting to emerge. If the reports are correct, the union negotiators achieved most of their demands, and the final contract is close to what the union negotiating position was -- the recommendation of the Presidential Emergency Board before the final negotiations began. According to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and reported on nj.com and in the Star-Ledger (March 15), the much-discussed worker contribution to health benefits would increase from 1.8% to 2.5% of straight time salary, a hair over the Board's recommendation of 2.48%. The contract also reportedly grants at 21% salary increase over the 8-1/2 year term of the contract; the Board had recommended an 18% increase over 6-1/2 years. Significantly, sources said the contract would cost NJT a total of $209 million through the contract's end in 2018, compared to original estimates of $183 million for a contract ending in 2017. NJT had called the $183 million cost unaffordable. Gov. Chris Christie had said that no fare increases would be required through Fiscal Year 2017, which begins July 1, 2016. But some analysts speculated that the costs could be back-end loaded and become due after 2017 -- perhaps falling due after Christie leaves office.
The settlement had been announced with only 29 hours left before the strike deadline; the deal was announced by union representatives at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 11. Union members reportedly cheered when informed of the agreement by union leader Steve Burkert. At about 7:30 p.m., Gov. Chris Christie held a press conference; he emphasized that "no outrageous demands on either side were granted;" that he had been closely following the negotiations but, while available, he did not need to come to the table himself; that he never expected a strike or a lockout because both sides were acting in good faith; and that "neither side was spoiling for a strike." He said that the "hysteria" in recent days was "ginned up" by the media.
Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Alan was quoted in by Higgs in an earlier article as saying, "This was probably the hardest labor negotiations since 1983 when NJ Transit rail was formed and they had to negotiate new agreements from the predecessor railroads. I know they went right down to the wire and I thought we likely were not going to have trains on Sunday."
Throughout the duration of the dispute between New Jersey Transit and the employees who keep the trains running, the Lackawanna Coalition has consistently expressed its hope that both sides would reach an agreement, and that the trains would continue to take riders to their destinations safely and comfortably. We are delighted that, indeed, such an agreement has been reached and that the trains will continue to run.
We know the people on both sides of the bargaining table, and we appreciate their efforts in keeping negotiations going, until they reached a successful conclusion. We express our appreciation also to our Online Editor John Bobsin for posting the news on this site, and we hope we have kept you well-informed, from the view of the people who are always advocating for your mobility.
There is still more to be done to improve our trains, but now we will be able to move forward in an atmosphere of peace between labor and management. We remain as committed as ever to better transit for all riders in the region, and we always want to know what we can do to help improve your transit, whether you have an automobile and choose to use it, or you depend on it for all of your mobility.