There’s a lot to applaud about the Murphy Administration’s embrace of public transit. This includes much-needed funding, the appointment of an impressive NJ Transit director, vocal support for federal investment in rail connections across the Hudson, a prominent role for transit in the State’s new economic plan, and the Governor’s riding the rails himself. Governor Murphy has intentionally assumed ownership of the transit issue. That’s a big thing.
The challenge for Governor Murphy and his team is that the issues they are spending the majority of their time working on – implementing Positive Train Control (PTC), making sure they have enough locomotive engineers to run a published train schedule, and pushing for federal funds to renovate the Portal Bridge – are responses to the failures of past administrations.
What riders want is a modern transit system that is fast, affordable, reliable, gets them where they need to go, and is easy to navigate.
What riders are getting is a mad scramble to clean up past messes.
And the scramble makes it hard to provide a vision of what transit will be in New Jersey once our system is brought back from the brink.
In New York City, Andy Byford inherited a similarly deteriorating system and frustrated customer base when he became the President of the NYC Transit Authority a year ago. So even as he was working to stop the decay of the system, he set about to create a new plan that would explain what it would take to provide a modern subway and bus system for New York. He created a plan, called “Fast Forward,” that provides a roadmap for the agency and customers alike, so that everyone knows what the agency’s priorities are and when improvements can be expected. And it puts the onus squarely on politicians to provide the funding necessary to implement the plan.
To address the quality, reliability, cost, and accessibility of transit in New Jersey – for bus and rail – the State and NJT need a plan as comprehensive and ambitious as the one that Andy Byford has prepared for the MTA.
A “Fast Forward” plan for New Jersey would address all bus and rail transit operations in the State — including PATH — and would include:
- A commitment to improved customer information and communications.
- Partnership with cities and towns to improve bus service.
- Plans to leverage new shared ride services and technology to improve cost-effectiveness of transit service and development of a strategy to guide municipal accommodations for new vehicle technology .
- Business process improvements to reduce operating costs and improve service quality.
- Enhancements in accessibility – for ALL users – of rail stations and bus routes throughout the State.
- Increased service to address crowding and growing demand for transit.
- Building transit-oriented housing and businesses on land at and near transit stops around the State and improving access to rail and bus hubs.
Beyond an ambitious “Fast Forward” type plan, New Jersey needs to build robust connections between its just-released economic growth plan and transportation investment in the state.
An effective transportation strategy would prioritize investments to advance economic strategy. It would also include a clearly defined, organizing idea about what transit and walkability mean for the state. It would reflect the diversity of businesses and communities that rely on transit in New Jersey. And it would motivate diverse state agencies to work together towards a common goal.
Governor Murphy’s just-announced State of Innovation report recognizes the importance of walkable, transit-accessible communities to the State’s business vitality. This is an important step forward. But an updated State Plan encompassing all State functions — and a revitalized State planning function — are also necessary to ensure a comprehensive vision is in place and to promote the coordinated action that is needed for transit to be an effective element of the State’s future.
Finally, the Administration needs to establish new, accountable teams at NJ Transit, NJ DOT, NJEDA, and the State Planning Commission to drive the changes that are so badly needed. Kevin Corbett was an inspired choice for NJT, but he needs deputies and partners throughout the Administration to make progress.
In each of these areas – a transit turnaround plan, a transit vision for the State, and agency staffing – it’s hard not to look at the clock.
We know that any new Administration needs time to establish senior leadership, build relationships with the legislature, and set new funding priorities and budget processes in place. And the ship of state is slow to turn.
As the first anniversary of the Murphy administration approaches, it’s time to look beyond immediate crises to communicate a vision for the future, to define the roles of transit and roads in that future, and to put in place programs that can bring that vision to life.