After Derailment, NJ Transit Comes to the Forefront in Gubernatorial Race

Will this year’s elections become a referendum on transportation funding?

The debate over N.J.’s underfunded railways intensifies after second derailment in a year. File photo

Gubernatorial hopefuls have been weighing in after the derailment of an NJ Transit train at New York Penn Station on Monday, with some using the beleaguered commuter rail service as a cudgel to criticize Gov. Chris Christie for his checkered record on transportation funding.

Although Christie has faulted Amtrak for the latest derailment, critics say Christie also has neglected NJ Transit at a time when ridership has been increasing and capital spending has lagged far behind. Phil Murphy, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a candidate for the Republican nod, both pledged a new course on transportation spending this week.

“For seven years, commuters have seen fares skyrocket and customer service diminish, all while Governor Christie pulled funds from NJ Transit to fill his budget holes and canceled the ARC tunnel to set up his run for president,” Murphy said in a statement. “As governor, I will see that this mismanagement ends and that commuters once again have an NJ Transit that answers to them.”

Guadagno took to Facebook to lay out the specifics of her plan for the agency, putting further distance between herself and Christie’s record and low approval ratings. She added that she would flush out “political appointees” at NJ Transit. Christie installed his former spokesman, Michael Drewniak, at a top agency post despite Drewniak’s lack of experience in transportation issues.

“The NJ Transit mayhem proves that now more than ever, we need to conduct a full performance audit of state government operations and ensure our transportation dollars are spent where there is greatest need, not based on politics,” Guadagno said. “As governor, I will eliminate … unnecessary political appointees at NJ Transit and audit Trenton to make sure our money is being used to provide efficient, high quality customer service to taxpayers and commuters.”

Other candidates also seized on the derailment. Democrat Jim Johnson said he would prioritize funding for transportation projects based on “impact on inequality,” and commiserated with commuters at Newark’s Broad Street Station on Thursday morning. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, pledged to hold hearings to determine the cause of the derailment. Wisniewski is chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Transportation has been a weak spot for Christie during his tenure, with the notable exception of the gas tax trade-off that provided urgently needed cash to the Transportation Trust Fund last year. State aid for NJ Transit has declined 90 percent in the last 11 years, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Those cuts have been implemented even as the number of riders has ballooned by 20 percent since 2005. Janna Chernetz, a New Jersey analyst at Tri-State, said the state’s direct subsidy for NJ Transit has dwindled since 2011 as the New Jersey Turnpike Authority has shouldered more of the cost.

Managing the transit agency is likely to be a major concern for the next governor. NJ Transit’s vice chairman resigned last year over its precarious finances, and a would-be executive director abruptly turned down the appointment last year after initially accepting it.

Christie said the latest derailment should be blamed on Amtrak. In a pair of letters leaked to the New York Times on Wednesday night, the governor said he would freeze millions of dollars in payments New Jersey makes to Amtrak and asked state Attorney General Chris Porrino to investigate the rail carrier.

In damage-control mode as angry commuters stew in train stations and vent on Twitter, Christie’s office sent out a fact sheet laying out that in the coming fiscal year, the governor is proposing a state budget in which “NJ Transit is slated to receive $1.76 billion in funding from state and federal sources, a 38 percent or half a billion dollar total funding increase compared to fiscal year 2011.”

“The governor’s proposed budget dedicates $427 million in state taxpayer dollars for NJ Transit, a 55 percent increase in state funds compared to fiscal year 2011,” the statement added. After Derailment, NJ Transit Comes to the Forefront in Gubernatorial Race