NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Gov. Phil Murphy used the Hub City as the backdrop to announce a new figure who will take the helm at NJ Transit, the statewide mass transit agency which has fallen from grace over the past several years.
Kevin S. Corbett, vice president of the engineering and transportation consulting firm AECOM, was announced as the new executive director of NJ Transit at the New Brunswick train station on Jan. 30.
Murphy, flanked by crowds in the densely packed waiting room on the north side of the Northeast Corridor tracks, announced his plans Tuesday afternoon, in an effort to overhaul the agency, which he’s famously called a “national disgrace.”
“I’m optimistic that the governor’s commitment to the improvement of the transit system is going to lead to bigger and better things for the transportation system in New Jersey,” said New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, who attended the press conference.
“It can only benefit by having improved transit system, so it bodes well for New Brunswick.”
Corbett will replace Steve Santoro, who plans to leave the agency’s top post in April. Previously, AECOM has done consulting work for NJ Transit.
“We learned the mantra ‘improvise, adapt, overcome’,” Corbett said. “While that may be okay for the Marine Corps, that should not be the mantra for NJ Transit commuters.”
“The culture in the top floors of NJ Transit is going to change,” Murphy said. “I want to make this point that’s been made several times over the past few weeks. This is a failure of leadership.”
Corbett takes leadership of the transit agency at a time when it has strayed from being a model transit agency to earning second place in the nation for the most delays and mechanical breakdowns last year, Murphy said.
The agency has been plagued by a cascade of problems. Following a deadly train crash in the Hoboken Train Station in 2016, the agency announced plans to install positive train control, an emergency braking system which engineering experts say can prevent similar incidents.
But a year later, the agency is behind track on having the entire system set up. The summer 2017 was dubbed the “Summer of Hell,” because of the number of New York Penn Station tracks put offline for critical repairs.
Also, funding is up in the air for the proposed $12.8 billion Gateway Tunnel; a vitally needed replacement for Amtrak's aging tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey.
The question is federal funding, and if President Donald Trump will honor a cost-share deal hashed out with the Obama Administration and New York and New Jersey.
Having been constructed before the sinking of the Titanic, the antiquated Hudson River tunnels were heavily damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and need to be replaced, lest they face critical structural failures within the next decade.
“Quite frankly, building a stronger and fairer economy becomes much tougher if you don’t have a functional and stable line of mass transit system, stitching our state together,” Murphy said.
Murphy added: “We cannot take advantage of our location next to the largest market in the world up north and next to one of the largest markets in the country down south, without a mass transit that can reliably get riders in and out of New York and Philadelphia.”
The governor’s announcement came less than a month after his announcement to clear house among NJ Transit’s top leadership, many of whom were appointed by the previous governor, Republican Chris Christie.
Among those Murphy ordered to pack their desk were Michael Drewniak, Christie’s former spokesperson who became tied up in Bridgegate scandal and was forced testify before the State Legislature in 2014.
Drewniak, famously acerbic in his dealings with news reporters even though he once was bureau staff at The Star-Ledger, left his post in early 2015.
He was appointed the agency’s first “policy and strategic planning director,” at a salary of close to $150,000 a year.
He was one of nearly a dozen Christie appointees who used to work in the governor’s office, where he handled media relations for the former governor. As a result of the hiring practice, NJ Transit garnered a reputation for employing close political friends of the Republican governor, all at the expense of taxpayers and commuters.
The agency has raised its fairs twice since 2010 and is projected to have a $60 million hole in its budget this year.
“I will not accept a continuation of the status quo,” Murphy said. “We will not accept answers of ‘that’s just how it’s done’ or ‘you can’t or ‘that’s not my job’.”
New Brunswick currently has its own host of redevelopment projects, which many redevelopers say will depend on readily available public transportation.
Most notable is The Hub@New Brunswick Station, at the former site of the Ferren Deck and across the street from the city’s train station on Albany Street. The new site will house residential, retail and office space and tower over downtown.
Nearby, the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC), a 22-story, $173 million mixed-use development site is in the works.
Two other high-rise buildings, one at 90 New Street and the other at 90 Bayard Street, were approved by the city’s planning board, but a shovel hasn’t been put in the ground yet for these substantial projects.