NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Kevin Corbett is about to step into what may be the hardest job in New Jersey.
On Tuesday, Corbett, a top executive at AECOM, a global construction and engineering firm, was introduced by Gov. Philip D. Murphy as the next executive director of New Jersey Transit, whose cascade of problems and rampant delays has turned a once model transportation agency into one of the worst commuter railroads in the country.
“It’s a phenomenal challenge, but it’s one that is solvable,” Corbett, 62, said in an interview. “There was a lot of stuff that was done right early on — without getting into why it deteriorated — clearly where it is now, the ability to bring it back is there. It’s leadership.”
Nearly 15 months after New Jersey Transit promised an overhaul following a fatal crash in Hoboken, the railroad, the third-largest transit system in the United States, is by some measures actually doing worse.
Despite being in a state that relies heavily on public transportation for commuters traveling to New York City, New Jersey Transit’s rail ridership decreased last year by 2.3 million trips, or 2.3 percent, from 2016, while its bus ridership decreased by 5.4 million trips, or 3.4 percent.
In addition to fewer riders, the list of problems the agency faces is long. On-time performance has sagged. A budget shortfall could top $60 million. It has the second-worst record for mechanical failures in the nation. It has struggled to retain top talent and many key positions were filled with political appointees with no railroad expertise. And, in what some say reflects a troubling culture, the agency has paid more than $10 million in harassment and discrimination settlements since 2012.
New Jersey Transit also most likely will fail to meet a federal deadline for installing a modern system to control trains and improve safety.
Murphy, a Democrat who took office this month, has called the railroad a “national disgrace'’ and has made reversing its fortunes a top priority.
“Starting today we will begin to measure success by actually getting better, not because New Jersey Transit didn’t actually get any worse,” Murphy said as he introduced Corbett at the train station here, adding that the agency was the “linchpin” to greater economic prosperity.
But as he stood next to his two choices to fix the state’s infrastructure — Corbett and Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, his choice to lead the Department of Transportation — Murphy noted that New Jersey Transit would not be turned around overnight.
“I ask for your patience as we start to rebuild this agency,” he said.
In an interview,Corbett said that since word of his nomination leaked last week, he has been hearing from friends wishing him well, but also sharing their grievances.
“I’ve had people calling me that’s just like a therapy session,” he said, promising that once he takes charge, “the right kind of people are going to feel like they just had a heavy backpack taken off their back.”
Corbett, whose nomination needs to be approved by the transit agency’s board of directors, said his immediate focus would be on hiring and safety.
The deadly crash at the Hoboken Terminal, which killed a woman and injured over 100 people, brought attention to New Jersey Transit’s delay in installing positive train control, an emergency-braking system that Congress said had to be completed by 2015 (the railroad was later granted a three-year extension).
But as of last September, only 7 percent of the hardware necessary for new system had been installed, just 125 of the 2,200 components. And of the 1,100 workers who need to be certified for the new system only 137 had completed the process, according to the Federal Railroad Administration
The likelihood that the agency can finish everything by the end of this year seems remote. The agency was already fined $12,000 this month for failing to meet deadlines.
Even the agency’s tortoise-like progress in introducing the new braking system has proved a challenge — many of the upgraded engines have failed initial testing and have been pulled from service, resulting in canceled trains and furious commuters.
Nonetheless, the agency says it is committed to meeting the deadline.
“This important safety technology remains a priority, and we work every day to keep it moving forward," said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the agency. “At the same time, we are holding our prime contractor, Parsons Transportation Group, accountable to keep the project progressing.”
While Corbett cautioned that there was no “magic wand” to address many of the problems, he believed that with the governor’s support, chronic issues could be addressed. “Phil Murphy is a very pleasant guy to deal with on a human level, but he wasn’t successful at Goldman Sachs by letting people take their sweet time,” Corbett said of the governor’s previous employer. For riders, delays have become a near-daily frustration.
In 2017, one out of every five trains traveling into New York City during morning commuting hours was delayed, a problem exacerbated by summer repairs at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, according to a report filed this month by New Jersey Transit’s outgoing executive director, Steven H. Santoro.
New Jersey Transit trains also break down frequently. The most recent data show that the agency had 236 major mechanical failures in 2016, or roughly two mechanical failures every three days, similar to the 240 reported in 2015.
When it comes to delays, Corbett said he can commiserate with commuters — he has been riding New Jersey Transit for more than 20 years.
“Every day we felt like it was like fricking Dunkirk,” he said of the commute last summer from his home in Mendham, New Jersey. “Maybe your train got there, maybe it didn’t.”
Corbett has never run a commuter rail system, but he said that his work at AECOM, which has many contracts with the state, and his role as a member of the board of directors at the Regional Plan Association give him strong familiarity with the infrastructure.
Corbett is hoping to leverage some of that experience, particularly in expediting procurement practices.
“Five-hundred days to get a change order through? Contracts?” he said. “Even the people at Amtrak will say, ‘Geez, I thought we were bad, and we take three months.’” He recalled a recent visit to a maintenance complex where cars are repaired. He said many cars there had their doors open, exposed to the elements and potentially draining their batteries.
“That kind of thing, that’s inexcusable,” he said. “That’s the kind stuff that has to stop as soon as you get in.”
The agency has also been hampered by personnel problems. Since 2012, 146 internal complaints involving racial or sexual discrimination have been filed against the agency, leading to 21 findings of probable cause. Thirty-eight cases are pending, and 87 were withdrawn or closed because of a lack of probable cause, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. The agency has also paid more than $10 million in settlements since 2012.
Murphy’s predecessor, Chris Christie, a Republican, placed allies with no transit experience in high-ranking positions, a practice that Corbett wants to end.
“Politics is not my strength,” he said, adding: “If somebody at NJT really is political in nature, good, run for office. You don’t belong in NJT.” But whatever improvements Corbett can make will not necessarily make a difference to riders unless officials in New Jersey and New York can persuade the Trump administration to finance a new tunnel under the Hudson River. The current tunnel, which carries trains for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, is over a century old, needs to be repaired and cannot handle the demand.
Corbett said he intended to push for a more equitable seat at the negotiating table.
“It’s sort of like if you’re going into a casino, if you want to be in the backroom with the big boys with the big chips, you can’t go in and say, ‘Well, I only have five cents but I want a seat at the table,'” he said. “You have to pony up.”
As for fares, Corbett said, “that is not my prerogative to promise, I leave that to the board and the governor,” but as a rider he feels an increase would be unfair.
“Fares have gone up a lot and you’ve seen a decrease in service, so how do you go back asking for more?” he said.
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