The word formally came Tuesday morning. Executive Director Veronique Hakim's imminent departure — rumored for weeks — was confirmed by New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where she'll take over as president of New York City Transit next month. But that's just the latest piece of bad news for NJ Transit, which has suffered more blows in recent months than a punch-drunk kickboxer. Let's enumerate the ways.
- It’s losing talent. In the past couple of months, its head of rail operations left for the Connecticut Department of Transportation; its capital program chief moved to Rhode Island; its travel forecast chief went to Metro- North. And now Hakim.
- It’s financially floundering. The state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which helps fund the agency, has been dwindling for years, and Gov. Chris Christie has ruled out raising the gas tax. NJ Transit closed a $120 million budget gap this fiscal year largely by raising fares, which will be hard to do two years in a row. "2017 is very scary," said Janna Chernetz, NJ policy analyst with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Martin Robins, who helped found the agency decades ago agrees. "This is the most worrisome operating budget I’ve ever seen for NJ Transit." Chernetz predicts the gap will grow to $400 million by next summer.
- No money = No growth. As NJ Transit struggles to pay its day-to-day expenses, long-term building projects get pushed into the backseat. The Hudson-Bergen light rail line, which would run from to Englewood, as well as a long-studied 18-mile line running between Camden and Glassboro, are stuck and, Chernetz said, "stunting the state's economic growth." Plus, without those new lines, the agency is strangling its ability to increase ridership and fare revenue.
- It’s got labor problems. NJ Transit rail employees have been without a contract for over four years, and both sides have failed to reach a deal. Now, the labor dispute is working its way through the federal mediation process. Once that is exhausted, the union can legally strike. Whatever happens, it seems unavoidable that the agency will have higher labor costs next year.
- Morale is low. It's not just the unionized workers who are unhappy. Three years ago, non-union employees lost their free transit passes, and many haven't seen a merit raise in eight years.
- Good luck finding a replacement for Ronnie Hakim. It took D.C.'s transit system a year to find a new general manager. New Jersey has a lame-duck governor whose commitment to funding transit is questionable. As mentioned above, many potential internal candidates have disappeared. "If I had her job," said David Peter Alan, the head of the Lackawanna Coalition, "I'd get out while the getting is good."
- Meanwhile, its lifeline to Manhattan is falling apart. The $10 billion federal committment and the creation of the Gateway Development Corporation has advanced the new cross-Hudson tunnel. But the timing is tough for the agency. "NJ Transit desperately needs to have a lot of input into the Gateway Development Corporation," said Martin Robins.
So what will happen now? Is the future relentlessly grim? Not necessarily, said Richard Sarles. He's a former head of NJ Transit who went on to run D.C. Metro. "NJ Transit is certainly at a crossroads," he said, "and the choice for the next executive director greatly influences its future.”
NJ Transit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.