Can Phil Murphy Repair New Jersey’s Broken Rail System?

It took me three rainy hours to get home to New Jersey on election night. I’d rushed to the World Trade Center to find that the PATH trains were suspended, meaning I had to turn around and trudge back downtown through the rain to catch the ferry.

By the time I ran into New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy at the Hoboken train station, I was wet, scruffy and rumpled, as I’m sure you’ll notice in the picture.

The Governor was posing for pictures and amiably chatting with constituents by the trains when I entered the train platform area. The commuters interacting with him looked happy to meet him with. That was a little surprising. There are ample reasons to believe the train station would be hostile territory for Murphy considering New Jersey Transit’s horrid state of disrepair. The problems aren’t Murphy’s fault but they’re his responsibility. There’s no way that goodwill will last forever: if left unchecked, NJTransit’s problems will derail his political career.

I’ve ridden NJTransit trains for less than three years. Not a very long time, really. Still, I’ve been on board during a train-on-train accident, been trapped for hours on a broken-down train and suffered countless delays and dangerously crowded train cars. And my unpleasant experience is the norm for NJTransit riders. Twitter feeds like @fucknjtransit and @njtraindelays are long scrolls of delays, canceled trains, overcrowded conditions, mechanical failures and other problems and indignities. In a recent poll of train commuters, 60 percent reported that their commute had gotten worse over the last five years.

New Jersey’s trains weren’t always bad. NJTransit was a world-class, award-winning public transit system until Chris Christie got his hands on it. Christie took office in 2010, and cut NJTransit funding by over 90 percent, forcing fare increases and service cuts. To offset the transportation budget shortfall, Christie shuffled money from the state’s Clean Energy Fund and turnpikes and used money intended for infrastructure to cover day-to-day expenses.

While the train system decayed, Christie further doomed it by torpedoing the construction of a new train tunnel under the Hudson river. Citing fears over cost overruns for the New York State, New Jersey and Federal government-funded ARC Project, Christie cancelled the project. While Christie fretted about hypothetical cost overruns, he had to face a certain and immediate cost when the federal government sued New Jersey to recoup their part of the $600 million that had already been spent on the cancelled project.

If not for Christie, the ARC tunnel would have opened this year. Instead, Amtrak and NJTransit trains continue to use century-old tunnels that are deteriorating at an alarming rate. A video by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo urging President Donald Trump’s support for the Gateway Project infrastructure repair plan shows rotting tunnels with perforated walls and gushing leaks. The tunnels already flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Considering the 1,300 daily trains arriving and departing from Penn Station every day, it seems inevitable that the tunnel will collapse and kill hundreds.

Meanwhile, it’s not certain that New Jersey’s trains could reach the tunnel intact. In October, NJTransit released the results of an internal audit. The 166-page report detailed operational, staffing and mechanical problems. While the problems are urgent and have been plainly laid out, solutions aren’t yet forthcoming. Despite being controlled by Murphy’s own political party, New Jersey’s legislature is reluctant to spend money on public transportation. Murphy’s had to resort to funding tricks similar to the ones Christie used to create the crisis.

The tightfisted legislature seems to have Murphy’s hands tied. But Murphy’s a former Goldman Sachs executive. Usually, the vampire squid is bad news for everyday people but it might help them here. Goldman’s culture of extreme secrecy keeps Murphy’s tenure as president of Goldman Sachs Asia shrouded in mystery. But we know that while he was in charge, Goldman radically transformed enormous Chinese enterprises. Murphy could have been involved with covering up PetroChina’s connections to the Sudanese government responsible for the genocide in Darfur.

I like Murphy and enjoyed meeting him. I love that he’s trying to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, wants to make the state’s community colleges tuition free and banned offshore drilling. My great hope is that the former Goldman executive acts as a FDR-like class traitor and use the dirty tricks and power plays he learned at Goldman to benefit everyday people. I don’t have expert knowledge of the executive powers of New Jersey governors. But I know Christie had the power to make life miserable for NJTransit riders. Murphy surely has the power to make our lives better.

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