Gov. Phil Murphy’s choice to lead New Jersey Transit faces a host of fiscal, infrastructure and governance challenges at the nation’s third-busiest public public transportation system.

The Garden State’s governor, a Democrat, tapped Kevin S. Corbett last week to serve as the next NJ Transit executive director with hopes that the transportation veteran can put the beleaguered agency on the right track.

Corbett, whose nomination still must be approved by the NJ Transit board of directors, has overseen major infrastructure initiatives during his current job as vice president of Cross Services at AECOM, including the first phase of New York City’s Second Avenue Subway and restoring PATH service after Superstorm Sandy. He previously was chief operating officer and executive vice president of Empire State Development Corporation.

Commuters stand at the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station at Secaucus Junction to board New Jersey Transit trains in Secaucus, New Jersey, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
The New Jersey Transit station in Secaucus. Kevin Corbett was named to head the troubled agency. Bloomberg News

“I look forward to starting the process of rebuilding NJ Transit so that we can reach our enormous untapped potential,” Corbett, board president of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and an executive member with the Regional Plan Association, said in a statement. “I am excited to work with Governor Murphy on making his vision for NJ Transit a reality.”

Before his Jan. 16 inauguration, Murphy sent a letter to senior NJ Transit employees tied to former Gov. Chris Christie asking for their resignations in an effort to turn the page at the agency.

Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, said Corbett’s first order of business should be a “thorough analysis” of who should be hired at the top of the organization to boost morale and establish a leadership team that can move the agency forward.

Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of Rutgers University's Bloustein Local Government Research Center, said it is important that Corbett bring on a strong leadership team while also working with existing staff that knows the inner workings of the agency. Pfeiffer stressed that the state legislature, which has pushed reforms in recent years, should give Corbett time before implementing any major changes.

“NJ Transit got into trouble because it started to get micromanaged by the Christie administration,” said Pfeiffer. “They really need to start looking at the long-term.”

Corbett’s appointment came a week after Murphy signed an executive order mandating an audit of NJ Transit to review its fiscal practices and delayed implementation of federal safety initiatives such as the installation of Positive Train Control systems by a December 2018 deadline. Corbett will be tasked with implementing recommendations from the audit and reworking the agency’s finances, leadership structure, safety measures and customer experience, according to Murphy.

“We can no longer continue to accept the dismal business as usual at an agency that so many commuters throughout New Jersey depend on,” Murphy said in a statement. “I am confident that Kevin’s leadership can help turn NJ Transit into a transportation system that our commuters value and trust.”

Robins said the audit was an important step, but noted concerns about some NJ Transit staffers interfering with the inquiry. He said Corbett will also face challenges implementing a capital program for required safety repairs.

“He has an immense problem with the capital program, but he has to approach it thoroughly,” said Robins. “It’s daunting.”

State support for NJ Transit’s operating budget declined from $348 million in 2009 to $104 million in the current fiscal year 2018 budget.

A September report by the Fund for New Jersey said that the agency only receives 1.3% of support from dedicated taxes, compared to nearly 50% or higher public transportation systems in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. The authority refinanced outstanding revenue bonds in early 2017 through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to tackle a $12 million budget hole attributed to falling 2016 ridership numbers.

Regina Egea, president of the Garden State Initiative, said with New Jersey facing severe fiscal problems at the state level, Corbett and the Murphy administration should seek a new approach to financing given the limited funding available in Trenton. The agency in recent years has been receiving more than $200 million annually from New Jersey Turnpike Authority tolls to combat a $1.1 billion operating deficit.

“They need to find a way to better leverage federal dollars,” said Egea. “It’s going to be a very tough couple of years in New Jersey.”

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