NJT at 40: People, politics and progress

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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July 17, 1979 was a momentous day in the annals of U.S. transit history. The New Jersey legislature passed, and Gov. Brendan T. Byrne (1924-2018) signed, the bill that became the Transportation Act of 1979. The legislation established New Jersey Transit (NJT), and in so doing, began the process of consolidating the state’s bus service under a single statewide umbrella. That step was considered radical in its day, but it set a model for bringing public transportation into the public sector, at a time when railroads and bus companies in the private sector were working hard to get rid of it.

Commuter rail in New Jersey went into steep decline when the private freight railroads that provided service—Penn Central, Central Railroad of New Jersey, Erie-Lackawanna—one by one fell into bankruptcy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Conrail (Consolidated Rail Corp.), created by the federal government to prevent a total collapse of the Northeastern rail network in 1976, took over, inheriting a system that, despite financial support from the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), was in a state of severe disrepair. Service was, in a word, terrible. It was so unreliable that riders rarely knew if their scheduled train would actually show up. There was a chronic equipment shortage. The Commuter Operating Agency at NJDOT worked in concert with Conrail managers who could do little to improve service, even if they cared about riders. There wasn’t enough funding to run the service properly, let alone capital dollars for infrastructure improvements and new equipment.

Conrail E8 No. 4022 leads a commuter train on the New York & Long Branch (NJT North Jersey Coast Line) in October 1978. Mike Schafer photo/Passenger Train Journal.

Bus services were no better off. In the greater Newark area, an acute problem was that Public Service Electric & Gas Co. (PSE&G) wanted to get out of operating its vast, financially draining bus network as well as the Newark City Subway (now part of NJT’s Newark Light Rail), the sole surviving streetcar line from the old Public Service network. Like many public utilities in the past, PSE&G (now part of FirstEnergy) once had a streetcar arm, Public Service Coordinated Transport. As happened in many places, the streetcar lines were torn up and replaced with bus lines.

PSE&G changed the name of its bus company to Transport of New Jersey in 1971, with the intent of getting out of the transit business by the end of the decade. Joyce J. Zuczek, Secretary to the NJT Board, is one of the agency’s original employees, with 43 years’ service. She started with NJDOT and told this writer that managers there called a consultant’s report that detailed the condition of New Jersey’s transit at the time “the horror story.”

Newark City Subway, 1967. Joe Testagrose collection.

In a statement observing the anniversary, Zuczek recalled: “I have had the unique opportunity to be at the very beginning of New Jersey Transit.” She watched the agency grow over the years: “We started with 100 employees and now we’re at more than 11,000 talented, dedicated employees in this agency. Prior to New Jersey Transit, the transit system was broken. We had about 30 bus companies, a handful of railroads, and there was no public transportation coordinated in the state. I remember the excitement and the enthusiasm of all the employees back then, and I would never give up that moment for anything. It was just spectacular.”

The situation in 1979 at NJT included some reform-minded people who wanted better transit and fought hard to get it. Sen. Francis X. Herbert (1931-2018), a Democrat who represented Bergen County at the time, sponsored the original bill. This writer later served with him for several years on the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) at NJT. In his later years, Herbert often told the story about how he fought relentlessly for transit reform, especially since Public Service wanted to abandon its bus business. He spoke of the strong support he received from Gov. Byrne and the fierce opposition he got, especially from other privately owned bus companies. When the dust settled, the bill passed by a single vote.

The late Louis J. Gambaccini (1931-2018), the NJDOT Commissioner at the time, got NJT started as an agency and assembled a team of managers who later became industry leaders. Some of them are still active, including D.C. Agrawal, who issued the check to Public Service for $32.1 million to buy the assets of the bus company; Arthur S. Guzzetti, who today is Vice President for Policy at APTA (American Public Transportation Association); APTA staffers Rose Sheridan and Fran Hooper; Martin E. Robins, who was later director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University; Stanley Rosenblum, currently President of SYSTRA Consulting; and Zuczek herself.

There were planners and managers at NJT who came later and left their mark, too. They include James Greller, known for his expertise on rail transit, most notably the BMT in New York City; Alfred E. Fazio, who served as General Manager of Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and the River LINE light rail and is also a Contributing Editor to Railway Age; and Stan Feinsod, who is still going strong in San Francisco as a consultant. The “First Lady of American Transit,” Shirley DeLibero, served as Executive Director through the 1990s. Jeffrey A. Warsh, a man of strong and under-appreciated vision, succeeded her. Warsh had conceived about 35 transit projects, with help from James P. Redeker, who was recently Transportation Commissioner in Connecticut under Gov. Dannel Malloy. Those plans were released in 2001, but none of the projects have yet been built.

The official observance of NJT’s anniversary took place on Wednesday, July 17, as part of the agency’s regularly scheduled Board meeting. The celebration itself was low-key, with statements by Commissioner and Board Chair Diane Guiterrez-Scaccetti and President/CEO (a new title) Kevin S. Corbett. It also included a video showcasing historical highlights at NJT since its founding, entitled A Journey Through Time: 1979-2019, and which is available on the NJT website. The narration in the video described the agency’s origin this way: “The dawning of a new era in public transportation took hold. The bygone era of siloed, independent and multiple privately owned bus companies ended, and the dawning of a new unified and integrated statewide transit system began with the creation of NJ Transit on July 17, 1979.”

There were also some display cases with artifacts from the agency’s early history and wall displays of photographs and advertisements from the early days, as well. There were also historic buses parked in front of Newark Penn Station, including No. L-624, a General Motors cruiser bus from 1957. NJT is also commemorating its anniversary by decorating the sides of six MultiLevel railcars to honor its predecessor railroads, as reported by Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono on July 16. The Lackawanna Coalition, of which this writer is chair, requested that NJT decorate two more such cars to honor the Erie and the Lackawanna Railroads separately, since each had a long tradition, dating back to the mid-1800s and lasting until 1960. (Editor’s Note: We’d like to see some heritage-themed locomotives in service, like an ALP45DP in GG1-like Pennsylvania Railroad Tuscan Red and pinstripes, a PL42AC in Erie-Lackawanna gray, burgundy and yellow, or a GP40 returned to its original Central Railroad of New Jersey livery – William C. Vantuono.)

During the ceremony, Guiterrez-Scaccetti and Corbett honored some of the most-senior employees at the agency; all original employees whose service extended back to NJT’s predecessors. The longest-serving is Luis Trujillo, a 60-year veteran who began his career with Intercity Bus Lines and, later, the Maplewood Equipment Company. Today, he is a ticket agent at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal in New York City. Trujillo said that NJT had brought the bus system up to date.

Front row (l to r): Ticket Agent Class A (Bus operations): Luis Trujillo – 60 years, Principal Bookkeeper Daisy Johnson (Revenue) – 50 years, Board Secretary Joyce Zuczek – 43 years, Chief Engineer Signals Edward Joscelyn (Rail operations) – 52 years, Police Inspector Andrew Keelan – 34 years, and Supt. Light Rail Operations Andrew Mercogliano – 46 years. NJT Officials (back row): Dini Ajmani – State Treasurer’s Representative on Board, Edmund Caulfield, Governor’s Representative on Board, Commissioner and Chair Diane Guiterrez-Scaccetti and President/CEO Kevin Corbett. NJT photo.

In a written statement issued for the Board meeting, Corbett said, “On this date 40 years ago, NJ Transit was officially created by the Public Transportation act of 1979. Since then, the agency has been dedicated to serving the transportation needs of New Jersey. Over the past four decades, hard-working men and women have kept our transportation network moving and providing billions of passenger trips. We will be marking this milestone in a number of ways for both employees and customers as we reflect on the past 40 years.”

The crisis that gave rise to NJ Transit also gave birth to a local rider-advocacy movement. The Lackawanna Coalition was founded three months before NJ Transit, and the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) was founded the following year. Early New Jersey advocates Albert L. Papp and Jack May were on the scene then, and they are still active. Former planner William R. Wright brought his own style of advocacy to NJT’s advisory committees for more than three decades. Jeffrey B. Marinoff advocated so strongly for better transit in South Jersey that much of the rail transit that runs in that region today, including the Atlantic City Rail Line, the River LINE light rail and the Pennsauken Transit Center, probably would not exist without his efforts. One citizen-advocate, at least, was rewarded officially. As a lawyer, John McGoldrick fought to save the Princeton “Dinky” (a short branch line from Princeton Junction on the Northeast Corridor to downtown Princeton and the Princeton University campus) when it was threatened in 1975. He was later given a seat on the original NJT Board, which he held for 29 years.

NJT started as a bus company in 1979. The agency added Rail Operations at the beginning of 1983, after Conrail was forced by statute to stop operating local passenger trains in the Northeast region. SEPTA’s Regional Rail division in Philadelphia and Metro-North in New York, part of the MTA, were founded at the same time, while Boston and other places contracted with Amtrak to continue operating local passenger trains.

After the celebration, the Board took up its business for the month, an agenda that included the agency’s capital and operating budgets for the coming fiscal year.

In one respect, little has changed: NJT is still a political organization, born in the cutthroat world of New Jersey politics. It continues to live there, and there is no reasonable expectation at present that it can ever escape. Andrew Mercogliano, a 46-year veteran of the agency and its predecessor railroads who is now Superintendent of Light Rail Operations, has watched the agency grow: “Back in the day, we were all hung up on the operations.” He praised later agency leaders like Jeff Warsh for his vision and, especially, Shirley DeLibero, who was Executive Director in the 1990s: “Under Shirley, we started to become a real business.” Still, he recognized the political nature of transit and its management today: “Some transportation professionals seem to transcend the politics. Other transportation professionals don’t survive the politics.”

When transit in New Jersey needed reform 40 years ago, public-spirited leaders like Herbert, Gambaccini and Byrne fought for it and ultimately brought it to the Garden State’s bus riders, despite the politics. Later, the same reform came to the state’s rail riders, too. Today, in the administration of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who claims to be more-transit-friendly, NJT is working to restore credibility and service reliability and recover from the insufficient funding it suffered under Murphy’s predecessor, Chris Christie. Some rider advocates claim that the state’s elected officials have let the their constituents down, but there is always hope that, in the rough-and-tumble world of New Jersey politics, NJT might someday again become the industry leader that it was in its early days.

Forty years ago, those officials who cared about transit established a new agency that stabilized and integrated the state’s transit and improved mobility for its residents and visitors. If that had not happened, transit in the Garden State most likely would never had realized any improvements. That, in itself, is something to celebrate, even if in a subdued manner.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, as well as on connecting transportation. The Coalition, founded in 1979, is one of the nation’s oldest rail advocacy organizations. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).

NJT PL42AC at Hoboken Terminal. William C. Vantuono photo.

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