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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo by Nikita Biryukov)

Murphy’s NJ Transit blame game could expire

Governor can’t put blame at Christie’s feet forever

By Nikita Biryukov, August 16 2018 4:20 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy, facing flak over a recent spate of NJ Transit delays and cancellations, has taken to a time-honored strategy – blaming his predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie – even as he says the buck stops with him.

At some point, Murphy, now seven months into his term, will have to take responsibility for the state of the nation’s third-largest public-transit provider, and though a fair amount of the beleaguered transportation network’s problems – like underfunding and staff shortages – can be laid at Christie’s feet, problems like the lack of communication surrounding recent cancellations cannot.

But, even blame for issues that rose under Christie has a shelf life, and that life could run out soon.

“I think it’s bad policy to always blame the prior administration. I think it’s what people do, but he’s been in over seven months now, and I think it’s time to move on to ‘ok, well now, let’s address the issue,’” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz. “Everybody keeps blaming the person before them. It was Christie, and he before that was Corzine, and before that on and on. That’s not why we’re here.”

Christie was blaming former Gov. Jon Corzine late into his second term, so it’s possible that Murphy will continue to do so for as long as he’s in office, but such blame would eventually find voters’ ears deaf, especially if problems such as those that plague NJ Transit continue to inconvenience the state’s constituency.

Still, neither party’s leadership sought to dissuade Murphy from blaming the former governor.

When asked how long Murphy could continue to blame Christie for NJ Transit’s issues, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean demurred and instead sought to cast aspersions at Murphy’s handling of the transit network’s staffing problems.

“A big chunk of this is personnel issue that transformed into a systemic failure. This personnel issue could be fixed within days if you, for example, were able to hire more engineers, people who were already trained and bring them into service,” Kean said. “The personnel stuff, that’s a management thing that needs to be fixed quickly.”

NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett disputed that the organization’s staffing issues could be solved so quickly at a 4-hour-long joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Transportation Committees Thursday morning.

Training for the network’s locomotive engineers takes roughly 20 months, Corbett said, though NJ Transit is looking to implement a program for its conductors to become engineers that would cut their training to less than a year.

The staffing problems could be better addressed if the transit network could employ rail engineers from out of state. Several lawmakers, including Murphy, Coughlin and Senate President Steve Sweeney have backed the measure.

Even so, Kean moderated and avoided a levelling a full attack on Murphy.

“I think we all want to look forward. We have a real issue here. New Jersey Transit has been a problem for a long time, as have other large agencies, Port Authority and others,” Kean said. “We now need to structurally fix them all and make sure that commuters have what they expect at a cost the taxpayers can afford.”

When asked about the shelf-life for Murphy’s blame game, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin avoided the question altogether.

“I’m not going to speculate as to whether there’s some artificial timeline,” Coughlin said. “I think we’re all committed to trying to solve the problem. The problem exists, so we’re going to work through that.”

It appeared that Coughlin was referring to a timeline for the resolution of the transit network’s troubles, but it wasn’t entirely clear.

But while Coughlin is angling to avoid another confrontation with the governor, that deference hasn’t extended to all members of his caucus.

While Assemblywoman Pat Egan Jones didn’t give a timeframe in which Murphy would have to stop blaming his predecessor, she offered a condemnation of the practice similar to the one put forth by Munoz.

“We have to always remind ourselves how we got to a certain spot, but now it’s our job to move away from,” Egan Jones said. “I’d like to see everybody stop blaming the guy before them for something, and my view of success is when you can step away from a position and look back and see it even better when you were there. So, maybe Christie will be successful because we get it right this time.”

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