It has, to say the least, been a rough few years for New Jersey Transit. Over the past year and a half, the current agency leadership has overseen a disastrous response to Hurricane Sandy and, more recently, garnered bad press when football fans had to wait for up to three hours outside of Met Life Stadium when the Super Bowl ended. These were both avoidable problems, but no one seemed to care. It was surprising that no one in the upper echelons of management got the axe following the hurricane, but it seems as though the Super Bowl fallout will cause some heads to roll.
As Karen Rouse of The Record reported this past weekend, it appears as though enough is enough for New Jersey Transit. James Weinstein is ostensibly on the way out as the Executive Director of NJ Transit. As Rouse notes, Weinstein has been a loyal confidant of Gov. Chris Christie’s. He took on the burden of negotiating the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel and negotiated with the feds in coming to terms on a refund for federal funds.
Now, though, the failures have mounted — including one involving canceled NJ Transit trademarks — and amidst other scandals plaguing his administration, Christie is gearing up to cut loose Weinstein. Here’s Rouse’s story:
Weinstein now appears to be on his way out. His faithfulness may not have been enough to overcome a series of high-profile failures that occurred under his watch, most notably, the agency’s ill-fated decision to abandon nearly 400 railcars and locomotives in flood-prone rail yards during Superstorm Sandy and its clumsy handling of Super Bowl transportation. Thousands of football fans were stranded at MetLife Stadium for hours because NJ Transit was unprepared for the 33,000 football fans that overwhelmed the system.
He is expected to be replaced by Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, a former senior vice president at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction program who is currently executive director at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. His pending departure comes amid growing dissatisfaction among NJ Transit employees, who complain of low morale and favoritism in the upper ranks; tensions with Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who, as chairman of NJ Transit’s board, is Weinstein’s boss; and a commuter rail and bus system so plagued with breakdowns that some customers have told the board it’s no longer reliable.
Weinstein declined multiple requests to be interviewed, but friends of the director say Christie’s tight control over NJ Transit has prevented Weinstein from effectively managing the agency’s operations. “Larger policy decisions, larger to medium-sized, the governor’s office is integrally involved,” said Martin Robins, a past deputy executive director at NJ Transit who considers Weinstein a friend. “That is a fact of life at NJ Transit.”
Rouse’s full story is well worth the read. She charts familiar ground in rehashing the problems surrounding the agency’s preparation and response to Sandy, but she delves into the internal state politics of New Jersey Transit as well. The battles between Simpson and Weinstein seem to have been a deciding factor as well.
From Rouse’s story, it doesn’t sound as though Weinstein’s ouster will change much at New Jersey Transit. It may improve morale on a day-to-day basis, but if Trenton is going to insert itself into every major decision, the person heading up the agency doesn’t have nearly enough autonomy to affect real change. Still, such a move shows that someone is watching, albeit symbolically. New Jersey Transit needed a change, and this may be a good first step. I’m not holding my breath for the improvements the railroad needs though.