Transit agency boards typically haven’t been the targets of advocacy campaigns. Their proceedings are often tedious, and their important decisions are often made behind closed doors. And yet, as we’ve recently chronicled, those decisions have tremendous consequences for transit riders. Boards can approve or deny service changes, raise fares, develop an agency’s equity and Title VI compliance policies, and can even get rid of or bring on a new CEO.
Some advocacy groups are increasingly getting involved in issues of transit governance. Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group in the New York Metro region, just released a report calling for reform on New Jersey Transit’s Board. The paper makes the case for more transparency, oversight, and rider representation at an agency that has long practiced the opposite. The proposed reforms would empower the board to improve transit service, do a better job of managing the public’s dollars, and support the agency’s executive director in achieving higher agency performance. Notably, the report calls for all of the current NJ Transit board seats to be considered “open” — existing members should be added to a pool along with other proposed appointees for the Governor to choose from.
“There’s more than one way to win better service for riders at transit agencies,” said Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director at Tri-State. “One is to fight each and every battle against oppositional or indifferent boards, and another is to create a board that looks more like the riding public and that will then support better service because they understand what their customers are dealing with.”
The timing for Tri-State’s recommendations is critical. NJ Transit – which was nearly run to the ground during the Christie administration and has received criticism for its long-standing culture of patronage and financial irresponsibility – is taking steps towards recovery. New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy appointed reform-minded Kevin Corbett as President of NJ Transit in January, and announced he would be conducting an audit of the entire agency. Seizing a moment, New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg began drafting a bill to restructure NJ Transit’s Board, and reached out to Tri-State for best practices. “Our report came out of our research and analysis into the issue–and with both legislation and the governor’s audit of NJ Transit due in the fall, we felt it was important to establish benchmarks against which we could assess any proposal to restructure the board,” explained Sifuentes.
Much of its focus is on enhancing NJ Transit’s transparency and accountability. The report proposes some basic reforms, such as keeping the website up to date, live-streaming every board meeting, and creating public performance dashboards. But it also proposes more nuanced ones – for example, that the agency begin providing documentation that demonstrates how decisions are made at NJ Transit.
The report calls for appointment of transit-riding board members, arguing that trustees who ride transit will tend to be more sensitive to policy changes like fare hikes and service cuts. But the report also encourages the appointment of board members who understand how transit works, and specifies that new board members should be drawn from a pool of experts in the field of rail and bus operations, among others.
“Change is hard, and changing the board of directors of a transit agency is harder still,” said Sifuentes. “In many cases, it requires approval of legislators and governors, and that’s a daunting task.” But that’s no reason for advocacy groups not to take on the issue. Boards are transit’s ultimate governing body, but too often left out of the power map when it comes to crafting campaigns. And in fact, our experience at TransitCenter conducting workshops for board members around the country suggests that they are hungry for more direction and input. Most board are made up of people appointed not because of their knowledge of or interest in transit but because of who they know. Few transit boards are offered any sort of training or materials about how transit works or how to be a better custodian of public dollars. Most want to do the right thing, but they aren’t sure of what that is.
Advocates, there’s your opening.