The measure (S1190), proposed by state Sen. Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, would establish a Rider Advocacy Commission and requires that commission establish an NJ Transit Office of Customer Advocate and overseeing the hiring of a person to serve as advocate.
A customer advocate is required under the 2018 NJ Transit reform law, but a first version of that office was criticized for having public relations functions and not solely representing passengers.
“This is one of the largest transit systems and there is no one to advocate for the riders,” Mukherji said during Thursday’s Senate Transportation Committee hearing at the Statehouse in Trenton. “Under the bill, the proposed fare increase would require analysis (by the advocate).”
The committee voted unanimously to release the measure after testimony by David Pringle from Clean Water Action about why it is needed and about NJ Transit’s shortcomings he hoped an independent advocate would address.
“We strongly support it and urge you to go further,” Pringle said. “You passed the (NJ Transit) reform bill, but the administration has done a poor job implementing the customer advocate. The job had not been filed.”
Pringle criticized what he felt was a lack of oversight over NJ Transit’s decision to spend $500 million to lease and outfit new offices at 2 Gateway Center in the face of financial difficulties and a 15% fare increase that was proposed on Jan. 24.
“This bill doesn’t go far enough, but it is a good message bill and gives more watchdogging,” Pringle told the committee.
Under the proposed legislation, the advocate would have investigative powers to conduct studies, hire experts, and testify before the state legislature, NJ Transit board and when there are proposals to increase fares, or to cut or expand services. The advocate’s office would have to hold monthly meetings with riders and provide an annual report to the governor and state Legislature.
NJ Transit’s version would have its board of directors interview and appoint a customer advocate who would report to the board.
“I’m not sure how much a customer advocate can do under the current situation,” Mukherji said. “How can you hold someone accountable to the people they report to?”
While NJ Transit has interviewed candidates for the customer advocate position, it had not found a suitable candidate, officials said in November.
The bill would have to be passed by the full Senate and state Assembly and signed by the governor to become law.
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