NJ Transit Riders’ Advocate Blasted as Just an Agency Apologist

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(Bloomberg) -- A commuter advocate hired by New Jersey Transit instead is a public-relations prop whose performance is a disservice to more than 900,000 daily riders who need a voice, state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg told the struggling agency’s leader.

Lawmakers created the first-of-its-kind job, in a bill signed by fellow Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, to help rebuild an agency suffering from declining service and safety issues after years of budget cuts. What commuters got, Weinberg told NJ Transit Chief Executive Officer Kevin Corbett, was a staffer used by agency leadership to “manage the message.”

“Doesn’t that make the public a little cynical about the role of the so-called commuter advocate?” Weinberg asked Corbett.

Weinberg’s questions came during a special Senate committee hearing in Trenton designed in part to measure Murphy’s progress on his promise to rebuild the nation’s largest statewide mass-transportation provider. Corbett likened his arrival in February 2018 to a home buyer’s confronting unanticipated repairs.

Still, NJ Transit met a December deadline for a federally ordered emergency-braking project on its train fleet, Corbett said. That task had dragged for years under Murphy’s predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, and was widely regarded as unlikely to finish on time. Corbett also said on-time performance was improving, and the agency was rebuilding its engineer and driver staff, whose ranks had dwindled. NJ Transit was proud of its progress, he said, but aware that it had much work to do.

“The committee will leave this hearing today confident and assured that NJ Transit is on a path toward a brighter future, and that the truly tangible benefits of the progress we have made -- progress that this committee, the legislature and the general public each desire, and indeed, deserve -- are fast approaching on the near horizon,” Corbett said.

But Weinberg and Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, criticized Corbett for not bringing senior staff to answer particular operations questions. They also bashed the agency for hiring at least two contractors, a law firm and a public-relations company, apparently to boost the agency’s image.

“You have to stop spending money on public relations, because you shouldn’t need it,” Weinberg said. “You should be spending money on cleaning buses and cleaning trains and a customer advocate that is truly a customer advocate.”

The advocate, Stewart Mader, a veteran of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was appointed in April. He is most visible as a star of online videos touting improvements to rail service, key to New York City jobs, or showing off new capital projects. Commuters often respond with bitterness to his social-media posts, complaining about chronic poor conditions that they say he hasn’t addressed.

Mader didn’t respond to a request for comment sent via email and to his Twitter account.

At the hearing, Weinberg said Mader was responsible for a Feb. 20 tweet on NJ Transit’s account, quickly deleted, criticizing a NorthJersey.com news report for raising questions about some hires. Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan, in a tweet of his own, called the post “completely unacceptable.”

Corbett told the senators that he was “out of the office yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to fully investigate” the tweet.

NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, in an email, said the agency apologized to the reporter for the incident. The tweet was written, she said, by an employee who lacked social-media authorization, and the agency was “tightening its protocols” on postings. She declined to identify the employee, calling it a personnel matter that was under investigation.

“In my humble opinion, Mr. Mader has disqualified himself to continue being the customer advocate for NJ Transit because no one could have confidence in his ability to be a spokesperson for commuters when he is tweet-bashing reporters who might be reporting about accurate facts,” Weinberg said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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