NJ Transit chief resigns; Sandy decisions assailed
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The head of New Jersey's public transportation agency announced his resignation Tuesday, leaving behind a record that includes a costly decision to leave rail equipment in the path of Superstorm Sandy and the image of thousands of fans stranded for hours after this month's Super Bowl when trains couldn't accommodate them.
NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein, who was tapped in 2010 by Gov. Chris Christie to lead the nation's third-largest transit agency, will leave office effective March 2.
In a letter to the agency's roughly 12,000 employees, Weinstein credited them with having created in the past 30 years "one of the best public transportation agencies in the country from what started as a collection of bankrupt bus companies and railroads."
He cited surveys showing that nearly eight out of 10 customers would recommend NJ Transit to a friend, family member or neighbor as evidence that NJ Transit has succeeded in putting customers first.
He did not mention the Sandy controversy in his letter, but did repeat the agency's previous defense of its role in what was billed as the first mass transit Super Bowl, noting that the rail system moved a record number of people Feb. 2 "safely and securely, which was our number one goal."
In an announcement of new leadership at NJ Transit, Christie thanked Weinstein for his service and wished him well in the next part of his career but did not comment on the leader's record at the agency.
The governor said Weinstein will be replaced by Veronique Hakim, who currently serves as executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Hakim, who goes by Ronnie, worked for more than 20 years at the MTA in New York City before taking charge of the turnpike in 2010.
The state's deputy transportation commissioner, Joe Mrozek, will succeed Hakim.
Weinstein, 67, of Moorestown, was New Jersey's transportation commissioner in the late 1990s and then was vice president of a transportation consulting firm before taking over at NJ Transit, which has a $3 billion capital and operating budget and makes about 270 million passenger trips a year.
In Weinstein's first few months at NJ Transit, the agency raised fares as much as 25 percent and trimmed service in an attempt to plug a $300 million budget shortfall. The actions weren't as drastic as had originally been feared, however, as the agency eventually restored nearly $4 million in bus routes and services it had said it would cut.
"We're not doing this because we like to raise fares," Weinstein said at the time. "We're doing this because we have the responsibility to preserve one of the great transit systems in this country."
Last July, NJ Transit reported approving a fiscal 2014 budget that kept fares the same for the fourth year in a row.
Weinstein's biggest test came in late October 2012, when Sandy flooded rail yards in Kearny and Hoboken, destroyed bridges and tracks, and left more than $400 million in overall damage.
Weinstein was heavily criticized in the weeks and months that followed for his decision not to move rail cars and locomotives out of the yards; they received more than $100 million in damage.
Nearly a year later, Christie told a newspaper that a low-level employee deviated from a storm plan at the last minute without Weinstein's knowledge. Weinstein hasn't confirmed that version.
Earlier this month, what could have turned into the agency's shining moment instead produced more criticism when more than twice as many Super Bowl-goers as projected opted to ride NJ Transit trains to the game at MetLife Stadium. At game's end it took hours — and the arrival of dozens of buses — to get everyone out.
While defending NJ Transit's performance, he said, "it would have been nice if we could have done it faster."