NJT Board’s “No” Vote on the Proposed Contract with Academy Is a Huge Break from Tradition: COMMENTARY

The March vote by the NJ Transit Board to reject the proposed contracts that would have given Academy Express, LLC, the right to operate several bus lines in Hudson County for the next 3 was historic, and it represented a radical departure from the past 42 years of board practice.

The decision to reject Academy as an operator and instead award the contracts to Coach, USA, marked the first time that the Board had voted against an agenda item of major significance in the agency’s history, dating back to 1979. The vote was unanimous, in keeping with Board custom.

About 10 years ago, this writer requested and was furnished with a list of every dissenting vote cast by any member of the board up to that time, as requested under the Open Public Records Act. There had been only 42 occasions when any member of the Board had voted “NO” on any item before the body from 1979 until 2003. The Board rejected a proposed item only twice before: a settlement in a personal injury case in October, 1995 by a 5–2 vote, and a proposal for Acquisition and Development of an Integrated Train Scheduling System in May, 1996 by a 4–3 vote.

The historic vote at the March meeting was unanimous, but there is nothing unusual about unanimity. In fact, it was an unbreakable rule, or at least an unbreakable custom, for almost 12 years. From April 2003 until December 2014, there was not a single dissenting vote cast on any issue. Since that time, there have been a few. Commissioner Richard Hammer objected to a settlement in a personal injury case in December 2014. Longtime member Flora Castillo, who had gained a national reputation through the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), voted against 2 items in 2016. Her membership on the board was not renewed, and we do not know if her dissenting votes had anything to do with that. James Adams has voted against a few items recently, but dissent is still rare, and Adams will be leaving the board soon.

So the recent votes on the bus contracts were historic, representing a radical departure from the conduct of the past, which has earned the NJT board a reputation as a “rubber stamp”. Will this momentous event stand out as an anomaly, or will it signal a change toward independent judgment? It could go either way, but riders and their advocates are certainly hoping for the latter.

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