The vote by the NJ Transit Board to reject the pro-posed contracts that would have given Academy Express, LLC, the right to operate several bus lines in Hudson County for the next 3 years was historic, and it represented a radical departure from the past 42 years of Board practice.
The decision to reject the 2 contracts to Academy as an operator and instead award the contracts to Coach USA marked the first time that the NJ Transit board had voted against an agenda item of major significance in the agency’s history, dating back to 1979. It also marked the first time that such a negative vote was unanimous, although approvals almost always are.
About 10 years ago, this writer requested, under the Open Public Records Act, and was furnished with a list of every dissenting vote cast by any member of the Board up to that time. From 1979 until 2003, there had been only 42 occasions when any member of the Board had voted ‘No’ on any item before the body. 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 last meeting was unanimous, but there is nothing unusual about unanimity. In fact, is was an unbreakable rule, or at lest 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 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, but 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.
Thus, the recent votes on the bus contracts were historic—a radical departure from past conduct, 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 advocates are certainly hoping that it marks a new beginning.