Daunting problems for N.J.'s new DOT chief

"No more projects done for political expediency. Let the transportation planners make the decisions," N.J. Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson says.
"No more projects done for political expediency. Let the transportation planners make the decisions," N.J. Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson says.
Posted: April 05, 2010

James Simpson, the new commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, inherits plenty of problems as he takes over the sprawling agency.

The state Transportation Trust Fund is running dry. The condition of New Jersey's crowded highways is the worst in the nation, according to federal data. NJ Transit ridership is down and fares are slated to increase 25 percent. The state's toll collectors recently drew unwanted attention for hundreds of complaints by motorists about nasty behavior.

And then there are the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops.

For many who don't live in the state, "New Jersey is defined by its turnpike," said Simpson, a Brooklyn native who is moving with his wife and two young children from Wayne, Delaware County, to Princeton for his new job. Traveling the turnpike, he said, is "a negative experience."

"I won't let my kids go in the bathrooms. I wait till we get to another state."

A turnpike service area "should be a destination . . . instead of just a grungy place to stop," Simpson said. Maybe each could feature a Jersey-theme restaurant (think diner) or a bookstore, he suggested.

Simpson is even pondering selling naming rights to the rest stops, replacing historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Molly Pitcher with corporate sponsors like Nike and Microsoft.

The fast-talking airplane pilot and former truck driver, who was administrator of the Federal Transit Administration during the administration of George W. Bush, is looking for ways to make or save money because Gov. Christie has vowed not to raise taxes or tolls as he tries to fill an $11 billion state budget deficit.

The commissioner says he plans to shift employees to more productive jobs, end duplicative or wasteful operations, improve transparency and work standards at the Turnpike Authority, and fix roads before building new ones.

He wants a dedicated source of funding for NJ Transit, perhaps from auto tolls.

"The hardest challenge I have is finding the funding," Simpson acknowledged in a recent interview in his Trenton office. "Everything I see is dollars and cents."

Simpson, 54, served from 1995 to 2005 as a commissioner of the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority, sitting on its finance, New York City transit, and governance committees. He later cofounded Spartan Solutions, an infrastructure management firm, and directed its Philadelphia office.

A self-described "transportation nut," Simpson started as a tractor-trailer driver for Victory Van Lines in New York while attending St. John's University. He eventually bought the company and helped turn Victory into an international firm.

He is licensed to fly jet aircraft, though he has sold his Cessna and Beechcraft. But he still owns a Harley Road King motorcycle.

"He's kind of a Pied Piper personality. I think he should have run for elected office," said Bruce Whitman, president of FlightSafety International, a New York aviation-training company where Simpson was a regular customer. "There aren't many people in government as gregarious and outgoing as Jim. . . . He's very popular with people."

Since Christie named him transportation head in January, Simpson has raced around his domain, grilling managers on how the agency runs. He is not impressed.

He says he sees too many fiefdoms, too much duplication, too few yardsticks to measure performance. And too many road and transit projects done for political reasons.

"The transportation system is broken," he said. "Politics drives the spending. There's a lot of pork and payoffs: 'Give me a rail project in the north and I'll give you a rail project in the south.' "

Simpson estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the state's transportation projects are done for political reasons.

He vows to end that: "No more projects done for political expediency. Let the transportation planners make the decisions."

He said, "Anything that was in the pipeline is going to be reviewed."

In the department, he sees offices with workers doing similar jobs, such as engineering, that could be combined. Others have jobs that don't need to be done, he said. The Division of Aeronautics and the Homeland Security Office duplicate the work of federal agencies, he said. And the Emergency Service Patrol, which Simpson said offers limited roadside assistance, duplicates private services.

"Is there something else we can do with these people, who are really great?" he said. "It's not about laying people off. It's about returning value to the taxpayer."

He said, "We have functional people working in a dysfunctional environment."

Simpson chairs the Turnpike Authority, which operates the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway; and the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which runs the Atlantic City Expressway and Atlantic City International Airport.

He sees little reason for authorities operating highways to be outside of the Department of Transportation. It may be time for New Jersey to consider the Maryland model and put all the agencies within the DOT, he said.

It makes no sense to have 2,400 employees responsible for 148 miles of turnpike and 173 miles of parkway, while 3,000 DOT employees oversee 14,000 miles of other roads, Simpson said.

At the toll agencies, he said, there is little accountability and transparency: "There are no metrics, nobody's grading anybody. Nobody measures anything at the turnpike."

One of Simpson's mantras is "If you're not measuring, you're not managing." He will require standards to assess success, he said, and he wants the authority's committee meetings made public.

He says he's already made a small change: He ordered removal of "commissioner only" prime parking spots at Turnpike Authority headquarters.

As chairman of NJ Transit, Simpson says he will push for a dedicated source of funding for the bus and rail agency.

"It makes sense to fund NJ Transit out of [tolls on] the turnpike. It's good policy to have highways fund transit, because each person on transit is one less on the highways."

The looming bankruptcy of the Transportation Trust Fund is one of Simpson's most intractable problems. By July 2011, the fund is expected to run out of money for transportation projects because all of the $895 million that flows into it annually will be required to repay previously borrowed money.

Simpson is vague about how the fund could be replenished. He talks of delaying doomsday by cutting spending, getting more money from the federal government, extracting more money from the toll roads, and reclaiming transportation-related fees now sent to the general fund.

He predicted he could cut the cost of delivering services by 15 percent to 20 percent, saving more than $100 million.

And about those rude toll collectors?

One complaint about collectors "is one complaint too many," Simpson said. After reports by the Smoking Gun Web site of more than 550 complaints of obnoxious, obscene, or racist behavior in 18 months, he vowed to "drive this to zero complaints."

Last week the Turnpike Authority announced that toll collectors and supervisors would get increased customer-service training and new uniforms to spruce up their image.

The president of the toll collectors union, Fran Ehret, met recently with Simpson and found him "very pleasant" and willing to listen to workers' concerns. She said that the union believes motorists should be treated politely, but that a goal of zero complaints isn't realistic because some drivers complain when workers simply enforce rules.

Simpson "wants to react, because he's the chairman and he wants to show he's doing his job," Ehret said. "I respect that. But employees are disciplined when they do something wrong. . . . It's not as if nothing's being done."


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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