Governor Brendan T. Byrne and State Transportation Issues

Prepared by Donald J. Linky for the Center on the American Governor


Governor Brendan Byrne’s administration saw a significant commitment towards the long-term improvement of the State’s transportation infrastructure. The policies which they initiated has led New Jersey to now have the third largest transit system in the country. Several important transportation issues during the administration included: founding the NJ Transit authority, the conflict over I-695, and the improvement of transportation services for the elderly and handicapped.


I-695 Controversy

In the late 1960s the Tri-state Transportation Committee and the New Jersey Department of Transportation approved the construction of a connection spur (designated I-695) between I-95 in Manville and I-287 in Somerville. Along with I-95 and I-287, I-695 would form a bypass around the New York-north east New Jersey metropolitan area. The combined I-95/I-695 highway would serve traffic bound for upstate New York and New England. Although the cost was originally estimated to be $55 million, the final cost of the two free-ways by 1979 was budgeted to be $375 million. Also in 1979, NJDOT issued its final environmental impact statement recommending construction of the spur, and the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission concurred with that opinion.

However, the late 1970s would also spell the beginning of the end for the highway construction project. To start, strong opposition began to mount from the towns that were affected by the construction project. Subsequently, the Middlesex-Somerset-Mercer Regional Study Council followed by issuing a statement against construction of I-95 through the area. Such a lack of local coordination with broad based state planning is a problem which former Commissioner of Transportation Louis Gambaccini had to tackle in organizing NJ Transit and which he states is an ongoing endemic problem in the state. Besides this opposition from the municipal and county level, a bi-partisan group of state legislators, led by state senator Anne Martindell of Princeton, began to push for a measure which would have cut-off funding for a required environmental impact report for the highway project. Without this report construction on the I-95/I-695 extension could not occur.

This mounting opposition forced Governor Byrne, who originally sided with the state and federal highway officials, to change his position on the matter. Finally, in May 1980, NJDOT reversed the recommendation that it made the previous year, and in January 1981 the Federal Highway Administration officially de-designated the project.

The Creation of New Jersey Transit

NJ Transit, founded in 1979, was an offspring of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), mandated by the state government to address the many transportation issues that had developed at the time. It was the government’s answer to a continuing and irreversible trend of bankruptcy in the private rail business which threatened both commercial and commuter travel throughout the state.

Beginning in 1976 the state government formed the Consolidated Rail Corporation (ConRail), which merged the financially troubled Penn Central, Erie Lackawanna, Central RR of New Jersey, Lehigh Valley, Lehigh & Hudson River, Reading, and Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines; and operated them under contract for NJDOT. This government formed corporation would act as a precedent for further action in the Byrne administration on the issue of rail transportation.

Real headway towards the creation of a New Jersey Transit system got underway once Louis Gambaccini was brought on board as the third ever Commissioner of NJDOT in 1977 at the beginning of Governor Byrne’s second term of office. Commissioner Gambaccini had previously served twenty-nine years in various positions at the NY/NJ Port Authority including a post as head of the PATH Rapid Transit system. At the time there was a building crisis in public transportation and as Gambaccini describes:

“A number of the commuter groups were pushing my nomination as was the publisher of the Ridgewood Newspaper who was an avid rail fan. And so he pushed me as did Judge Lebreque from the Jersey Shore. There were three commuter groups growing in violence and intensity, near violence– that’s overstated, to do something about public transportation.”

Owing to all this lobbying, and his previous relations with Louis, Governor Byrne extended an accepted invitation to Gambaccini on St. Patrick’s Day 1977.

The Commissioner, who was nominated with an implicit (if not explicit) mandate to solve the eminent crisis in public transportation, particularly in rail services, did not waste any time. Almost immediately a task force was setup to draft four different reports on the issue of public transportation. These reports included worse-case-possible scenarios, a survey of best practices in the country and around the world, etc. The fourth of these reports was a recommendation to setup NJ transit.

From this stage Commissioner Gambaccini (who was given wide breadth by the Governor in hiring) brought in as Assistant Commissioner Melvin Lehr from Ohio as top planner for the Department. Commissioner Gambaccini then brought together all of the twenty-one separate county planners under the direction of Mr. Lehr, and explained to them (strong-armed them) that they would not be leaving the meeting until a state-wide plan for public transportation was developed. Such a plan would need to be supported by all the county planners and would need to rest on an objective cross benefit prioritization of projects. Prior to this meeting the State of New Jersey was not receiving the maximum of matching funds from the federal governments for public works projects because of infighting between the various counties. It was understood by the officials in the transportation department that if the necessary funds for NJ Transit were to be found, such a situation could not continue, and indeed it did not continue. The sponsorship of the NJDOT transportation plan by all the county planners also made future support in the state legislature on the bond issue easier to come by because the various representatives were less inclined to push for respective pet projects for their counties.

The consensus state plan which came out of this agreement between the state and county planners was known as Transpac: a three billion dollar program to revitalize and partially socialize public transportation.

However, despite the consensus of county planners the program was still met with a considerable opposition at the State House, surprisingly enough by members of the Democratic leadership. The two chairmen of the house and senate transportation committees both totally opposed the legislation. Another notable objection came from the Hudson County Democrats who were holding the legislative process back in order to secure a particular political appointment from the Governor. On this matter Gambaccini and Byrne were in agreement, despite the importance of the NJ Transit bill, acquiescing to this hostage holding was not an appropriate response.

Fortunately, there were also several strong allies at the State Capitol, and the legislation was pushed through without the support of Hudson County. Cary Edwards, a Republican assemblyman from Gambaccini’s own district (later to become Attorney General), was in full support of the initiative from an early stage, and helped persuade several fellows Republican to vote for the legislation. Democratic support came notably from Senator Frank Herbert, as well as Herald Hodes and Bob Mulcahy who both played key roles in cajoling their fellow representatives to come on board with the bill. Considerable pressure was also put on the legislature to act due to a familiar tactic of the Governor. Byrne established a set deadline after which point, if no legislative action was passed through, all transportation service in the state would cease to occur. This “line in the sand strategy” although incredibly risky was a hallmark of Governor Byrne’s administration and was (in hindsight) very effective in forcing the legislature to act where they otherwise would most likely have delayed. In the end, New Jersey saw the enactment into law of the Public Transportation Act of 1979, which lead to the creation of NJ Transit to, “acquire, operate and contract for transportation service in the public interest.”

The remaining difficulty lay in acquiring the three billion dollars needed to fund Transpac. Later on in that same year a $475 million dollar bond issue was passed by an outstanding two to one margin. That money, coupled with $120 million dollars from the Port Authority, and the leveraging of federal transit and highway money allowed the necessary funds to be put together. It is interesting to note that at the time Chris Jackman, the Speaker of House, was astonished at the cost of the program, although by today’s standards it was incredibly cheap.

Beginning in 1980 NJ Transit began to purchase and consolidate public transportation services in the state. In 1980, NJ Transit purchased Transport of New Jersey, the State’s largest private bus company at that time. Between 1981 and 1985 the services of several other bus companies were incorporated into NJ Transit Bus Operations, Inc. On January 1, 1983, a second subsidiary, NJ Transit Rail Operations, Inc. was launched to assume operations of commuter rail in the State after Congress ordered Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) to cease its passenger operations. A third subsidiary, NJ TRANSIT Mercer, Inc., was established in 1984 when the agency assumed operation of bus service in the Trenton/Mercer County area. In 1992, following a full reorganization, all three subsidiaries were unified and operations were significantly streamlined.

Task Force on Transportation Services for the Elderly and Handicapped

In the late 1970s the several state agencies, local agencies, and private organizations were all involved in either the distribution of funds for, or provision of, transportation for the handicapped and elderly. The existence of numerous agencies and organizations created problems with regards to efficiency and effectiveness of these transportation services. In late 1978 the Program Coordination subcommittee of the Title XX Advisory Committee (a citizen advisory committee with statewide representation) recommended better coordination of transportation resources and identified major barriers to that coordination. Governor Byrne, in response to this recommendation, issued Executive Order No. 70 on January 23, 1979, which created the Task Force on Transportation services for the Elderly and Handicapped.

The duties of the Task Force were several-fold. They were first charged with administrating a comprehensive review and identification of all the programs and agencies involved in providing transportation services and evaluate which ones could be eliminated due to redundancy or inefficiency. Beyond this the Task Force was also given the objective of establishing coordinated transportation programs on the county level. A funding review was mandated to examine the distribution and source of funds utilized to provide transportation to the elderly and handicapped, and devise ways to consolidate the funding and services and utilize vehicles in a cost-effective manner. Additionally, a review of the relevant legislation and administrative regulations was made, and recommendations were presented to the Governor about possible legislative and regulatory revisions to make transportation services more efficient and effective. Finally, a study of federal laws and regulations pertaining to access to transportation facilities for handicapped people was commissioned.

The Task Force was a strong priority for the Governor. The committee consisted of representatives (or the commissioners themselves) from the departments of Human Services, Health, Labor and Industry, Energy, Education, Community Affairs, Treasury, and several other persons designated by Byrne, including an ex officio representative from the Governor’s Disabilities Council, and was chaired by the Commissioner of Transportation. It was authorized to call upon any department or agency in the State to supply any data, program reports, other information, personnel, and assistance as was deemed necessary, and likewise all the respective state entities were directed to cooperate with the Task Force.

As a result of the findings of the Task Force Governor Byrne issued Executive Order 105 in April of 1981. The order followed up on the recommendations of the committees report and resulted in several regulatory improvements. The Department of Transportation was designated as the lead agency on issue of specialized transportation and an Office for the Coordination of Specialized Transportation services was established within the department. NJDOT was charged with several tasks including (among others): assisting counties in establishing offices for countywide coordination and the investigation of funding sources for such offices, as well as approving these county coordination plans; inventorying State operated transportation programs and coordinating them with local operations and public transportation services; research the feasibility of developing a Statewide non-profit organization for purchasing insurance for local non-profit transportation agencies; and standardize and streamline state fiscal and program reporting requirements for local transportation agencies. An Interdepartmental Advisory Group was also established to ensure the continuation of interagency cooperation on specialized transportation services. Finally, by July 1, 1983, all State agencies responsible for the distribution of fund for specialized transportation services were mandated to require that any local agencies requesting such funds demonstrate that they had been included in an approved County Coordination Plan for specialized transportation services.