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New NJ Transit chief is a veteran commuter

Richard Sarles takes over in a time of ambitious plans for construction and renovation - and of tightened money.

Richard Sarles takes over as NJ Transit's executive director amid plans for constructing a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, upgrading the bus fleet, and balancing demands for bus and train service.
Richard Sarles takes over as NJ Transit's executive director amid plans for constructing a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, upgrading the bus fleet, and balancing demands for bus and train service.Read more

Richard Sarles, the new executive director of NJ Transit, brings two valuable credentials to work each day.

As a longtime transit manager, including five years with NJT, Sarles understands the financial, engineering and political issues that drive - or derail - mass transit.

And he's a veteran transit commuter; as a Philadelphia resident who works in Newark and Trenton, he gets to buy what he sells. For most of the last 40 years, he has been a regular rail rider, with first-hand exposure to the delights and travails of public transit.

Now, with fares about to rise - again - and ridership growing, Sarles inherits the nation's third-largest transit system at a crucial moment in its 28-year history.

He must shepherd an ambitious, expensive plan for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson while retooling outdated bus routes throughout the state and balancing competing demands for new rail and bus service in straitened financial times.

Waiting recently in 30th Street Station for the 9:18 a.m. Amtrak train to Trenton, Sarles, 62, outlined his agenda as NJ Transit's new chief.

His first priority will be the continuing push to build a second rail tunnel under the Hudson from New Jersey to Manhattan. That $7.3 billion project, which would double rail capacity into New York City, was a big part of Sarles' portfolio as NJT's assistant executive director for capital programs and planning. His familiarity with the so-called ARC (Access to the Region's Core) tunnel was a top reason for his selection to replace George D. Warrington as executive director.

If the tunnel project gets enough money from the federal government, New Jersey, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, construction is supposed to begin in 2009 and be completed in 2016. By supplementing the existing, century-old rail tunnel under the Hudson, it would reduce delays and increase ridership into New York on NJT's rail lines.

The Port Authority has agreed to provide $2 billion and New Jersey $500 million. Sarles hopes for $2.5 billion to $3 billion from the federal government and more local and state money to make the plan a reality.

"One of my major missions here is to get that shovel in the ground, to get the engineering done, and to do all the other things you have to do to get that shovel in the ground," said Sarles, a professional engineer. He said he expects to retire before the tunnel opens, but "we have a lot of good people behind me who will continue it on, right to the end."

Lining up the money, keeping an eye on the engineering work and the environmental protections, and handling the public relations for the tunnel project "will be a very, very big lift," said Martin Robins, founding director of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. Robins, a former ARC project director, said it was a task Sarles "is well qualified for . . . he's a very able person. I never met a better project manager in my life."

Sarles said he also wants to reexamine NJ Transit's 240 bus routes, to better link them to each other and to rail routes "so we can improve service, both urban-to-suburban and suburban-to-suburban."

With about 500,000 of NJ Transit's 850,000 daily riders taking buses, Sarles said he wants to find ways to speed up bus service with so-called bus rapid transit around Princeton, Newark, New Brunswick and Bergen County. He is vague on what that may entail but says it could mean such things as dedicating rush-hour lanes or shoulders to buses, and increasing distance between bus stops.

The agency is beginning a six-year plan to replace all its transit and suburban buses.

In South Jersey, the new River Line light rail service has a stable base of about 7,500 riders a day on weekdays, Sarles said, and he predicted that will increase as economic prospects improve in the Delaware River towns between Camden and Trenton.

"I love that trip," said Sarles, who rode the River Line last week home from Trenton. "You go through a wildlife preserve, you're going through the little river towns that are starting to come back. People are relatively friendly. A guy looked at me the other day and said, 'Hey, you're wearing a suit, you look like a lawyer. What do you do?' So we talked about what I do and what he did. It was great."

One of Sarles' biggest challenges will be to handle the increase in riders as the state's population grows and as traffic congestion and gasoline prices push people from cars to trains and buses. Riders are clamoring for new service; two proposals at the head of the list call for passenger rail service on existing freight lines that serve eastern Bergen County and Hackensack and Paterson.

Sarles said NJ Transit needs to "deliver what the customer wants, because you want them to be attracted to public transportation."

"In my view, public transportation should become the preferred mode, something people are attracted to, not something they're forced into, out of their automobiles, because of all the congestion on the roads. That's what I've been focused on."

David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition and a board member of the Rail Users' Network, said he was skeptical of the ARC tunnel plans and wanted Sarles to rethink much of the current agenda.

"He's competent to run NJ Transit. He has good credentials. Personally, we like him. But he was pushing the agenda he was told to push. What we need to see from Rich Sarles is the kind of thinking that looks at everything as if it's new."

Sarles will preside over a fare increase on June 1, when NJ Transit fares are to increase by an average of 9.6 percent, the third increase in five years. He called it a "last resort."

Al Papp of the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers called Sarles an "excellent choice" to run NJ Transit and urged the new executive director to push for an increase in New Jersey's gasoline tax to help pay for transit projects.

Sarles came to NJ Transit in 2002, having spent six years as an Amtrak vice president leading the development of high-speed train service on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. Before that, he spent more than 20 years in project management and planning for the Port Authority.

A divorced father of three adult children, Sarles lives in Rittenhouse Square with his longtime companion, Sally Bellet, a real estate and development consultant who was an Amtrak vice president for real estate and, before that, a deputy solicitor for Philadelphia.

Sarles said he would soon move across the Delaware River to New Jersey, probably to the central part of the state.

NJ Transit Fares Increase

NJ Transit fares are to go up June 1 by an average of 9.6 percent. Among the changes:

Local bus, River Line, Newark Light Rail, Access Link and Bus Contract Carrier base (one-zone) fares will increase from $1.25 to $1.35. Monthly fares will increase 9.9 percent.

Interstate and intra-commuter bus fares will increase an average of 9.9 percent.

Rail fares will increase an average of 9.9 percent. A peak-fare ride from Trenton to New York will cost $12.50, up from the current $11.50, with the cost of a monthly pass rising to $352 from $320. The Philadelphia-Atlantic City fare will rise to $8, from $7.25, with the cost of a monthly pass climbing to $227 from $207.

Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) fares will increase by 9.9 percent, with the base fare rising from $1.75 to $1.90.

The 351 New York-Meadowlands Sports Complex bus route fares purchased on board will increase from $5 to $6. Fares purchased at ticket windows or ticket vending machines will increase from $4.50 to $5.

The Ozone Pass program fare will change from $1.25 to $1.35.

- Paul Nussbaum