Keeping the Crowds and the Complainers Moving

NEW YORK -- The situation is one that should make any corporate boss dizzy with delight:

Your product is in such demand that customers are literally lining up to use it. You have almost no competition, and your board of directors has just given you the go-ahead to raise prices.

Champagne, anyone?

The New York Times reports that it is not quite the same, however, if your corporation is a public one that sells bus and rail service covering 5,325 square miles, adding up to the entire state of New Jersey. And if your customers are the state's often beleaguered commuters, who have become much more so since Sept. 11. And, especially, if your prices are the fares they pay for the right to crowd onto buses and trains more crowded than ever.

Which means that if you are Jeffrey A. Warsh, the executive director of New Jersey Transit, you probably need some sleep, as he appeared to the other day in his office, which faces west over Pennsylvania Station in Newark and a tangle of rails, every last one of them his responsibility.

It means that when you take your 5-year-old daughter to play dates on the weekend, you get an earful from fellow parents about their morning commutes. (Even Mr. Warsh's wife, Amy, complains sometimes.)

It means that the old train sign behind your desk, put there because it was funny -- "Do Not Distract the Train Operator While the Train Is Moving" -- has actually been put to use. And that you have been known to scream at dispatchers, demanding to know why trains aren't moving.

"I normally let the train guys run the trains and don't interfere," Mr. Warsh said. "There are guys out there who've forgotten more than I know about running trains."

But these are not normal times for New Jersey Transit, the only statewide transit agency in the nation and the third largest, behind only New York's and Chicago's. The agency is facing a serious budget crisis, in large part, many transportation experts say, because the state has not given it enough operating money.

The agency's board approved a badly needed fare increase recently, after 11 years of staving one off. But the increase could not come at a worse time: ridership on many morning trains jumped more than 40 percent in a week's time after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the damage to the PATH system.

"I think that the huge demand for mass transit has caught everyone by surprise, to a certain extent," he said. "And the price tag for the fix is giant." (It's $15 billion, give or take, over the next two decades, he said.)

Mr. Warsh, 41, does not complain, at least to reporters. He makes $165,000 a year, and he is well suited for his job in two important respects. First, he is a self-described, lifelong "foamer," the kind of overinformed train fanatic who almost foams at the mouth when talking about the romance of the rails. Second, he gets even more excited about policy details.

And Mr. Warsh is the kind not to forget details. He recalls precisely, for example, his SAT scores in high school -- 770 verbal, 470 math (ouch). And he can almost remember the number of votes by which he lost his seat in the New Jersey General Assembly, where he served for four years -- 687 or so (ouch).

It is easy to imagine him on the campaign trail. He talks constantly and rapidly, with a cheerful, boyish lilt, the kind of person who is absolutely certain that he is not boring his listener. Sometimes, this kind of person is wrong, but Mr. Warsh almost never is.

Part of that gregariousness came from growing up the son of a hard-working wine and spirits salesman from New Milford, N.J., later an executive in a distributorship, who taught his son the value of relating to people. And Mr. Warsh related with a vengeance, from primary school right on through law school. "Played soccer, box lacrosse, hockey," he said.

"I did drama, believe it or not," he said. (It is not hard to believe at all.) He added: "The girls. It's where they were."

In college, he worked in the cafeteria, partly to make money but also because it was a great way to campaign for student government, standing there taking students' dirty trays and reminding each one to vote for him.

If there is any small disappointment lingering within Mr. Warsh's account of his successes, it seems to be that he was just never good enough at math -- see above for that College Board test score -- to have the option of becoming a doctor or a scientist, even though he never particularly wanted to become either.

"C's don't make you a scientist or a doctor," he says somberly.

He reconsiders. "I certainly could have been a scientist." he says. "I just would have gone to an average school. Somebody would have accepted me. I could be studying prairie dog populations if I really wanted to. But average wasn't good enough."

He reconsiders again, saying, "Some days I think -- particularly in the middle of a fare increase -- that maybe it would have been much more peaceful to be somewhere in Arizona, monitoring prairie dog populations."

He adds, "I'm not kidding when I say that."