To this end, Mariani promoted a vision of transit stations as important public spaces where people would linger rather than just pass through–not just transportation facilities, but centers of local economic activity as well. The scope of these placemaking projects was often quite large–involving several stations or multiple transit lines.
The key to his success was a belief in personal relationships and a keen attention to detail. In the summer of 2007, he had just embarked on a new role as NJTransit’s first-ever customer advocate. “His compassion and concern for people drove his strong commitment to improving service delivery for our customers,” said NJTransit director Richard Sarles. “This will be his enduring legacy, and we will continue his good work.”
Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1952, Rick Mariani graduated from Syracuse University in 1974 with a degree in political science and completed a masters degree in public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in 1976. He began his career in public service in Utica, NY, where he became the youngest person ever named to “Who’s Who in Government”, before joining the staff of NJTransit in 1981.
After serving as executive assistant to the agency’s executive director and then as senior public information officer, Mariani was named NJTransit’s Director of Passenger Facilities in 1990. From this position, he oversaw the development of the Rail and Bus Station Renewal Program, an initiative to increase ridership by making transit stations and the areas around them more user-friendly, attractive and accessible–in short, to make them better public spaces.
At the outset of the project, Mariani worked with Project for Public Spaces on the revitalization of six commuter rail stations. The goal was to reconnect these stations to surrounding communities, applying a new “place-based” approach to managing NJTransit’s facilities.
Mariani believed in starting out by observing each station first-hand, so he took his team out to look at them up close. The trips were eye-openers. Previously, NJTransit had leased the stations to local municipalities, but the leaseholders were not taking proper care of them. Some stations could only be located by following the train tracks, due to a lack of signage pointing the way. Inside the stations, few services catered specifically to passengers’ needs. One would sooner find a dentist’s office, for instance, than a place to grab coffee in the morning.
It became clear that the success of the Station Renewal Program depended on better management practices. “Renewal” needed to encompass more than cosmetic changes, so Mariani began an innovative yet pragmatic initiative to create partnerships with local businesses to help manage the stations. The vision was to attract local businesses, imbuing the stations with activity even during off-peak times.
He directed NJTransit’s buy-back of the leases for five stations, and his team began to form a concept for each one using a unique community-based approach, getting input from both passengers and neighboring communities. He then sought out station tenants who would serve the daily needs of passengers and remain open after 5 pm, so that the stations would have a more lively on-site presence.
NJTransit subsidized the costs of fixing utilities and other necessary repairs and upgrades, opening the door for small vendors and retailers. The Back in Time Cafe, a mother-daughter venture, set up shop in the station at Bradley Beach, and Pen and Jen’s Tea Bar, run by two childhood friends, came to the Maplewood station.
In one of his more ingenious partnerships, Mariani made an arrangement with a local businessman named J.J. Biting as part of improvements to the Woodbridge station. A few years before, Biting had bought a derelict old veterinary hospital near the station and turned it into a brewpub. The pub’s peak hours were evenings and weekends, times when few passengers were parked at the station. Mariani gave pub customers access to the station’s parking lot during those times, and in return Biting agreed to let passengers use the pub’s parking lot on weekdays (and maintain the walkway to the station and give out free coffee to passengers in the morning). The deal gave both parties the capacity to handle more customers.
The Station Renewal Program depended on skillful community outreach, and Mariani devoted himself to making these efforts work. If people needed to meet at 7:00 am he was there; if 9:00 pm was more convenient he would be there too. At one community meeting, at Muhlenburg Hospital in Plainfield, Mariani was concerned that the sound system provided by the hospital would not suffice, so he brought his own large speakers and microphone. To get the energy flowing, he played a Bruce Springsteen tape (his personal favorite) as people signed in.
“When Rick walked into a room, he brought an energy and spirit that lit up everything,” said Danny Gale, a non-profit and real estate consultant who knew Mariani well. “He made people feel great no matter how mundane or significant the project, and they left wanting to make it happen, because of his vibrancy.”
The results of the Station Renewal Program were impressive in terms of both increased ridership and the revitalization of surrounding communities. At the Netherwood station, for instance, one local paper reported that improvements had led to a 40 percent rise in ridership and greater investment in the adjacent retail street.
In 1999, Mariani’s penchant for seeking out innovative solutions and ideas led him to Germany. With support from a German Marshall grant, he observed rail stations that were being revitalized with new retail after spending the Cold War decades out of commission. Mariani wanted to see how the evolution of these stations, which handled a surge of new passengers following the re-unification of the country, had affected the economic growth and development of nearby areas.
At the time, NJTransit was expecting its own surge in ridership. The agency was in the midst of a $7.5 billion effort to repair and connect all of the state’s passenger train lines. The trip inspired Mariani to launch a new program in New Jersey called Transit-Friendly Communities. Funded by a grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the project sought to demonstrate how investing in transit could spin off broad benefits: revitalizing downtowns, encouraging business and local economic development, and reducing reliance on the private car.
Mariani saw the Transit Friendly Communities project as a way to leverage NJTransit’s investment by greatly increasing public awareness of how transportation enhancements can support community goals. Through demonstration projects at eleven stations and a focused public education campaign, the project showed that improving access to transit and promoting transit-friendly development revitalizes adjacent districts, and turns stations into important community places.
Mariani’s work in New Jersey made him increasingly visible on the national stage. He became a well-known advocate for transit and a sought-after speaker at national conferences. Even as his reputation and influence grew considerably, his colleagues invariably described Mariani as very unpretentious, the kind of person who remembered the names of everyone he ever met. Always friendly and personable, he relished the chance to share the lessons he’d learned.