Long-awaited NJ Transit audit finds agency lacks direction, sustainable funding

A New Jersey Transit train leaves the Bound Brook Station, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, in Bound Brook, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

A New Jersey Transit train leaves the Bound Brook Station, Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, in Bound Brook, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

A long-awaited audit of New Jersey Transit found that the transportation agency lacks direction and requires a systemwide overhaul to become a “world-class” transit agency.

From insufficient funding to technological deficiencies to a “talent drain” of its workers, NJ Transit has dealt with a barrage of obstacles over the past few years as ridership and maintenance costs have increased, the report said.

The audit also suggested steps to improve the beleaguered transit agency.

“We knew we needed to do more than just, as they say, pop the hood, change a couple spark plugs, and expect the car to run as new,” Gov. Phil Murphy said, using a transportation metaphor to describe his administration’s attempt to overhaul NJ Transit. “We knew we needed to pull out the engine, break it down, and assess it piece by piece to rebuild it stronger.”

Murphy, a Democrat, ordered an audit of the transit agency shortly after he took office in January, calling it a “national disgrace.” At a press conference in the Metuchen rail station Tuesday, the first-term governor struck an optimistic tone as he outlined the ways his administration intends to improve public transportation in the Garden State.

Riders have long complained of lengthy delays and other customer services issues. The agency raised fares several times in the last decade, as commuters struggled to understand why they were paying more for the same or a worse experience.

External factors also played a role in NJ Transit’s downturn, the report found, such as the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy and former Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to cancel a rail tunnel project into Manhattan.

Perhaps chief among the issues that have harmed the transit agency, the audit said, was an ever-declining state subsidy, which has prompted NJ Transit officials to raise fares and borrow money reserved for capital improvements to plug holes in its operating budget.

“We need to make sure that we aren’t robbing Peter to pay Paul anymore, which has happened for quite some time,” said New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “We’ll run out of apostles.”

The audit suggested streamlining the complex executive leadership structure; recruiting new employees and investing in career development; overhauling the agency’s procurement process; and developing a strategic plan for the future.

Murphy said he intends to implement many of the audit’s recommendations.

But as public official after public official reiterated Tuesday, the agency will need more money and a sustainable way of getting it.

Murphy scored an additional $240 million for the transit agency in this year’s state budget, however a continual source of funding for NJ Transit remains elusive.

“We need to sit down with legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle and figure that question out. I’d have to say today, I’m open-minded as to how we get there,” Murphy said. “We gotta get there in a responsible way.”

Thomas Kean Jr., the New Jersey Senate Minority Leader, threw his support behind Murphy’s effort to overhaul NJ Transit and improve public transportation across the state.

“We need to get this right. We need to make sure the Legislature acts in accordance with these recommendations,” Kean said. “The governor is right, this is an issue that is truly important to the future of New Jersey.”

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