Governor targets NJ Transit with audit ahead of major rebuild

Gov. Phil Murphy is doing most of his talking via executive order in these early days. On Monday, he ordered a top to bottom audit of NJ Transit, the agency that has been the target of ire from customers and lawmakers for years now — an agency the new governor called a “national disgrace.” With the Summit Train Station on the Morris and Essex line as a backdrop, Murphy said the state’s economic viability depends on a public transit system that works.

“We cannot continue with a system that has increased fares 36 percent over the past eight years even as customer experience eroded. We cannot continue with a system whose culture tiltered toward finding landing spots for connected individuals instead of hiring experts steeped in transportation and infrastructure. We cannot continue with a system that led the nation in accidents and breakdowns,” Murphy said.

Joined by lawmakers from both parties, Murphy said the audit will cover NJ Transit’s finances, leadership, staffing and customer service.

“The Senate and the Assembly Legislative Oversight Committees have been knocking at this door for about the last year and longer, talking about the issues and what NJ Transit has not done for the commuter experience. I believe, Gov. Murphy, this is an important next step,” said Minority Leader Sen. Tom Kean Jr.

“Our property values are directly linked to our ability to commute to work, and if we don’t have that ability, we’re going to see people who even don’t use that transit system, that their values are going to drop. And for many people, the middle class, the working class, this is one of their number one assets, their homes. So, what we want to do, so we’re looking at it from the commuters, but from all the people,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

The agency was very much on the agenda at Monday’s meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee under new chairman Bob Gordon, who reiterated his call for monetizing the cash-strapped agency’s physical holdings, like its prime real estate.

“Just imagine what could be done if the air rights were sold over the Lautenberg Station to someone who develops a 15-story condo, and I believe the building is actually designed to accommodate a much taller structure. I mean something like that could generate a lot of money that could be reinvested in NJ Transit,” said Gordon.

Also testifying were transit advocates Janna Chernetz, of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and former NJ Transit executive Martin Robbins. Chernetz called for the agency to rely less on bus and train fares to run its operation.

“It relies heavily on passenger revenue, 51 percent. Compared to other agencies this is extremely high. Other agencies, their revenue makes up about 28, 30 percent of their operating budget. In New Jersey, it’s over half,” said Chernetz.

The audit is expected to take about three months and will be spearheaded by the new transportation commissioner. In addition to the financial and staffing questions, it will look at the agency’s strained relationship with Amtrak and its implementation of Positive Train Control, which is supposed to happen this year but is expected to take longer. The governor warned again that, like the 8:15 out of Summit Station, change will not come quickly.