Long-awaited audit reveals NJ Transit lacks long-term vision

Five months in the making, the $1.3 million audit points out what every rail rider already knows: NJ Transit’s cash-starved and poorly run, infuriatingly inept at communicating with commuters and lacking strategic vision. The buck stops at the top, where the audit recommends streamlining the agency’s executive offices.

“This audit is what will allow us to begin rebuilding NJ Transit and restore faith in its operations,” said Gov. Phil Murphy. “For customers to know their concerns won’t fall into a black hole, and for NJ Transit to run more smoothly and more transparently. We will put this in place.”

The audit calls for more reliable funding and finds current revenue streams “inadequate, uncertain and unsustainable.”

Murphy’s current budget — while it increased funding — relied in part on one-shot revenues. The governor cracked open the door to a possible fare hike next year.

“We’re holding off on any fare hike at least until next June 30th. In a perfect world, I’d love to see that go on even longer, but I’m not sure we’re in a perfect world,” he said.

“I don’t want commuters to get frightened by that conversation, to be honest. It’s not a discussion that we’ve had,” said Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. “We’re going to look at every other opportunity to adjust our finances that doesn’t include the commuter.”

Interviews with 40 commuters led the audit company, North Highland, to recommend friendlier, improved communication, especially reliable social network updates in real time.

“This agency is rotten to the core, and it’s going to take a lot fo time and effort to get it back to where it needs to be. Customers need to be patient, but at the same time there needs to be a lot of transparency,” said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey policy director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The audit also recommends simplifying and improving NJ Transit’s recruitment process, noting it requires from five weeks to nine months or more to hire staff. One engineer didn’t apply because, “He has heard trainers ‘take pride in failing people.’”

It also suggested NJ Transit develop a faster, more robust procurement process to replace failing equipment. It recommends an Office of Strategic Planning to develop a vision and road map for the agency. And it reports the governor damaged NJ Transit’s employee morale when he called it a “national disgrace.”

Murphy explained, “It was a national disgrace, but it wasn’t because of the hard-working men and women who came to work every day,” said Murphy.

Many of the audit recommendations can be done administratively. Some require legislation. Democrats drafted a reform bill months ago with bipartisan support, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said the audit “Underscores the urgent need for major structural changes at NJ Transit, starting with the creation of a stronger Board of Directors.” She continued, “We need to set strict requirements for public hearings for both schedule changes and fare increases.”

“I think the most important thing we can do is find the efficiencies first: what’s working, what’s not working, what’s duplicative and what is yesterday’s technology. Then, going forward we can identify on a bipartisan basis ways to have better funding streams,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.

“Whatever legislative initiatives are needed to make this right — we’re here to do it. Let’s just make it happen,” said state Sen. Patrick Diegnan, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Sponsors will amend the reform bill to include recommendations from the audit. That’s expected to move through the Legislature by the end of the month. Finding the extra millions of dollars in funding for NJ Transit will probably take a lot longer.