Photo of NJT train

One of incoming governor Phillip Murphy's first actions on taking office in January was to order an audit of New Jersey Transit's operations. While waiting for the results of the study, which took months longer than expected, Murphy has said he'd postpone taking action on NJT until the audit was complete. On Tuesday, October 9, Murphy revealed the audit's results at a press conference at the Metuchen rail station, and now all eyes are on the Governor to see what comes next.

The audit reveals broad problems in NJT's management and planning, but most of the conclusions were long anticipated. What may be of more interest to hapless commuters is that Murphy reiterated his pledge that there would be no fare increases before mid-2019, but also refused to say that there wouldn't be an increase at that point; he noted that NJT needed money to accomplish reforms.

Reports on the audit were carried in most of the region's newspapers. Patrick McGeehan reported in the New York Times, Larry Higgs for NJ.com and the Star-Ledger, and Curtis Tate for northjersey.com and the Gannett/USA Today NJ papers.

Generally, the audit confirmed that there are not enough locomotive engineers to run a full schedule; that there is a lack of spare parts, which keeps broken equipment out of service for too long; and that communication to riders is inadequate.  Riders know all this already.  But the report goes into more depth as to the underlying causes, and suggests some ways forward out of the mess.

One unnamed "elephant in the room:" the report does not mention former Gov. Chris Christie. But the timelines covered in the report make it clear that many of the problems originated, or got worse, during Christie's eight years in office.

In editorial comment (Oct. 11) the Gannett papers said that the audit will do little to fix the problems that commuters face daily, and lamented that "NJ Transit, once a model of quality service, dependability and efficiency -- and, dare we say, a source of Jersey pride -- now bears all the pockmarks of a former high-speed roller-coaster put out to pasture on a faraway field, among the high weeds, left to rust and rot."

The perpetual lack of funding has caused NJT to lurch from crisis to crisis. Gov. Murphy has pledged to increase funding, but in his first year in office NJT has continued to fill holes in operational funds by robbing the capital budget, postponing much-needed investment in the system. reportedly, $7 billion has been moved from capital to operating accounts since 1990. The audit's consultants recommended creating an office to manage NJT's vision for the future, said to be lacking, and also to manage its assets, which are reported to have shrunk by $1.5 billion over the last eight years. Bottom line: "Run N.J. Transit more like a business and less like a state agency," the report said. The report notes that, over the past decade, state funding has declined while NJT's costs have risen 30%, and that riders currently pay 43% of the operating costs -- a level that is higher than other comparable transit systems.  New sources of revenue are essential, and the audit suggested these could be found in real estate development around train stations; more advertising on NJT premises; and even taxes on ride-hailing services.  "It is evident NJ Transit cannot continue to operate under its present financial model," the report said.

It will come as no surprise to long-suffering commuters that NJT is found to have no strategic plan. This, the report says, results in a reactive posture in which NJT is always trying to fix the latest crisis without an eye to the future and avoiding problems. And this leads to an overly-complex organizational structure in which no one frequently is responsible to solve problems, and the buck is frequently passed from office to office. Likewise, there is no up-to-date long-range plan for replacing aging equipment; the last plan was drafted four years ago.

The shortage of engineers to run trains has been highlighted recently, but it is symptomatic of deeper problems in NJT's personnel operations, the report said. NJT's personnel and hiring practices are far out of date, the audit concluded, pointing to paper applications and paper-and-pencil testing. "Antiquated processes create a major bottleneck to hiring the right people at the right time," the auditors concluded. Competitive salaries would help, too, they said. As far as management personnel, the audit confirmed what has long been reported: during the Christie years, NJT management slots were used as an ATM to reward Christie loyalists.  Now, the report said, "the organization needs to fill key leadership positions with individuals who are true transit domain professionals." There are a large numbers of vacancies in management positions, some of which have been vacant for more than a year. Worse, 21% of nonunion rail employees are eligible to retire; salaries have been frozen for years; and hiring managers are not allowed to offer competitive salaries to fill positions. "Morale is at an all-time low," the report says; but Gov. Murphy probably did not help this by saying, early in his term, that NJT was a "national disgrace."

Spare repair parts are seldom talked about, but the audit said that the system for managing its stock of spare parts "does not seem to be functioning properly;" NJT frequently runs out of 15-30% of the items it needs to keep trains and buses rolling, which "increases the time that crews keep cars and buses out of service." Large purchases can take as long as 14 months to complete.  NJT keeps reacting to problems, rather than planning to avoid them; "If NJ Transit continues to operate in this way, its equipment will continue to degrade without the ability to determine how, when, and where a critical failure will occur." Commuters are likely to say "tell me about it;" they know this from day to day experience. The auditors recommended that NJT overhaul the way it tracks inventory and purchases new equipment, and hire its own general counsel to expedite contracting; today, NJT relies on the state attorney general for such services.

Commuters stuck on trains or waiting on platforms for them, or on street corners for buses, need to know what's causing the delay. But, the audit said, NJT is so focused on running the trains and buses that keeping customers in the loop gets forgotten. The information that is released is often inconsistent, the audit says, as NJT struggles with different channels of communications; often information about problems gets posted to social media but not shared internally, so riders with the right access may know more about what's going on than the train crews or bus drivers, who then cannot answer questions from their customers. The language used often is riddled with "transit-speak," and should instead be in plain English. (And perhaps not crafted to offend riders: a recent report said a train was delayed due to "manpower shortage.")   NJT could also use social media and other channels to improve its image, posting positive articles rather than just defending itself when things go wrong but, the audit warns, don't do it during peak hours, when harried riders are likely to lash out.

Now that the audit has finally emerged, the question is what the Murphy administration will do about the situation at NJ Transit.  More money is required, but Murphy's options are few in a state that is strapped for funds.  So far, not much has happened, although a bill has been crafted in Trenton, and NJT was recently allowed to hire critical employees who do not live within the state. But major decisions were put on hold pending the audit; now that that's complete, the ball is in the governor's court.