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Audit paints bleak picture of NJ Transit, suggests fixes

October 9, 2018

METUCHEN, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s troubled transit system suffers from a lack of funding, low morale, a top-heavy management structure and little or no strategic planning, according to a lengthy audit released Tuesday by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The report describes a litany of systemic problems plaguing New Jersey Transit, one of the nation’s largest transit systems that the Democratic governor characterized after his election last year as a once-revered organization that is now considered “a national disgrace.”

Despite that comment and the audit’s laundry list of problems, Murphy struck a positive tone Tuesday. He has made reforming NJ Transit one of the top goals of his first term.

“This is fixable. It is within our grasp, in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “It won’t be tomorrow; the incremental, when-do-you-see-it-on-the-platform question is going to take longer than people should have to wait. But we will get there. We will get there within our means, and in a reasonable amount of time.”

The audit blamed a lack of consistent funding from the state for many of NJ Transit’s problems, from equipment breakdowns to an inability to retain top talent.

“NJ Transit has no strategic plan, no retention program, no knowledge management program, and no succession plans,” the report by North Highland Worldwide Consulting concluded. “The organization has an overly complex organizational structure matched by equally as complex business processes. The organizational culture reflects ‘buck passing’ and siloed behaviors, low employee morale, and ill-defined roles, authorities, and accountabilities.”

Murphy upped the state’s contribution by about $240 million in his first budget, but he and transit officials recognize that relying on the vagaries of the budget process every June can’t be the only answer.

The audit mentioned how transit systems in other cities are using alternatives such as public-private partnerships, sales taxes and taxes on ride-hailing services to fund public transportation.

NJ Transit has come under increasing criticism in recent months after a spate of train cancellations, many at the last minute. The cancellations resulted from an engineer shortage as well as federally mandated safety work that requires taking locomotives and train cars out of service as NJ Transit scrambles to meet a Dec. 31 deadline.

Installing the emergency braking system, called positive train control, will consume much of NJ Transit’s bandwidth until the end of the year — if the deadline is not met, Amtrak, which owns most of the region’s rail infrastructure including the tunnels into New York City, has said it may bar NJ Transit from using its tracks.

Often obscured by the disruptions caused by the positive train control installment is the slow deterioration of assets that has been exacerbated by a lack of funding, forcing NJ Transit to focus too many resources on repairing aging equipment.

“We’ve been throwing good money after bad with equipment that is so old,” state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “We have to break that cycle.”

NJ Transit is the nation’s largest statewide transportation systems and provides more than 250 million passenger trips annually on bus, rail and light rail.

After a September 2016 train crash in Hoboken that killed a woman and injured more than 100 people, an Associated Press review found NJ Transit had more accidents and paid more in fines for safety violations than any other commuter railroad in the country over the previous five years.

The audit released Tuesday recommended running NJ Transit more as a business and less as a government agency. It suggested developing an office to oversee strategic planning, which it said would make the organization more proactive and less prone to relying solely on crisis management. It also would aid in securing consistent, dedicated funding — the absence of which, the audit concluded, affects everything the organization does.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti and NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett said any internal restructuring wouldn’t include layoffs.

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