As NJ gets back to work, agencies struggle to keep up

JOHN REITMEYER, BUDGET/FINANCE WRITER | MAY 3, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Some of the state’s most important transportation agencies enhanced services during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they still face a series of difficult challenges due to that ongoing health crisis.

That was a key takeaway for lawmakers after several high-profile department heads from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration spent hours answering questions during the latest round of budget hearings in Trenton.

For example, the head of New Jersey Transit told lawmakers his agency has launched several new or improved services, like a “flex pass” to better accommodate customers who may now be commuting to work on a part-time basis coming out of the pandemic.

Yet NJ Transit continues to face questions about its long-term ridership outlook and fiscal health as the agency carries on operating without a dedicated source of state revenue.

And while the head of the state Motor Vehicle Commission said her agency has expanded online services and recently set a record for the most transactions handled within the same year, lawmakers said they continue to hear regular complaints from constituents about long wait times for some services that cannot be conducted online.

Ensuring people can get to and from a job easily after the health crisis was at the heart of many of the questions posed by lawmakers Monday as officials from the Motor Vehicle Commission, NJ Transit and the Department of Transportation appeared before the Assembly Budget Committee during a hearing that lasted well over four hours.

Key performance questions

Moreover, how New Jersey’s transportation agencies perform as the state itself recovers from the worst days of the pandemic remains a key question for the Murphy administration as it attempts to portray New Jersey as being well-positioned for an economic revival.

At one point, Committee Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) drove that point home as she mentioned “trying to get people back to work” as a goal while discussing wait times with Motor Vehicle Commission chief administrator Sue Fulton.

“If you can’t get to work because you have to wait 30 days or 55 days, whatever, it’s just a trickle-down effect to everyone,” Pintor Marin said.

More than 90% of the jobs lost in New Jersey when the onset of the pandemic triggered an economic downturn in early 2020 have since been recovered, according to the latest unemployment figures released by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Yet the state’s 4.2% unemployment rate was well above the nation’s 3.6% jobless average for the same period, and New Jersey ranked 29th nationally for gross-domestic product growth in 2021, according to the latest federal data.

NJ Transit ‘fiscal cliff’?

For NJ Transit, weekday bus ridership has returned to about 65% of pre-pandemic levels, executive director Kevin Corbett told members of the Assembly committee. On the rail side, weekday ridership is 50% to 60% back to normal, Corbett said.

Without a dedicated source of state funding, NJ Transit relies heavily on revenue from rider fares — which have remained flat throughout Murphy’s tenure — as well as other sources, including the state budget. Federal pandemic aid has also helped fill gaps and will continue to do so for the next several years, Corbett said.

“NJ Transit has been prudently allocating our federal coronavirus relief funding, which is being used to help offset revenue impacts resulting primarily from decreased ridership due to the pandemic,” he said.

But several lawmakers asked about a “fiscal cliff” that could be looming unless ridership picks up enough by the time the agency will have to wean itself off the federal aid. Meanwhile, NJ Transit continues to rely on funds diverted from its capital resources and the state’s Clean Energy Fund to balance its operating budget.

“Obviously, every transit agency head is grappling with those issues,” Corbett told Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) in response to questions about NJ Transit’s finances.

Some optimism for NJ Transit

But Corbett suggested there’s also some cause for optimism given New Jersey’s recent population growth, the trend to more transit-oriented development in many communities and the pressure that high gas prices may be putting on motorists.

“People have gone back to their cars, and maybe are a little slower in moving back to transit because of the pandemic, but I think, if you put all of those factors together, we’ll be seeing that ridership going back to 100% sooner than I think some people believe,” Corbett said.

In the meantime, he said NJ Transit has restocked its engineer roster and continues to improve bus and rail performance despite an aging fleet.

For its part, the Motor Vehicle Commission is poised to begin waiving a $24 fee charged for license renewal under Murphy’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Fulton also promised more headway would be made on wait times for appointments for services. Getting a new license is taking as long as 60 days to complete as her agency continues to manage a staffing crunch linked to the pandemic.

“As COVID-19 recedes, we will have more of our staff on station so that we can increase appointments,” Fulton assured committee members.

MVC customer service

But several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle urged her to do better, bringing up frequent constituent complaints, including from those who do not have the technology needed to access the online services.

“I really don’t know what to say. You don’t get it,” Assemblyman Harold Wirths (R-Sussex) told Fulton as he urged her to make more customer-service improvements.

“You have to be able to manage people. You have to get people back to work (and) you have to solve these problems,” he said.

Wirths also downplayed the planned waiving of the $24 fee, suggesting it would have little impact on New Jersey residents who are facing rising inflation and paying higher taxes and increased tolls under policies enacted during the tenure of Murphy, a Democrat who began a second term in office earlier this year.

“This $24 just seems (to have little impact),” Wirths said.

Road, bridge improvements

Meanwhile, DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said her agency has also been dealing with staffing issues during the pandemic, even as it has worked to ramp up capital spending. That has resulted in more roads and bridges in New Jersey being rated in good or fair condition compared to prior years, she said.

“While we have made improvements, there is still work to do to get all of our roads and bridges in good condition,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said.

Later, she mentioned concerns about traffic congestion and safety as other key challenges.

“It’s really maintaining ‘state of good repair.’ The better quality of the road, hopefully the less incidents we have, right? Nobody is hitting potholes, nobody’s hydroplaning, we don’t have longitudinal cracks that causes issues (and) we don’t having pooling of water — all of those things make a difference to safety,” she said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-03 03:21:48 -0700