NJ Transit's on-time performance declined, its bridge maintenance schedule needs to be prioritized, it has questionable financial transfers and it is "debatable" if the beleaguered agency will meet a deadline to install a federally mandated rail safety system.

That's all according to a state audit that evaluated NJ Transit from July 1, 2016 to Oct. 31, 2019 and included reviews of federal and state mandates, interviews with personnel and scrutiny of financial transactions.

The findings about the transit agency were broken down into four categories:

Positive train control

After barely qualifying for a deadline extension in 2019 to install federally mandated braking equipment, state auditor Stephen Eells said it is "debatable" whether the agency will meet the Dec. 31, 2020, deadline to fully implement and test the complicated software program.

His skepticism echoes that of National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy, who, after her visit with agency officials in August, said she was concerned then about the agency being behind schedule.

As of September 2019, the estimated project costs are $500 million, according to the report. Of that:

  • $41.4 million would go to a consultant who required six change orders to do the work
  • $210 million to a contractor to design, construct and test the system and required eight change orders
  • $47.4 million for a new consultant to bring the project to completion by Dec. 31, 2021
  • $200.9 million for other costs, including in-house work.

About $9.1 million was estimated to be "liquidated damages" because of the contractor's failure to meet certain project milestones, but none has been collected by NJ Transit so far, the audit said.

After initially planning to be in "revenue service demonstration" in July 2019 — meaning testing while passengers are on the train — that portion of the testing has not begun and is expected to begin in March. The hardware was installed on 413 of 440 trains as of the end of September, the report said.

NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett said the "PTC project is of the highest priority and importance" and the agency will meet the end-of-year deadline.

He added the Federal Railroad Administration approved delayed RSD testing schedules and that the agency will collect the money it's owed, but is still evaluating the situation as the project "evolve(s)."

Bridge inspections

Of the 679 total bridges maintained by NJ Transit, 174 had components that were in poor or bad condition, meaning they may have deterioration or section loss from corrosion, according to the audit. Of the 174, the report said 41 had not received priority status for repairs.

Without a better system to "adequately document the prioritization," the auditor said, it could lead to more costly structural damage to the bridges.

Corbett said the agency is in compliance with federal standards and that in some cases a "condition is immediately remedied by in-house maintenance and construction personnel," which explains why it might not appear on the priority repair list. In other cases, a bridge listed in "poor" condition might have a localized issue that is not deemed to have a significant impact on its ability to carry traffic.

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Being on time

Beginning in 2017 and continuing through 2019, NJ Transit's rate of being on time — which means a train arrived at its destination within six minutes of its scheduled arrival — dropped to a 91% average, below its goal of 94.7%. And during morning and evening rush hours, it was 87%.

Thirty-three percent of the reasons for the delays were considered "preventable," as in engineer shortages or equipment issues.

Corbett highlighted efforts to combat "lack of strategic planning and underfunding by prior NJ Transit management" that are underway to combat the below-goal on-time rates. In the last two years, 169 locomotive engineers and 144 conductors were hired, plus new coaches and locomotives were purchased to address aging trains.

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Money transfers

Specific projects received funding from the state Department of Transportation special transportation fund, but in some cases the money did not end up being used for the projects it was designated for.

The auditor cited two cases where this happened.

  • $45 million intended for a locomotive overhaul project ended up going to bus related projects.
  • $22.4 million went to light rail projects on the River Line and for the Hudson Tunnel project, instead of its intended project, the Portal Bridge.

Corbett said the reclassification of money from one project to another is "appropriate" and approved by the state DOT. In the locomotive overhaul case, money was transferred to a different project because federal funds became available to purchase the locomotives.

Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today

Email: Twitter: @colleenallreds 

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