N.J. transportation officials face questions over staff, delays

By: - May 3, 2022 7:03 am

Lawmakers peppered Sue Fulton, chief administrator for the Motor Vehicle Commission, with questions about delays at the agency during a budget hearing Monday. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Governor’s Office)

Staff attendance at the Motor Vehicle Commission remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite gains made since the worst parts of the pandemic, Sue Fulton, the agency’s chief administrator, told Assembly lawmakers Monday.

Before the pandemic, Motor Vehicle Commission staff attendance rates hovered around 80%, falling to as low as 35% as COVID-19 cases multiplied statewide and hovering now between 60% and 65%, Fulton told the Assembly Budget Committee Monday.

“We still have people who are out on leave. We’ve been hiring aggressively to try to increase the numbers, and we continue to see it kind of gradually increasing,” she said.

The Motor Vehicle Commission is among the state agencies to draw unwanted attention during the pandemic.

Along with most businesses and state agencies in the state, the MVC shuttered its doors near the start of the pandemic, the service interruptions made palatable by delayed renewal deadlines for driver’s licenses, registrations, and inspections.

When locations reopened, residents and some lawmakers expressed frustration with lines that stretched more than a mile, hours-long wait times, and a strict COVID-related cleaning policy.

Fulton has stressed the Motor Vehicle Commission had limited options to raise the low staff attendance rates, noting the agency can not order employees to return to work if they are taking excused absences or using a statutorily granted type of leave.

Some questions about delays persisted at Monday’s hearing. Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), chair of the chamber’s budget committee, pressed Fulton over long wait times for New Jerseyans seeking to obtain a driver’s license for the first time.

“We have two transactions where you can’t get it done in a day or two, and that’s our area of focus right now. We absolutely should reduce that,” Fulton said.

More staffing would not necessarily speed the process because the bottleneck lay elsewhere, Fulton added. She noted MVC has cut wait times for most services down to one or two days, but that still left the budget chairwoman with questions. Pintor Marin noted the state is sitting on billions in federal American Rescue Plan dollars it could spend to improve services.

“If I were you,” she told Fulton, “I wouldn’t be happy about having 60 days waiting for any type of transaction.”

A fiscal cliff

Lawmakers expressed some concerns about a permanent funding source for NJ Transit during Monday’s hearing.

While the agency is set to receive $721 million in dedicated funding under an agreement reached last year with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, that agreement will lapse in 2028, and NJ Transit is, for now, without a dedicated funding source.

Agency leaders suggested it might be prudent to decide on a dedicated revenue stream for NJ Transit while the agency’s coffers are still buoyed by federal aid.

“I think we do have a window now to really look at the longer-term financing for transit, because every transit system in the country runs at a deficit,” said Kevin Corbett, the president and CEO of NJ Transit.

The transit network’s budget will be bolstered by more than $2.1 billion in federal funds through fiscal year 2026, including just over $429 million in federal dollars in the coming fiscal year.

At present, NJ Transit’s budget is balanced through a mix of fare revenues, federal aid, and diversions from other funds, like the $362 million transfer of capital funds Murphy proposed for the coming fiscal year.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.