Yet these same riders realize that few better alternatives exist. About two-thirds of respondents say they use the public transit system even though they have a car, and would recommend the system to friends and relatives.
The agency released the first results Wednesday of Scorecard, an ongoing rider satisfaction survey where riders are asked to rate the system on a scale of 0 to 10. NJ Transit's overall rating came in at 5.2, corresponding to "acceptable."
"We want to be better than simply `acceptable' and are committed to moving the needle to that end," said James Weinstein, NJ Transit's executive director. "Thanks to this invaluable input from our customers, the Scorecard will be a living, breathing document that puts the spotlight on the areas where NJ Transit most needs to improve."
For riders at the Point Pleasant Beach train station waiting for a train to New York City, the biggest of those areas is price. Justin Hager, 23, of Point Pleasant, was bound for New York to see a concert Tuesday at Irving Plaza with a companion.
"The price to go to the city is not good," he said after buying tickets from an automated kiosk. "That's $60 we've spent without setting foot in New York City. And it's not like anything's cheap there."
Yet Hager said once the tickets are purchased, the ride is a fairly pleasant experience. His overall rating of NJ Transit: 6 out of 10.
That's the same score Alexandra Smith of Brick gave the system. She, too, bemoaned the price of getting from here to there on public transit.
"I rode from New Brunswick to New York City three days a week when I was interning in the city," she said. "The student discount helped, but it still wasn't that great. You pay $400 a month to ride to the city where you make zero dollars."
NJ Transit spokeswoman Courtney Carroll said the fiscal year 2012 budget to be unveiled Wednesday does not include a fare increase. Past fare increases were necessary to close budget gaps caused by increasing costs, she said.
Smith said the trains to the city from New Brunswick to Manhattan were routinely crowded.
"I'd be standing for an hour," she said. "That was rough."
Yet Smith also had some good things to say about the system.
"I like the quiet cars a lot," she said, referring to designated rail cars in which cell phone use is strongly discouraged and headphone-wearing patrons are expected to keep music down to a level at which no one else can hear it.
NJ Transit is the nation's largest statewide public transportation system, with 240 bus routes, three light rail lines and 12 commuter rail lines. About 428,000 people use the system each weekday.
It is the third largest transit system in the country, with 165 rail stations, 60 light rail stations and more than 18,000 bus stops linking New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.
The survey was taken in April and May, both online and by customer service representatives at transit stations. About 19,000 people filled out responses.
Customers were asked to consider 32 attributes of the system related to facilities, service, vehicles, communications and the overall experience of using NJ Transit.
Bus passengers rated their overall satisfaction with service at a 5.5. They listed on-time performance, fares and the weekday evening schedule as the most important areas for NJ Transit to improve upon. Nearly 261,000 people use the system's buses on a typical weekday, representing 61 percent of all NJ Transit customers.
Rail passengers gave NJ Transit an overall score of 4.5, ranking on-time performance, fares, mechanical reliability and the handling of service disruptions as areas most in need of improvement. About 132,000 customers ride NJ Transit trains on a typical weekday, composing about 31 percent of all customers.
Light rail customers, accounting for about 8 percent of all riders, gave NJ Transit an overall satisfaction rating of 6.5. They ranked fares, security and seating availability are the most important aspects of service to improve. About 33,000 customers use the three light rail lines on a typical weekday.
Access Link, NJ Transit's service for customers with disabilities, was given an overall rating of 7.5, and serves about 3,000 customers on a typical weekday.
Surveys will be conducted quarterly, with the next one later this month.
Patricia Sroke of Hackensack was visiting a relative in Toms River on Tuesday while dropping a friend off at the Point Pleasant Beach train station. Sroke, 56, and her husband usually take the car to the shore because the train is too expensive, she said.
"I come by car all the time," she said. "For us, $30 each way is a lot. I'll just drive."