NJ Spotlight

Advocates Urge State Lawmakers To Restore Transit Funding To Budget

But some legislators argue the clock has run out and there's not time left to add the $60 million back into spending plan

NJ Spotlight — Thursday, June 25, 2015

By Jon Hurdle

Public transportation advocates on Wednesday made a last-minute appeal to lawmakers to restore funding to the state budget that would avert fare hikes and service cuts for New Jersey Transit riders.

Just one day before the full Legislature was due to vote on budget bills that were approved Tuesday by the budget committees of both houses, representatives of 18 organizations said it wasn't too late to find another $60 million for the transit agency to allow it to roll back budget cuts.

At a State House news conference, advocates for commuters, drivers, the environment, and the working poor, collectively calling themselves New Jersey for Transit, accused Democratic leaders of failing to resist the Christie administration's cuts to transportation funding.

"We are concerned that the Democratic leadership who have complained about these fare hikes not only have to talk the talk but to walk the walk," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Because if they don't, then they are complicit in what the governor is doing."

Tom Hester, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, rejected assertions that Democrats were siding with Christie's transportation-spending cuts.

"Anyone suggesting the Speaker is not standing up for commuters is being disingenuous, to say the least," Hester wrote in an email.

Hester said Prieto was one of the first to condemn the fare hikes but is opposed to "handing NJ Transit a big pile of cash" and trusting it to spend it properly. Instead, the speaker wants the agency to avoid fare hikes by controlling spending and "showing some fiscal restraint and responsibility."

Asked whether the speaker had ruled out the possibility of the Assembly's budget bill being amended to include the $60 million in time for Thursday's vote, Hester said: "The bill cannot both be changed and voted on tomorrow."

Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney, said the funding advocates should take their complaints to the Christie administration and to NJ Transit.

"That's where the responsibility for the rate hikes belongs," McGrath wrote in an email. "Senate President Sweeney and his Democratic colleagues are not only opposed to the fare increase, they have been strong and consistent in their support of the state's transportation policies, including a renewed Transportation Trust Fund and mass-transit services that are efficient and affordable."

Without the funding, NJ Transit said in April it will have to make up for a smaller state subsidy and a big loan repayment by hiking rail, bus, and light-rail fares by an average of 9 percent and eliminating some bus services. The agency's board is scheduled to vote on the proposal on July 15, and without an increase in state funding, would put the changes into effect starting in September.

Gov. Christie's budget cuts state funding of NJ Transit to $33.2 million from $40.3 million in the current fiscal year.

The higher fares would create a significant burden, especially for low-income riders who depend on transit to get to work, in a state that already has some of the highest public transit fares in the nation, advocates said.

For a train rider buying a monthly ticket between New Brunswick and Newark, the planned fare increase would add $264 a year to commuting expenses, representing half a week's pay for someone making $15 an hour, said Ann Varderman, Program Director for the nonprofit New Jersey Citizen Action, at the news conference.

"We are outraged that yet another tax is being levied on the working people of New Jersey," Varderman said. "Affordable and high-quality public transit is essential to the success of working people."

The fare increase would also increase traffic congestion and put more strain on roads and bridges, advocates said.

"When you raise fares and cut services, you put more people back in cars," said the Sierra Club's Tittel. "More people back in cars means more cars on our already overburdened roads and dilapidated bridges. More traffic means more air pollution."

A round-trip train fare between Metro Park and New York would rise $1.50 to $21.50, while a monthly bus ticket between Gloucester City and Philadelphia would increase by $11 to $134, according to NJ Transit's plan. The agency said it had saved $40 million by cuts in overtime, fuel savings, and other efficiencies, but was still left with a $60 million budget gap for fiscal 2016, which begins on July 1.

An increase in the state gasoline tax — currently at 14.5 cents a gallon one of the lowest in the country — has the potential to boost transit funding, and a rise of only 1 cent would raise $50 million a year in revenue, filling most of NJ Transit's current budget gap, said Janna Chernetz, New Jersey Policy Analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit that works on reducing car dependency.

But that revenue is constitutionally required to be paid into the Transportation Trust Fund for capital improvements, rather than to the general fund where it could be used for a subsidy, Chernetz said. She called for a dedicated source of funding for NJ Transit's operations to match the TTF funding method.

Jon Whiten, deputy director of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a research group, acknowledged there was little time left to include the $60 million in the budget but insisted that lawmakers could still do so.

"They could still do a floor amendment, they could still get back in there," he told NJ Spotlight. "But once they pass the budget without this in there, we're done for the year and the fare hikes are going through."

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