Looking back on last week’s public hearings on NJ Transit’s latest proposed fare hikes and service cuts, two things are abundantly clear. Transit riders, still reeling from 2010’s huge fare hikes, are at a breaking point. And the real power to fix this problem and prevent another fare hike and more service cuts belongs to our leaders in Trenton.
These leaders would surely agree that public transit is an essential asset to New Jersey, and that it plays a crucial role in anyone’s vision for a better New Jersey.
This is a New Jersey where growing numbers of people use NJ Transit’s trains, buses, and light rails – not to mention other buses and trains across the state. It’s a New Jersey with cleaner air and a stronger economy, with even more vibrant cities and less congested roads. It's a New Jersey where tickets and fares are affordable, where riding public transit is not a luxury item for some and a heavy burden for those who have no other options.
Sadly, we have a long way to go to achieve that vision. In the past few decades, our leaders have lost the will to invest adequately in transportation, and specifically in public transit. New Jersey’s per-gallon gas tax -- last increased in 1988 -- has fallen so far behind that now every single state but Alaska has a higher tax.
The result is that the real value of New Jersey’s gas taxes has fallen dramatically over the past few decades, strangling the state’s ability to invest in the essential public assets those taxes pay for, including public transit. While overall revenues from the gas tax have risen since the 1980s due to more vehicles and increased consumption, they have not kept pace with inflation, creating a hole that is hundreds of millions of dollars large and constantly growing as our leaders fail to act.
This hole has broken New Jersey’s entire transportation funding structure and harmed the state's ability to invest in better public transit. Our low gas taxes have strained the Transportation Trust Fund, which has resulted in a shoestring capital budget for NJ Transit. At the same time, inadequate direct state support for NJ Transit has led the agency to transfer money from its capital fund to pay for operating expenses, making it even harder to improve and modernize the transit system with capital improvements. This is not sustainable. Clearly, New Jersey needs to fix the way it funds both long-term capital work (via the Transportation Trust Fund) and daily operations (via the state budget).
Without sufficient dollars raised in an equitable way to pay for public transit, the State of New Jersey has instead turned to a mostly captive audience: riders. Unlike the gas tax, the cost of a NJ Transit train ticket has not only kept pace with inflation since the 1980s, it has actually outpaced it. If this proposed fare hike goes into effect, most riders will be paying nearly 20 percent more for their train trips than they were in 1982 after adjusting for inflation. This trend has been the most pronounced in the past five years, following the 2010 fare hikes.
Quite simply, now is the time for this to stop. Now is the time -- not next year, not after the next election, but now is the time ¬-- for our leaders to own up and fix this mess. Now is the time to increase our gas tax and dedicate more state resources to public transit. It won’t be easy; it won’t be painless, but that’s what happens when you allow a problem to grow into a crisis with a quarter-century of inaction.
There was hope earlier this year that we were on the verge of a real fix to this transportation-funding crisis. Legislative leaders spoke of raising billions in new revenue, as did the new transportation commissioner. The governor said everything was on the table.
But now it looks like that table has been wiped clean, and the hope for an immediate and real fix has disappeared. There is, apparently, no deal and no appetite for a deal at the moment.
That, I suppose, is our leaders’ choice. They can continue to evade and avoid a growing problem nearly 30 years in the making. What we can’t let them do, however, is pass the buck to hundreds of thousands of transit users and daily commuters. If raising the gas tax is off the table, responsibly finding $60 million more for NJ Transit in the state budget that begins July 1 must be on the table.
Transit riders can no longer afford to pay the price for New Jersey’s inaction. We did not create this mess, and we cannot be the only ones to clean it up.