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‘Engaged’ Christie Won’t ‘Give away Store’ at New Jersey Transit Strike Talks

Meanwhile, new report indicates overextended NJT is using capital budget to meet operating expenses.

Credit: Governor's Office/Mykwain Gainey

As commuters across the state reluctantly gear up for a possible New Jersey Transit rail-worker strike in less than two weeks, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday said that he’s personally engaged in the labor dispute and is hoping to head off a work stoppage.

But he also warned that New Jersey Transit is ready for a strike, with a contingency plan in place, and that his administration is not going to “give away the store” in order to get a deal done.

“It’s got to be fair to the people who pay the bills in this state,” Christie said. “That’s who I represent. They (the workers) have unions to represent them.”

New Jersey Transit was in the spotlight again in the afternoon, when the New Jersey For Transit coalition released a report revealing that, among other things, ridership had climbed more than 20 percent in a little over a decade while funding had dropped by just less than a third since 2004. The report also indicated that the agency is relying heavily on capital funding to meet operating costs.

Christie’s strong talk about what looks to be an increasingly likely New Jersey Transit work stoppage came during a wide-ranging afternoon news conference held in Trenton. It served as his first extended remarks on a number of topics, including his decision to quit the GOP presidential contest earlier this year and his more recent controversial endorsement of frontrunner Donald Trump. He also pushed back against lawmakers’ concerns that expiring funding for state transportation projects is reaching a crisis point.

And in many ways the news conference was also an effort to show residents here that he’s still engaged in state issues like the New Jersey Transit contract talks, since a number of questions have been raised in recent days about Christie’s commitment to the state and its biggest problems. For the past two years Christie has traveled the country extensively, first as the leader of the Republican Governors Associations and later as a presidential hopeful.

Earlier this week, the editorial boards of several New Jersey newspapers called Christie “selfish” and said it was time for him to resign. Some lawmakers, including two sitting state senators from his own party, have also suggested in recent days that he should step aside if he plans to devote considerable time to helping Trump win the GOP nomination.

But Christie, a second-term Republican, fired back strongly at those suggestions yesterday, saying he is not going to resign. He also said he isn’t planning to spend a lot of time outside New Jersey this year as a surrogate for Trump. And he added that he’s now ready to fight with Democratic legislative leaders over a number of key issues, including his latest nominee for the state Supreme Court and a funding source for the state Transportation Trust Fund, which is on course to run out of cash in June.

“We have a lot of work to do, and I’m engaged in all the things that we’ve talked about,” Christie told reporters during the news conference, which started out as a discussion of New Jersey’s improving unemployment rate.

When asked specifically about the concerns that have been raised about the possibility that 4,200 New Jersey Transit rail workers will strike on March 13, Christie said he was “very engaged” in the issue.

“I am very involved in those discussions and those negotiations, I’m monitoring them very closely,” he said.

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Earlier in the day, New Jersey Transit officials laid out their contingency plan for the strike, saying a combination of agency buses and private carriers will help pick up the slack. Temporary park-and-ride lots in key locations like the PNC Bank Arts Center off the Garden State Parkway in Holmdel and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford would also be utilized, agency officials said.

And outside groups like the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority are urging commuters to explore carpool options as an alternative.

But for weekday commuters trying to get into New York, New Jersey Transit officials also stressed that only 38,000 of the 105,000 daily commuters can be accommodated, meaning the bulk of those commuters and others on the state’s roadways should expect to be affected by the strike if it occurs.

Officials from both New Jersey Transit and the rail-worker unions are expected to be back in Washington, D.C., today as part of a federal mediation process as they try to work through disagreements on pay raises and health benefits. When reached late yesterday, Stephen Burkert, a spokesman for the rail-workers coalition, said he was already in Washington ahead of the meetings.

“We are going to sit down with the mediators and hopefully New Jersey Transit has something good to produce at the negotiating table,” Burkert said.

But Christie stressed during his news conference that he’s serving as a protector of the interests of taxpayers and those who ride the trains every day because they end up footing the bill for New Jersey Transit’s budget.

“Any money that I spend doesn’t come from some magic place, it comes from them, either in fares or in taxes or a combination,” he said. “I represent them at the table.”

“And that’s what I’m going to do and I’m hoping to be able to be bring it to a resolution without a strike, but if there is one, we’ll be ready for it,” he said.

Also yesterday, a report released by the New Jersey For Transit coalition said funding for New Jersey Transit’s capital projects is down roughly 30 percent since 2004 after adjusting for inflation even as ridership has increased by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2014. The coalition’s report also said the lack of full state support has forced the agency to rely more heavily on its capital funds for operating expenses.

“We’re really at a crossroads and something needs to be done,” said Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which is a member of the coalition. “This is the administration that must deal with this head on.”

Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto, who spoke during a news conference that was held to unveil the coalition’s report, called public transit a key part of a broader anti-poverty initiative he’s set out as a priority for this year.

“Transportation is a major component because that cannot be a barrier for people to get to work,” said Prieto (D-Hudson).

And he took umbrage with comments Christie made during his own news conference about the Transportation Trust Fund, including criticizing Democratic lawmakers’ for suggesting that an increase of the state’s gas tax may be the best option.

“If the speaker wants to fix the Transportation Trust Fund for the next five years based upon a gas-tax increase then he should sponsor the bill, put it up on the board, and see if he can get 41 votes for it,” Christie said. “Until that time, quite frankly, it’s just an academic conversation.”
Christie also pushed back against assertions that the running-on-empty transportation fund represents a crisis.

“It’s not a crisis right now and it won’t be a crisis at its earliest until July, and quite frankly well past that,” Christie said.

But Prieto said the alternative is doing more borrowing, which would mean shifting those costs onto future generations and taxpayers. That, he said, has been the hallmark of Christie’s current five-year transportation funding plan, the one that’s expiring at the end of June.

“They are raising taxes on our children and our grandchildren, future generations,” Prieto said. “I have made the tough call.”

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